KAMLOOPS - It’s an odd sight to see in town – 14 armed men and women standing in a line firing their unloaded rifles at a set of five matching trucks parked outside the armoury. The guns have triggered an RCMP response before but luckily not today.
For the Rocky Mountain Rangers, an infantry reserve group for the Canadian Army, this is standard protocol before the September weekend exercise.
It's a part-time gig for most of the roughly two dozen men and women who show up. They're from all walks of life. Some are corrections officers, others cooks. One is a mother of three. The exercise is badass: Firing live ammunition, throwing grenades, blowing stuff up and resisting tear gas. The trade-off is camping old-school: Cold rations and sleeping on the ground.
But make no mistake—these are soldiers sharpening their bodies and minds—independently and as a team.
Before spending two nights in the Department of National Defence training area in the Chilcotin, a 45-minute drive west of Williams Lake, they gather outside the armoury on McGill Road in Kamloops. Far from the practice, they follow the lead of Master Bombardier Dan Scott in the parking lot, practicing without live ammunition.
“Weapons fire... weapons stop... unload,” Scott commands.
Then Master Corporal Andrew Belicka directs a refresher on grenades. The drills are repetitive for a purpose. It’s to engrain the process – making it second nature.
“Hold it like you’re holding a beer,” he says. “Throw it like a baseball. Don’t lob it.”
Then it's time for business. The soldiers grab three rations each (the meatloaf is best, one says) and A-company departs Kamloops in the five trucks.
O-One Hundred hours
The group arrives at the camp, joined by B-Company out of Prince George, and file off into the woods to roll out sleeping bags and spend the night beneath the sky—no tents. Four hours later a reveille summons the team to fill every daylight hour with training drills.
First up is target practice with standard issue C-7 rifles at various distances, the furthest is 300 metres. Everyone must pass Personal Weapons Test Three, an annual qualifying shooting drill. Soldiers must hit a target 29 times in 49 shots to pass. A distinguished marksman’s score is 39.
“Yell out 'son-of-a-bitch' when you shoot,” a nearby Sergeant yells.
O-Nine Hundred hours
Everyone needs to learn from Sgt. Clancy Newton: He's going to keep them alive. He begins with lessons on communicating with an armed enemy despite a language barrier. He's blunt about the details—any doubt about your intentions and you're dead.
He groups the soldiers into threes for role-play. One plays the terrorist while the others try to convince him or her to drop their weapon, lay down and submit to a pat down.
“Don’t be afraid to get aggressive with these guys,” Newton says.
But this isn't a drama class. He watches carefully for any hesitation or failure to take precautions that must be corrected. "Now you're dead," he says.
It's not always so serious. This is team building and Newton is just as effective with occasional humour. He blows a kiss to a passing vehicle of soldiers. When a private is tackled to the ground, spilling a pocketful of candies, Newton picks one up, inspects it and asks him if he’s a piñata.
The joke is appreciated.
Nineteen Hundred hours
After more range practice, night begins to fall and the Rangers prepare for, yes, more range practice, this time under the light of a 20-second paraflare. It's another opportunity to replicate a real-world scenario. Master Corporal Belicka chides them for shooting without purpose.
"Don't shoot at the berm, shoot at the target," he yells.
Before lights out, everyone’s allowed a quick trip to the officer’s mess tent where they may toast a bagel and grab a hot tea before slipping out into the chill autumn air again for their sleeping bags. The experienced Rangers find grass to sleep on if they can find it. Out here, away from the lights of the city, the stars provide enough light.
O-Seven Hundred hours
Before most people at home have left their comfy beds on a Sunday morning, the Rangers are awake, fed, prepared and throwing grenades and detonating claymores. The remote-triggered landmines were a regular weapon in Afghanistan where several of these Rangers served.
They train in groups. As one team fires grenades, the other teams “hurry up and wait” in the grass. The ones with experience barely flinch at the sound of explosives. They sip coffee and chat over the sounds of the carnage every ten minutes or so. If there’s a dud, the wait is longer. The drill kicks off with two duds.
At the same time, another team of Rangers are putting on "bunny-suits," clothing them from head to toe. Inside a small building, a soldier from 1 Service Battalion, aiding the training session from Edmonton, has donned a mask. He puts small white pills into a frying pan over a one-element hot-plate.
It looks like a university dorm-room party and while the next fifteen minutes are mind-altering, these aren't those kind of pills.
The Rangers enter the building as tear gas billows from the pan. If they don't don their masks within nine seconds, the gas makes their eyes sting and burn or they may faint or vomit. The effects are different for everyone. Soldiers recall others throwing up in their masks. They talk of one soldier who marched in without a mask, suffered no impact, and told them they were all (expletives removed) weak.
The first infantryman to enter the room takes well over nine seconds to apply his mask. Something is wrong as he puts it on, takes it off and tries again. Tears well up in his eyes and the skin on his head reddens. An emergency team member watches them closely for exposure.
“Are you okay?” he asks one soldier. The response is a standard thumbs-up, but he's unconvinced.
“You’re outta here,” he says as he grabs the infantryman’s shoulder and escorts him out of the building.
As the exercise concludes, they wear the fatigue, limited diet and poor sleep on their faces like one more accomplishment, knowing they are a little more prepared if called for duty to their country.
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