I quick update on what’s been going on in the lovely town of Wainwright, Alberta.
Today was my first full day on base, and everything I learned six months ago is coming back to me quickly: The ranks, the regiments, the names of weaponry and which building are which.
The weather is cool, but cloudless and sunny. No snow yet.
The biggest change here from my last exercise, unknown to me until I arrived yesterday, is that we aren’t training for Afghanistan anymore.
In fact, the scenario isn’t set, as far as I know, in Asia. And it’s not set anywhere in the Middle East for that matter.
The journalists don’t know much yet, but we have some details: We will be on an “island,” where the insurgents will be just as well armed as the Canadian troops. I believe it is going to be a UN-led mission, and that the primary language of West Isle is going to be Spanish.
It’s very different from Afghanistan. While it isn’t supposed to replicate a real-world conflict zone, we think the economic and political climate of the environment will be similar to that of Haiti.
But that’s only a guess. I’ll find out for sure when the exercise starts.
Armed with five textbooks, two jackets, three heavy sweaters and more wiry wool socks than anyone should ever have, I am 10 minutes away from boarding my Edmonton-bound plane on my way to Wainwright, Alberta to spend another three weeks living on a military base.
Last April I paid to take a course in foreign correspondence, which included several weeks practical experience covering troops as they rehearsed manoeuvres, practice for how Canada plans to transition out of Afghanistan.
Who knew I would have loved it as much as I did, but here I am: I signed myself up for round two, and went after getting the opportunity with everything I had.
Sure, I’m missing a midterm, a research project, two guest speakers, an in-class essay, a quiz, multiple assignments and many readings. But what kind of student sleeps anyway?
This experience was simply too much to pass up: Sponsored school fees, free accommodation, free meals, reimbursed travel and the experience of a lifetime. (Well, a second experience of a lifetime.)
On top of it all, I am getting paid to do what I love. Do you know how cool it is to put on my resume that I have done contract work with the Department of National Defense? Very. Cool.
Boarding time, wish me luck.
(It took me 10 minutes to write this. I need to work on that.)
#32 Fly in a helicopter
I forgot I had this on my list, but it was completed in Wainwright.
Not only did I get a sweet helicopter ride, but it was in a military Griffon. More info in “Dam, that was fun.”
13 down, 88 to go.
#100 be successful at something nobody thought I could do
This one is fairly straightforward, and my previous blog posts explain it in detail: Spending two weeks on a military base in Wainwright, Alberta is something that nobody (including myself) thought I would ever do.
But I did it, and I’m so glad I did.
The experience was fantastic, I’ve met some amazing people and have learned lots about broadcasting. It was worth every penny, and I would sign up again in a heartbeat.
12 down, 89 to go.
Yesterday was a great day.
I woke up early and headed out to Kandahar Airfield solo for 9:00 a.m. where I met with the PAO (Public Affairs Officer).
After sitting in on the Force Protection briefing, I hurried back to my media tent to wait. And I waited. And waited…
Just when I was about to leave for lunch, the base was attacked by rockets, and I was confined to my tent before being given the all-clear.
After a press conference and a quick bite, I literally had to run to my tent, put on my WES vest, frag vest, helmet, ballistic eyewear and gloves, grab my camera, mic and tripod, and rush to the Tactical Operations Centre to meet my ride before they left.
The mission this day was to visit the Dahla Dam, which in real life is a $50-million Canadian project. I was travelling with a VIP, a DFAIT advisor going to inspect the dam’s gates and the projects progress.
So my dozens of pounds of equipment and I loaded into the van with two huge military bodyguards and the dignitary. We drove a couple of minutes up to the airfield, and waiting for our other ride: A Griffon helicopter.
After an hour of waiting and a quick safety brief, nine of us crammed into the chopper.
It was a tight fit, with two pilots, two guards, an officer, two gunners – one hanging out of either side of the heli – and the two “civilians.”
We flew over to the dam, and hopped out. We were met with several tanks and soldiers for further protection, and eventually by the local workers.
The scenario was being played out as though there was going to be an IED (improvised explosive device) or a suicide bomber, so everyone was on their toes, tense. I got my own soldier bodyguard who let me roam around where I wanted, trying to manage my vests, tripod and camera all at once. He was also close behind.
As conversations between the VIP and workers grew bitter, the inspection was cut short and we were told to leave immediately.
Just like in the movies, we stood with a tank to our backs, facing the Griffon that landed in the middle of the road maybe 50 metres away, with several soldiers surrounding us.
We got the all-clear, and someone shouted “Go! Go! Go!” and we ran, crouching down to avoid being decapitated by the propellor. We scrambled in, and took off.
Heading back, the pilot took what I assume was a bit of a detour.
We went through this valley, flying extremely close to the ground, zooming up and down and swerving around hills at 45 degree angles so that you could see what was directly below you. It was like something out of national geographic (minus the machine guns) as we zig-zagged across a winding river.
It was a long day, but it was completely worth it. Not many people can say they flew around Wainwright-istan in a military chopper, and that goes for the soldiers too: Some of the people I’ve met have been in the army for years and have never flown. I guess I’m just lucky!
Depending on the day here in Wainwright, you could be caught in an intense firefight, fleeing for your life, or you could end up sitting around, eating all day as you fiddle with a newspaper layout.
I definitely prefer the exciting days.
Yesterday, I woke up early and went out to a village with a colleague as my alter-ego Roya Herawi, an Afghan reporter. We wore headscarves and travelled to the scenario with a group of Afghan actors.
I was assigned to a print story/photo layout about village life in Deh-E-Baugh (which we foolishly pronounced as dee-bag the entire day).
Long story short, Task Force Steel – the American soldiers – dropped down from several Chinook helicopters just outside of the village, and approached the village looking for insurgents.
Villagers were caught in the firefight, and the Americans suffered 18 casualties because they didn’t land in the right spot.
And because they made a mistake, us journalists had to dodge Taliban grenades as we ran for shelter.
The event was very real: While the guns used could only kill you digitally, they shot blanks and made awfully loud sounds when shots were directed at the giant metal Seacans posing as houses and buildings.
With our headscarves flapping in the wind, we managed to take cover behind a wall.
As I was furiously snapping photographs, my flash went off and from far away, the camera must have looked like a gun.
Friendly fire nearly killed me. Once we stopped screaming, we realized I had only suffered a “near miss,” according to my electronic vest.
It was scary, it was thrilling. We were later detained, then we broke free, then got detained again and eventually left the village.
There are lots of rules to learn as an embedded journalist, and lots of rules you need to forget when you aren’t embedded. When you go outside the wire with the troops, you have to work within certain lines. But as an Afghan journalist, or freelancer or international journo, those rules don’t apply.
It’s confusing at times, especially since we’re constantly switching media hats, so-to-speak. But things are best learned by doing.
In other news, I’ve tried my hand at anchoring and have read the weather report twice. I’ve done the layout for two of our papers, and written a print story for one of them.
Today, I’m playing a Canadian journalist, and am currently under a media embargo, meaning I can’t communicate any information about what I’m doing until I’m given the go-ahead. In the meantime, I’m just sitting and waiting all alone in the media tent at Kandahar Airfield.
One of the commonly used phrases around here: “Hurry up and wait.”
At least the tent has heat.