Day 5 – Hearts and minds

Posted on March 13, 2012

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“Reveille, reveille, reveille!” sings Master Corporal Alex Swaan from the fart sack beside me.

Even though I’ve never used it for farting, that’s what the troops call a sleeping bag out in the field. It’s 0400, time to get up and go for the final push to Gameti. We’re given exactly five minutes to eat smoking hot sausage links (thanks to our designated stove guy, Cpl Tyson Campbell-Harris); ten minutes to pack all our kit, and fifteen to strike the tent and get on the move.

Once we’re on the sleds, my heart initially racing due to all the excitement, I start to lull into a sleep as we drive on the ice roads in the complete darkness. I’m under the impression I’ve merely dozed off, but when I do wake up – no one is around.

The sleds are parked in neat rows and a few soldiers are around nearby. I hop off and check out my surroundings – you know, like a real journalist does – and realize we’re at the Gameti airstrip.

I walk in to artificial heat, accompanied by the faint playing of pop music. In the waiting area are four soldiers I don’t recognize. They’re not from the ARCG, but paratrooper guys, ready to go home.

“Well boys, it’s safe to say those were the worst 48 hours of my life,” exclaimed one soldier. I listen and find out they had been dropped close to the airstrip a few days before and were able to take and hold their position as part of the exercise. These are the guys the ARCG is in the process of relieving.

The pit-stop in the airport gives me a chance to recharge my camera batteries. Up until this point, the hand warmers had worked well, but the batteries were on their last legs.

Captain Russ Donkersley comes in to let me know a small foot patrol of soldiers are heading into Gameti to do “hearts and minds” work. That’s the rewarding part of the job, when soldiers interact with locals, and in real combat such as Afghanistan, this work is crucial to rebuilding communities.

I ride along with them into the town, with its log houses and brightly painted walls – getting paint in the town is a rarity, so homeowners take whatever they can get until more is brought to the town. Everyone driving or walking by stops and wave, some take pictures from behind their wind shields.

The purple wall of a Gameti home

I’m with four soldiers when we see two rough looking dogs bounding down the street. I recognize them from when we stopped by the RCMP station, but they’re not owned dogs. One of the mutt’s had wild piercing eyes and looked right into my camera as I snapped a picture.

“These dogs don’t know how close they are to death,” said Warrant Officer Nate Guiboche, The Royal Winnipeg Rifles. Gameti has a small bounty for any dog’s shot, as the feral animals carry disease and cause trouble in the town.

He greeted us so happily... "don't know how close they are to death."

We stop at a small health clinic run by a staff of about eight women, with a nurse-in-charge all the way from Montreal, Quebec.

Nurse Linda Thomas has worked in northern medical facilities for the past five years, residing in Gameti for the last two. There are no patients when we come by, and Thomas says most of the time the clinic is very quiet. But recently more than 30 cases of Syphilis, including a case involving a newborn, has rocked the small town and locals are trying to stop the spread.

Warrant Officer Nate Guiboche speaks with Nurse Linda Thomas at the health clinic in Gameti

We continue the foot patrol past a community centre and onwards to a large hockey rink. The soldiers “skate” with their mukluks on and take a cooling off break at the rink – walking in the gear, even in the cold, breaks a sweat. The neighbourhood corner store is open, its freezer shelves stuffed with toys instead of food. We end the two hour walk with a stop at the school, little kids yelling out “I’m your biggest fan!” and girls coming up to me, asking wide-eyed what is it like being in the military.

After our patrol, I am then to the one platoon camp to capture their training with the Canadian Rangers (see ARCG soldiers learn to hunt, fush from the Canadian Rangers and Canadian Ranger Training). Their lesson includes the same trapping techniques other soldiers were shown, as well as how to set up a prospector tent and ice fish.

The ride out on the lake is one of the scariest, with snow rifts causing people of all sizes to get some air time. I keep thinking, so this is what fifteen minutes of riding a mechanical bull feels like.

The catch is decent for the day, close to twenty fish;but the number is weak compared to the yesterday’s 80. The Rangers set up a large bonfire to fry the fish, and Ranger Fred Mantle shows troops how to properly – and quickly – filet a fish.

Ranger Fred Mantle slices open one of the day's catch.

Soldiers pass around the freshly cooked fish. The oil from the fried trout oozes on my hands and the odour stays on my gloves for the rest of the exercise. I don’t stay long since I have to get back to my guys for another Ranger bonfire across the lake. This time the fire grill is loaded with the most tender and tasty bits of Caribou meat.

Tonight is one of the few times soldiers mingle with more than just their section, and the celebration is deserved – tomorrow we head back to FOB Maiden II.

– Day 1 – Not the only enemy
– Day 2 – Two platoon, two section
– Day 3 – Baby Monkey
– Day 4 – Relief, in place
– Day 6 – The curse of FOB Maiden II
– Day 7 – Under fire
– Day 8 – With eyes watching
– Day 9 – Going home

All articles and photos by Daniella Ponticelli

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Posted in: Field Notes