Bragging Rights

by Ray Dick

Clockwise from top left: A reservist emerges from the woods after completing the nuclear, biological and chemical test during skills competition at CFB Petawawa; Private Velvet Henderson struggles across the water obstacle; a huge truck tire is hauled through the infamous Concrete Jungle; competitors are challenged to assess injuries; reservists participate in assault boat training.

“This stuff is the soldier’s bread and butter….You have to be prepared to do this, or question why you are wearing this uniform.” The speaker was Major Richard Masson, a no-nonsense longtime regular officer with the Royal 22nd Regiment who now rides herd on some 2,000 reservists in 33 Canadian Brigade Group with headquarters in Ottawa.

It is Sunday morning in mid-October and Masson’s audience of approximately 300 militiamen and women from 17 army reserve units throughout Ontario are seated on the concrete floor in a large hangar-like building at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. They include students, nurses, doctors, policemen, former regular force military men and women and others who have full-time jobs in the civilian world and who give up perhaps one night a week and some weekends for some hands-on training for deployment with the regular forces on operations at home and around the world.

This is a duty that is becoming increasingly evident lately as an undermanned and overcommitted regular force scrambles to fill commitments overseas. At present there are reservists in Afghanistan and in Bosnia from 33 Cdn. Bde. Group, one of three reserve brigades in Ontario.

Most of the militiamen and women are still gung-ho while listening to Masson. They are part of a group that arrived by various modes of transport at the military base near Pembroke, Ont., just over a day ago, late on a Friday night. After grabbing only a few hours sleep they were up long before sunrise for a military competition that put their skills and stamina to the test.

During a 24-hour period the 28 teams—each comprised of between eight and 10 members—competed in 10 events, including rifle shooting, an assault boat crossing of a bay in the Ottawa River, a nuclear biological and chemical drill, skeet shooting, first aid, an obstacle crossing, the infamous obstacle course—also known as the Concrete Jungle—and the equally infamous night navigation test.

The teams began to leave the starting point around 5 a.m. Saturday. The last team finished the competition around 5:30 a.m. Sunday after searching the woods in an attempt to find 20 navigational targets aided only by compasses, maps and protractors. “They can sleep when they get home,” commented one of the course officials, a view shared by the keen competitors themselves, although some looked as though they weren’t that anxious to experience the competition again anytime soon.

Masson’s talk came after the reserves grabbed a couple of hours sleep on the concrete floor and a quick breakfast at the mess. As the coordinator of the military skills competition, it was Masson’s job to tell the reserves how they did. This was the bread and butter speech and the major seemed happy with the results.

After their meeting with Masson, the team members lined up in formation outside—in bright sunshine for a change—for an awards parade during which 33 Cdn. Bde. Group Commander Colonel Cameron Ross handed out the winning trophy and bragging rights for another year to Warrant Officer Scott Shultz, team captain for the Princess of Wales’ Own Regt. from Kingston, Ont. It was the second consecutive year that a PWOR team has won the annual competition, finishing with a score of 83.8 out of a possible 100 points. The Governor General’s Foot Guards from Ottawa came second with 81.4 while third place went to 30th Field Regt., Royal Canadian Artillery, also of Ottawa with 75.2 points. “We protected our trophy,” said Shultz, a policeman in civilian life who also led last year’s winning team. “And we’ll do it again next year.” His unit fielded two teams this year, and the B team finished in 14th place. “We were hoping for a first and second,” added Shultz, “but that would have been kind of greedy.”

Shultz and his team believe the course was not as hard as it was in 2002. It was physically demanding, but there wasn’t much shooting. The team, however, worked for its success. “We train for it. You don’t go to war without training.” Some of his unit had done peacekeeping tours. “I tried, but was told I could not be spared from police duties.”

One thing was clear by the time the reservists were packing their gear for home. Few—if any—were questioning their right to wear the uniform. Of the 28 teams, only four were disqualified. Two because of sprained ankles and two when a team member decided that the final event—the night navigation through the woods—was not their strong point and quit the event. “We are challenging these young soldiers’ skills in a hard way,” explained Masson prior to the start of the competition. The major knows what he is talking about, having served for 18 years with the Van Doos, including tours in Bosnia, Cambodia and Angola. “These are challenges the regular forces face all the time.” Masson also stressed that the reservists are volunteers, facing some good times and some bad times. “But they are all keen to be here, and they show up with a smile.”

There is no money to be won or medals awarded in winning the annual military skills competition in the reserves. Masson said they do it “for pride, for a trophy and bragging rights.”

The official army position is that this type of competition hones individual combat skills by having the reservists move through a series of challenging events, skills that will prepare them for future tasks as well as develop their morale, camaraderie and esprit de corps. It is also designed to build leadership and teamwork skills. But just to make sure the bar was not set too high and the course could be completed in safety and in the time allotted, Masson and his Ottawa headquarters staff did a full run-through on Friday afternoon, including the infamous Concrete Jungle.

It was a tired group of headquarters officers that finished up their dry run of the various stands late in the afternoon, and after some discussion it was decided that for the sake of time and safety some tweaking was necessary. Three of the forced marches between stands were eliminated in favour of motor transport and some changes were made in the Concrete Jungle.

The weather was cold and bleak prior to the competition’s start early Saturday morning. A heavy cloud cover threatened rain or snow as the teams were driven out to the firing range to test their skills in a rifle shoot that included firing five rounds from the prone position at 100 metres, 10 rounds at 300 metres and 10 rounds at 200 metres. The teams then had to run down to the 100-metre mark and fire 10 rounds in the kneeling position and 10 rounds standing. The rifle shoot, which is normally held later in the competition, was moved to the start of the rotation after some competitors complained that the jostling their rifles receive during other events plays havoc with the sights.

All that rifle shooting, however, seemed to have little affect on the wildlife in the area. As the teams made their way to the assault boat crossing test in a bay in the Ottawa River, resident whitetail deer ambled out of the way with their distinctive tails tucked in the prone position.

The assault boat crossing was the first physical test as the teams, including all their equipment and personal flotation devices, loaded into inflated assault boats for a 600-metre paddle to the landing area. But first they got a briefing in the assembly area where weak swimmers were identified with suitable markings so they, in case of accident, could be recognized rapidly by safety officers who accompanied the competitors in motor-powered assault boats. The rules as laid down by the army were clear: “If a member falls out of the boat, no penalty will be assessed but the member must be retrieved into the boat as soon as possible.”

The crossing goes surprisingly well, considering the fact that many of the teams have never practised for the event and some had never been in an assault boat. Seated on pontoons on either side of the boat, team members paddled strongly to the landing area in the early autumn morning, accompanied overhead by the honking of migrating Canada Geese.

Early as the first teams were on the water, however, they were not the first to use the landing area. Tracks deeply etched in the beach sand indicated a large moose had used the landing site to continue his journey through the sprawling military base.

After a forced march to a location called “burnt bridge,” the teams arrived at their next test. This involved getting all their members across a one-rope bridge that was approximately 30 metres long. The rope was stretched over a water obstacle and the challenge for the reservists was to get across with all their equipment intact. Attached to a safety line, the competitor had to position himself or herself face up with feet wrapped around the rope. Using arm and hand power only, the reservists had to pull themselves across the obstacle while safety personnel watched from an assault boat. Again, the rules were specific: “A member falling off the rope will be removed from the safety line by a staff member and moved to the far side of the gap. No second attempts will be permitted….”

Anyone unfortunate enough to get wet in the obstacle crossing had time to dry their uniforms during the forced march to the next stand. Waiting for them there was a large box with disassembled parts of a mixed collection of various weapons, including two pistols and two each of three different types of automatic rifle. Assembly of the weapons was closely monitored by army staff at the stand, and each weapon had to be demonstrated as working properly after assembly.

The next event tested the reservists on their ability to estimate distances to targets using only their rifle scopes. No binoculars or electronic aids were allowed, and each team had to estimate 10 distances. One point was awarded for each correct answer—within 25 metres at the shorter ranges and within 75 metres for targets up to 600 metres.

At the next site the competitors encountered their first “casualties” of the competition. Located in the woods, it featured injured soldiers, one of them the victim of a vehicle accident. The mock victim was found unconscious, covered with facial cuts, possible internal injuries and a tree branch across his body. There was also a broken bone in his leg which protruded from his uniform. It looked real, thanks to the makeup and expertise of the 28th Field Ambulance unit in Ottawa. Here the competitors were judged on how they secured the scene and treated the casualty. “The lips are blue…check the airways,” was one of the first instructions by the team leaders as they went to work on the casualty and calling in evacuation transport. It was one of the key treatment functions on a list of critical actions to be performed during the test.

Towards the end of the afternoon the teams began to head back towards the base. Along the way they were tested at the nuclear, biological and chemical stand where they had to carry heavy loads over difficult terrain while fully equipped with respirators and canisters. Following that strenuous exercise the competitors were treated to a skeet shoot at the base’s biathlon and skeet range. Next up was the long march back to base and a date with the Concrete Jungle.

Daylight was fading when some of the teams spotted the jungle’s concrete and wire barriers. And those smiles Masson had talked about earlier had also started to fade, replaced by scowls, snarls and some colourful language as the volunteer soldiers—with full pack, helmet and rifle—scaled barriers, wriggled under wire obstacles on their bellies and forced themselves through narrow concrete tunnels while carrying a heavy load of sand-filled ammunition canisters. This is when injuries, including sprained ankles, occur.

Halfway through the course the teams picked up a large and heavy truck tire which they manoeuvred through obstacles, including a cement basement without the use of stairs. After that they picked up a stretcher loaded with 200 pounds of sandbags to simulate a casualty, and made their way through more obstacles to the finish line. What’s required, says the army, is a team effort and all members must complete the course with all their personal gear intact.

While some of the early starters had a couple of hours downtime after completing the obstacle course, late starters had barely enough time to grab a snack before heading out for the night navigation exercise that some teams didn’t complete until five the next morning. After a safety briefing at the starting point in the woods, teams were given 15 minutes to prepare and five hours to find 20 navigational targets using only their maps, compasses and protractors.

It was a nighttime scenario over difficult terrain that caused two teams to pack it in.

Earlier, as the teams headed out to the night navigation course, their commander relaxed briefly in the mess over a plate of marinated pork steak. Such competitions, said Ross, taught his reservists leadership and team-building skills. As a longtime member of the regular forces and having served on five overseas peacekeeping and enforcement tours, he recognized the increased demand for his part-time soldiers because of the increasing commitment by the regular forces in Afghanistan and Bosnia. “There has been an increased demand, and there has also been an increased response,” added Ross, now the manager and chief executive officer of an insurance company in Northern Ontario who took over command of 33 Cdn. Bde. Group several months ago. Recent events had reinforced the primary role of the reserves, which was to augment regular force operations, act as a mobilization base in the event of emergencies and to provide a close connection between communities and the Canadian Forces. “On all three the reserves stand ready to deliver.”

That enthusiasm was echoed by some of the weary competitors before the awards parade on Sunday. “We had a blast,” said Sergeant Mikk Koshman, team leader for the 30th Field Regiment’s team which finished 18th and well behind the regiment’s other team that finished third. “The obstacle course was the hardest, and we have a few sore knees and blisters to show for it, but we did better than last year. We did some practising and had a rough idea of what the events might be for the competition.”

Koshman is a veteran of a six-month tour with the Canadian Forces in Bosnia. In civilian life he works on supplying circuits and electronic components for the government, giving up one night a week and some weekends for his reserve training.

It was a similar story for Second Lieutenant Tim Feick, team captain for one of two teams entered by the Algonquin Regt. from North Bay. “Everybody got through the competition without injuries, just some sore joints,” he said after his team finished 16th. The other Algonquin team finished in 20th place. “But I think we did well,” said Feick, a third-year history student at Nipissing University in North Bay. Feick said the toughest part of the competition was the obstacle course, coming as it did near the end of the day when his team was not at its best.

The obstacle course, however, was not the biggest challenge for the lone woman on Feick’s team. Master Corporal Tina Brogan said the “toughest part of the course…was keeping up with the team leader.”