Volume 94, Issue 86

Tuesday, March 6, 2001


Anything but standard issue - Living the army adventure in Meaford, Ontario

Anything but standard issue - Living the army adventure in Meaford, Ontario

During Reading Week, two C&C editors decided to take self-sacrifice and reality-based reporting to a new level for The Gazette: We joined the army for a weekend of sub-zero temperatures and a whole lot of green clothes while they trained for winter warfare.

Late bed-times, early wake-up calls and gourmet vacuum-packed meals, made for a thoroughly unique experience. Fortunately, the First Hussars (the reserve armoured unit of London and Sarnia), provided us with their own equipment and a head full of confusion regarding what exactly would occur on our blind expedition into the Great White North that is Meaford Ont..

Without further adieu, here is our report of what it was like to live the adventure.

– Tola Afolabi and Molly Duignan

Sean Maraj/Gazette
BOLD AND FEARLESS. C&C editors kick back relax in full army gear.

Day 1

19:00 (7 p.m.)

We arrived at the London base with hopes of departing on our four hour school bus ride at 7 p.m.. Meaford was described as "Ontario's Twilight Zone," and we were told there would be five feet of snow and very low temperatures.

What had we gotten ourselves into? Immediately, worst case scenarios flashed in our minds. Everyone said we would freeze, everyone said it was funny we thought the weekend would allow extra time to sleep, and everyone said we'd hate the food.

The tentative plan called for a lot of "roughing it." We were told there would be no showers, no running water, and food served in vacuum-sealed bags.

Half way there, we stopped for one last dose of "regular" food: McDonald's and Tim Horton's in Listowel, Ontario. It isn't until you face a weekend of non-civilian food that such establishments seem so appealing.

In the dark, with no civilization in sight, we arrived. Dropped off in the middle of a snowy road, we were assigned to tent groups and given a toboggan to carry our canvas, bottomless, home away from home. We were also given a stove, rations, a shovel, an ice pick and a lantern.

Being about as outdoorsy as vampires during the day, we were not very expedient during the initial erection of our tent. Regardless of the seemingly chaotic process, our tent was pitched within 20 or so minutes of our arrival.

Kidnapped from our tent group due to overpopulation, we were separated and placed with other groups. Now experts at putting up Arctic tents, we had to start from scratch and put up more.

Finally, at 3 a.m., bedtime arrived. Little did we know what a process it would be, as we were told to sleep nearly nude in order to achieve maximum warmth in the -18 degree weather. Climbing into three layers of sleeping bags, taking your clothes off inside the bags and storing the clothes you would wear the next day at the bottom of the bags, is a lot more time consuming than you would think. Especially in the dark.

Two and a half hours later, we woke up and started all over.

Rifling, the gunnery and a (relatively) good's night sleep

Day 2

The sun was shining brightly, but it was still insanely cold on our first morning in Ontario's Twilight Zone. Waking up at 6:30 a.m. after a not so solid three hours sleep, we ate the first of several "interesting" army meals.

Our stoves didn't work, and the distance to the nearest stove resulted in half heated meals. After breakfast, we packed up the tents and moved to another site: A "shack" near the shooting range. At about 10 a.m., we were on the Gully Rifle Range with the rest of the troops who would be shooting rifles for their personal weapons test (PWT).

Safety was a key concern and shooting was delayed because contact could not be made with the range control (soldiers who control all activity on the range), said Lieutenant Chris Beveridge, who had been assigned to show us around and answer queries.

Before shooting, soldiers were given a safety briefing, outlining the borders of their shooting area and what commands were necessary for the drill.

Corporal Casey Shortridge, a medic, was on site. Shortridge, who has occupied the position for two years, said he has yet to see a major injury. "We're a very safe regiment. We can treat here until an ambulance gets here."

However, budget constraints have limited the amount of equipment on site. "Ideally, you'd have a whole ambulance and a driver," he said.

Soldiers were divided into groups, which were either shooting, or running M72 rocket drills inside. The shooting group was further divided into shooters and soldiers responsible for moving the targets in the "butt" area, a pit behind the targets.

The targets were images of human forms superimposed over a bullseye to simulate conditions of war, Lt. Beveridge explained. When simple bullseye targets were used, the army found that soldiers were less reluctant to shoot in actual situations.

The weapon used for the drill was the C-7 assault rifle, a version of the M-16 assault rifle commonly used in the US. The C-7 has an improved scope and a deflector to prevent bullet casings from striking the shooter in the face.

The PWT involves first warming up, then zeroing the weapons, which means aligning the scope and weapon to the target. Actual target practice then began. After each round of shooting, a point of impact was determined to find the average shooting point. "In your line of sight, you need to line up three things: Your eye, your weapon and your target," Lt. Beveridge said.

This process was easier for some soldiers than for others, and rifle practice was a day-long event. However, relay groups helped make sure the time was used wisely, Lt. Beveridge said. "There should be something going on for everybody. Nobody should be standing around with their hands in their pockets. That's what we call concurrent activity."

Our form of concurrent activity was heading down the road to check out the Cougars, tank-like war vehicles described as "light armoured fighting vehicles." The Cougar is smaller than a tank, and has wheels instead of tracks.

All Canadian army vehicles are named after animals and the Cougar is built in London by General Motors. The model we saw has been around since the 1970s, and only minor changes to its technology had been made since its inception.

Three soldiers are needed to operate the Cougar: The commander, the driver, and the gunner, who controls the firing. Currently used in Bosnia, the vehicles are amphibious, with the wheels acting as part of the propulsion in the water.

Training for shooting on the Cougar involves three steps. After receiving instruction, soldiers are given a written theoretical test and then moved to a simulator for practical testing. The army uses the computer simulation for training because live rounds are expensive, costing between $600 to $700 apiece.

The simulator runs through every aspect of firing, from locating and zeroing in on a target, to actually pushing the fire button. All safety precautions are tested, and even though no major threats are present, a mistake may result in failing the test. Capt. Popov explained body parts must be kept out of the recoil area, which can be like a rapid piston in the real vehicle. "We train our guys to use every weapon that we use. That's why our training is so detailed."

Besides the simulator, our visit to the gunnery allowed us the luxury of running water and real toilets. We were excited and snuck away to indulge ourselves.

We then returned to the rifle range, and later moved to another site which was to be the night's sleeping place. Unfortunately, it began to rain, and since canvass tents and freezing rain don't mix, we camped inside a shack (actually a large one-room brick building). The evening's outdoor activities were cancelled, and classes were conducted indoors instead.

Soldiers were given tutorials on radio usage and navigating, in lieu of the outdoor navigating activity planned. Radios, essential for remaining in contact with other soldiers when navigating, would prove to be a crucial instrument in the field, explained Cadet Sergeant Stephanie Howe. "It's so headquarters can keep in contact with each section. [The radios are] really good – they've been around since the Second World War."

After the tutorials, we prepared camp, laying out our sleeping bags on the concrete floor. Morale improved with the promise of a good night's sleep away from the cruel elements and a prediction of a high of 10 degrees on Sunday. It would prove a good night's sleep, that is, for soldiers who hadn't been assigned to picket, which meant having to wake midway through the night to guard their fellow soldiers.

Molly Duignan/Gazette
GO GO ROCKET LAUNCHER! A cadet runs a drill on the M72 rocket launcher.

Rockets and Gustavs: Putting our ears to the test

Day 3

Bright and early, after another appetizing army breakfast, the troops sloshed through the melting snow over to the practice field, where a rusty tank and a dumpster awaited further destruction.

It was a while before soldiers got to shoot the M72 rocket launcher and the 84mm recoilless rifle, a.k.a Carl Gustav, as part of the test of elementary training (TOET). The trucks carrying the ammunition had been delayed due to increasing winds which were turning vehicles trying to travel up to the range, into kites.

Throughout Saturday, the soldiers had been running drills on the weapons and Sunday was a chance to test shooting skills. The M72 rocket launcher is a single-use weapon that costs about $700 to fire, and the Gustav is a larger and louder "reusable" weapon.

When the trucks finally arrived, soldiers were given a safety briefing. We were warned to remove jacket hoods, so as not provide an inconvenient landing place for stray rockets. We were also given reassuring pearls of wisdom, such as wear gloves to help your grip and not to lose balance, fall over and have the weapon explode by accident.

The first tests were on subcalibres, a less expensive form of the weapons that employ bullet-like inserts that act like real bullets, but have less power.

The subcalibre form can penetrate, but is not explosive, as one officer told us. "It's a training device. Instead of firing a real rocket, they fire a bullet," the officer said, explaining firing subcalibres is much less expensive. After several runs on the subcalibres, the more experienced soldiers fired real weapons.

We went right to the front of the group for the first subcalibre runs and got close enough to see the fire, or the back blast.

For the real Gustav runs, we stayed away, especially after being warned that they were four times louder than the M72 blasts, enough to temporarily deafen anyone within earshot.

Mush in a bag: C&C meets army food

The individual meal packets we ate are nearly worthy of their own story in The Gazette.

Before writing them off as inedible, we gave the 3,600-calorie packs a try. Technically, they are designed to provide the average soldier with more than enough energy and nutrients to last an entire day in combat.

The average person requires only 2,800 calories per day, eating three meals that individually contain more than the daily recommended intake would definitely see you pack on the pounds, if you weren't being so active.

Examples of the mouth-watering meals included "Chicken breast Cacciatore" and "Ham steak and pineapple sauce." These may sound OK, but once you place the sealed bag of food into boiling water to "cook" it, the mushy contents of the bag do not resemble the described meal.

Even the more experienced and seasoned soldiers complained about the food. They are only appealing for those "bare-cupboard" days when food that never expires actually appeals to the tastebuds.

Stereotypes: No army songs here

We'll be the first to admit that going into this whole adventure, we associated many stereotypes with the army.

We expected to be tossed into a wolf-pack of people, who would have no tolerance for our inexperience. We expected an extremely strict and regimented schedule and attitude. We expected ungodly-hour wake up calls. If anything, we expected the Hollywood-esque, American version, of the army everyone sees in the movies.

The whole weekend was much less strict than we had first thought would be the case. There were no calls to "drop and give me 20," and there wasn't much yelling. People, although hierarchically organized, did not treat each other unfairly, or with any discrimination. Orders were given reasonably and without the angry tone one may hear in the "stereotypical" versions of army life.

This, we were told, was because of changes made to the Canadian army after incidents in Rwanda and Somalia. "Human rights have changed everything," explained Captain Gravelle, a full-time soldier, who added soldiers can no longer be ordered to do push-ups as a punitive measure.

Bedtime occurred a lot later than we had expected, but so did the time we were supposed to wake up. We had been told we would have to wake up around 5 a.m. on both days, but were pleasantly surprised by the 6:30 a.m. rising.

As for the American vision of army life, we couldn't have been more wrong. Marching was a rarity on the weekend, and contrary to what we expected, army songs were not sung.

Interviews with the men and women in green

Exactly what could possess a human being to make our adventurous weekend their way of life? Nothing really, we were told – just a love for excitement and challenge. Two soldiers answered some of our questions and helped shed light onto the reasoning behind devoting so much time towards defending their country.

Master Corporal Lisa Doholis, 23, a five-year member of the reserves, said she hopes to use the experience in the military towards a job in law enforcement. Corporal Robert Clark, 23, a fourth-year sociology student at Western, said he has been with the army reserves for six years.

Doholis said she joined the reserves in high school out of boredom. "There was nothing to do in the summer. I always wanted to do something that was exciting and challenging – physically challenging."

Clark said he joined after a bad experience with the cadets. "I was a cadet for three months and hated it, so I joined the reserves. I've always like the military, John Wayne type films and stuff – it sort of seemed the right path to choose."

Both Clark and Doholis said their time in the military has taught them invaluable skills. Doholis has taken leadership courses and is teaching classes and drills. Beyond fighting for her country, she said she derives another kind of satisfaction from her position. "The majority of it is fulfilling on a different level," she said.

Clark said he has learned time management skills. "The army gives you the discipline of getting work done and not procrastinating so much." However, it's the camaraderie and friendship that he said he likes best.

The relationships are also an aspect Doholis said she likes. "The army is really supportive – [you] bond with everybody in a different way than you would normally."

And what about being one of only two female master corporals in an entire regiment of over 100 people? Doholis said she has had no major problems, especially since the implementation of sensitivity training. "It's gotten a lot better since the old school," she said, adding some of the older soldiers still have difficulty dealing with her.

Doholis' civilian friends have been supportive, she said, but there is the occasional male who feels intimidated by the "aggressive butch" stigma her position carries.

Despite this, she said she remains content with her job and looks at each situation as a challenge. "Everyone reaches a point that they feel stressed or pushed," Doholis said. "But I like that."

Another challenge may be balancing time as a student and a soldier, which although difficult, Clark said he believes is completely possible. "Most of the training occurs in the summer, so it's not so bad," he said, "Once you get higher up [in rank, you] spend more time at the army on weekends because you need more qualifications."

"It's your job, you sign up for it, so the flexibility and sympathy for students is sometimes limited," he added. And while the position's monetary aspect is appealing, he cautions interested individuals to make sure they're getting into it for the right reasons.

"I would encourage it to people who don't just want to do it for the money or for the summer job, but for someone who is really interested in the job."

The Departure

Day 3

After our adventure with big guns and rockets, we cleaned up our sleeping quarters in preparation for our departure. Collectively we packed up and moved to "Andrew's Hangar," a multi-purpose building where vehicles are housed.

To everyone's great pleasure a "real" lunch awaited us. Hot dogs, soup, cookies, veggies and fries had never, ever tasted so good. Everyone was then required to clean their weapons, a lengthy and detailed task.

When the buses arrived, we got our first taste of the stereotypical army activity we had anxiously awaited. In perfect rows with straight faces, our fearless fighters marched and looked like poster children for the Canadian Army as they declared that they were taking no ammunition back with them. On that happy note, we headed home.

Our time with the army was an eye-opening experience. Not only were we forced to discard our initial assumptions going in to the weekend, but we were also greeted by friendly people and more fun than discomfort. People were enthusiastic to show us what army life was really like, and they were also quick to dispel any illusions, making our weekend the true "army experience."


Besides adapting to the extreme weather, early risings and meals of questionable quality, we were subject to a barrage of unfamiliar army terms. Here's a rundown for the average civilian:

Mucklucks: Very attractive army boots which are specially designed to fit in snowshoes

Picket: Soldiers who guard the equipment or fellow soldiers while they're sleeping

Ruck sack: The incredibly versatile army back pack that carries everything a soldier needs for a weekend of braving the elements (also weighs a ton, glad we didn't have them)

Webbing: a smaller version of the ruck sack, the army "fanny pack"

We would like to thank the entire regiment for having us on their weekend expedition. In particular, we thank Lt. Beveridge for babysitting us and answering all of our questions. Thank you Rob Clark for being our "campus connection" and a big thanks to everyone who talked to us and gave us the "low down" on the whole army experience. We would like to acknowledge everyone who had a part in the organization of the weekend.

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Copyright The Gazette 2000