DISASTER SURVIVAL – A PERSONAL STORY

LOST BEHIND ENEMY LINES

There actually were no “real” enemy lines and there was no “real” enemy. The year was 1993 and an annual military exercise called Western Challenge was taking place in the vast training area known as Canadian Forces Camp Wainwright.

The sun was hot, we had no water and we were in the middle of a mine field. We were lost behind enemy lines.

WHAT HAPPENED?

It was early in the morning and about ten brand new soldiers, who just finished basic training, were sitting in the back of a three axle military truck known as an MLVW. This stands for Military Logistical Vehicle Wheeled and was commonly referred to as an “ML”. Even though the sun was just coming up over the horizon, the heavy camouflage rubberized tarp covering the cargo area of the truck was enough to cause everyone to sweat without any movement.

This particular ML was a small part of a large camp of military materiel tasked with establishing a large minefield in the area. The camp consisted of a command post, fuel truck, field kitchen, several armored vehicles, an ambulance and an assortment of lighter wheeled trucks.

We sat there, a bunch of silly teenagers, with the butts of our rifles on the floor of the truck bed between our feet wondering what we’re all waiting for and where the fight is… something we were going to get a lot of during the reminder of our military careers.

Suddenly our sergeant popped up out of nowhere and as he put his hands on top of the closed tailgate he screamed: “Who knows how to ride a motorcycle?!”

My arm shot up like lightening. Suddenly I had visions of some cool tasking of riding out towards the enemy on some cross-country bike on a recon mission and becoming a hero.

“Good!” shouted the sergeant. “You’re on sentry! Follow me!”

I leapt out of the back of the ML like a superman and followed the sergeant.

“So sergeant…? When do I get to ride the bike…?” sounded my question.

He looked at me as if I was the dumbest human being on the planet and then softly proceeded to inform me that there will be no bike riding. The reason for that was that he needed a volunteer for a crappy sentry job and if he asked for a volunteer for a crappy sentry job no one might put their hand up because all sentry jobs are generally considered to be crappy. So if the sergeant asks who knows how to ride, then someone is guaranteed to put their hand up because he’s stupid enough to believe that there will be bike riding and hence, inadvertently volunteering for a crappy sentry job. …lesson learned.

THE BEGINNING

The camp was full of activity. Vehicles were speeding by in all directions, troops running back and forth and everyone seemed to be hollering at each other all the time. My sergeant spoke briefly with a young corporal and then told me to get another inexperienced soldier of oriental back round by the last name of Chan. The corporal was briefed, received his passwords and the three of us headed away from our field command post to our new station.

We positioned ourselves just behind a curve of single dirt road. It took us about thirty minutes to get there. We all had our C-7 rifles with 60-90 rounds of blank ammunition per man as well as a complete “82 pattern webbing.

The scenario was that behind us, from the direction we came, was a large minefield that was being constructed by friendly forces to deny the enemy access to a flank of the battle group. Our job was to stop and challenge any enemy reconnaissance units, which we were told, were looking for weak spots in our defenses.

The good corporal who was in command of our “sentry element” told us that all of this was nonsense and that there is no “enemy force” out here whatsoever. He decided that two guys will keep an eye out and one sleeps since we have no idea how long were going to be here. He and Chan took the first watch and I was told to take it easy. Not one to argue, I dropped my webbing and used the butt pack as a pillow. Soon I drifted off…

I’m not sure how long I’ve been snoozing when Chan shook me awake.

“Get up man!”

“What’s going on…?” I asked still half asleep. I started to grab for my rifle thinking something is about to go down.

“I have to take a dump!” said Chan. It was obvious that the situation was close to serious because Chan’s eyes were much bigger than normal as his eyeballs were clearly getting pushed out of his skull by pressures created in lower centers of his body. “You need to relieve me cause I have no toilet paper. I have to run back to the CP (Command Post) to get some!”

Chan bolted back towards our lines and I settled down on my belly next to the corporal behind some dense bush cover and proceeded to stare at an empty dirt road.

The sun was climbing higher and higher and the temperature was climbing with it. We soon noticed that when we left our rifles exposed for even a few minutes they would get hot. The best we could do was to shift our position so that we were covered by trees at all times as the big yellow ball of hellish heat made its way across the sky.

Suddenly we heard screaming behind us as if someone was getting murdered. We both turn around and see Chan storming towards us faster than a speeding bullet. He was screaming the words “guys” on top of his lungs. We though he pooped himself.

When he safely came to a halt violently gasping for air, he told us that the CP was gone. At first the corporal assumed that Chan simply didn’t go far enough but after Chan swore up and down and on the life of his mother that he has, the corporal looked at me sternly and told me to go confirm Chans claim. I collected my few possessions and headed towards our original position to look for the CP as Chan began to nervously massage his guts.

I arrived where we baked under the truck tarp just a few hours earlier and the CP was truly not there. Not only that but the field kitchen was gone as well as the fuel truck and all the other equipment. They left…and left us there.

I made my way back to the sentry point and informed the corporal that Chan was right. The only thing that’s left there, were many sets of tracks heading…somewhere. We were on our own, and felt completely expendable…not that anyone was in the mood to talk about our feelings.

THE DECISION

The corporal was deep in thought. He stared into the distance like a true veteran and I wondered what was going through his head. After a while he said that we have to find them and I remembered something vague from basic training about punishment for abandoning a post without proper relief…

Chan had plenty of his own things to think about because his poop problem has not been solved yet and the thought of carrying, for extended period, whatever load was ready for ejection made him visibly uneasy.

We formed a single file and headed back toward the original CP location. The corporal was on point, Chan with his field belt undone to prevent abdominal pressure was second, and I was taking up the rear. We came to our original hide and the corporal confirmed his worst fears.

The sun was boiling hot. In the nineties, the standard “water load” for a Canadian soldier was one quart canteen full of water. All of us were out. Before us was a desert like scenery, with the odd clump of thin poplars. We carried on.

Suddenly the corporal came to a halt. We gathered up around him to find out what was wrong. He pointed at a wire running from one steel post to another right across our path little lower than waist high. The path which clearly showed the tracks of the convoy of vehicles that left us behind. The wire ran from the left as far as the eye could see to the right as far as the eye could see. About a meter to the left of us was a small red triangular flag attached to the wire. On the flag, bright white letters made up the word “MINES”.

The corporal explained to us that our guys not only abandoned us at the sentry point but also closed the minefield behind them before moving off to a different location. We had to track down our unit but we also had to make our way through a minefield.

In those days, the Canadian Army had in its inventory a small, anti-personnel mine known as the C3A1 aka Elsie. The mine was designed so that when an enemy soldier steps on it, it shoots a projectile up through his leg most likely causing an amputation. The Elsie had a training model which was colored blue. It had no projectile that would hurt anyone. Instead, a loud “POP” sound, billowing blue smoke, hurt ego and embarrassment, were the only indication that someone stepped on the mine.

In front of us were hundreds of training Elsies…perhaps thousands of them. And all of us were smart enough to know that we can’t see all of them.

The good corporal and I were not sure if Chan was sweating so much because he was keeping something in or because of the heat. His groaning and whining however, was not conducive to high morale. Especially when the corporal decided that not only are we getting through that minefield but we will not set off one single mine.

Personally, I thought we should pop as many as possible because the blue smoke will be an excellent indication of where we were and that way some warrior could just spot us and get us out. The corporal then delivered a lecture containing lots of interesting words like honor and determination and showing everyone how good we really are.

His speech must have been a good one because instead of wanting to pop Elsies, I began to visualize myself with a chest full of medals and school children a hundred years from now learning about how the three of us made it through a minefield back in the day. Even though honor would not be how I would describe our army’s treatment of us by hanging us out to dry…literally…I did become quite determined to cross that minefield. And without one single pop.

All of us went down on our bellies. We pulled our bayonets and gently began to prod through the field. Every time we felt something solid with our bayonets we would slowly clear the dirt around the area to see what it was. If it was a mine we gently moved it aside and the last one of us, which was Chan, was supposed to put them back in its original spot.

Chan however, was focusing on keeping his weight off his belly. This resulted not only in the mines not getting replaced but also in him practicing some weird yoga movements with his butt in the air and at the same time attempting to keep the dirt out of the barrel of his rifle… I can’t imagine what we looked like from far away…

THE AMBUSH

The corporal stopped and looked up.

“What is it?” I asked.

He looked at me and whispered “Truck!”

I raised my head a little and tried to pick up some sound. And there it was. I looked back at him and nodded.

Then we saw the road. Maybe twenty yards ahead. He said “Let’s go!” Suddenly the corporal jumped to his feet and as he was sheathing his bayonet he sprinted towards the road. Miraculously, there was no blue smoke. It was close to five o’clock in the afternoon and the heat unbearable. Our olive drab uniforms were soaked and all of us were beginning to feel the effects of heat exhaustion.

By the time we made it to the road we were almost used to Chans bellyaching. He was given one order…one job.

The idea was that he stands in the middle of the road with his weapon trained at the cab of the truck. When the driver stops, the two of us jump up from the ditch. I come up from the passenger side and the corporal from the driver’s side. He quickly opens the door and pulls the driver out. Then roughs him up a little as Chan runs over to him to help out. I take command of the truck and wait till our prisoner is secured and information about where the toilet paper is located, is being beaten out of him because listening to Chan is really getting old.

The reality was that the driver was actually a very experienced soldier, combat diver, tough SOB. When he saw Chan in the middle of the road just about in tears and mumbling, he did stop. Then he spotted the dehydrated and heat-stroked corporal as he was trying to run up to the vehicle. Preemptively, he jumped out and as the heat exhausted corporal ran up to him, he simply grabbed the rifle out of his hands. The corporal fell to his knees, looked at the ground and in a defeated voice said “I’m done”.

“I’m here to get you back to our lines.” Said the driver with his gorilla like build towering over our corporal. “Where’s the third one?”

At that moment, I sheepishly came around the truck, only to be told to mount up…they’re waiting for us. There was no toilet paper on the truck. Chan cried softly. He may have found Jesus that day…

IT’S ALL OVER

We arrived at our new camp at eight o’clock in the evening, drank copious amounts of water, had something to eat and were told to report to a short foreign weapons class. The three of us were then split up and for the remainder of my time in the military, I have never seen either one of them again. I have no idea why we were left where we were left and I have no idea what happened, if anything, to whoever was responsible. The three of us were most likely forgotten and we showed up where we were supposed to be long before anyone important found out.

When we arrived at the camp, no one told us anything. There was no explanation, no reason and we were treated as if we had never left. There was no hero’s welcome…no medals and some school kids today have no idea that Canada even has a military.

CONCLUSION

This first memorable incident of my military career taught me a lot of things. As amusing as it may have been, I wonder how things would have progressed for us had this happened for real.

The need for water cannot be underestimated. When it’s hot, heat exhaustion could kill. If we had to stay out there for another day in the heat that we endured, we would probably start popping Elsies and hoping for a rescue. If we had no Elsies…we would just hope for a rescue. In a military training area that would probably not be too difficult but in today’s world, there are plenty of instances where hoping for a rescue might not be enough.

Even during short outings or trips, we should all think about back up plans. What would I do if a major storm came in? What would I do in a sudden temperature change? Is there potential for wounds? Am I able to take care of some minor wounds? Is there a way out or am I backing myself into a corner? And most importantly…never under any circumstance, leave the house with at least a few squares of toilet paper…

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