The only thing worse than getting attacked is getting attacked and knowing in the back of your mind it will happen again. The million-dollar question is when the next one will come.
The four men inside a foxhole had been asking themselves this question all day. When I last visited them they were in t-shirts digging holes with an entrenching tool. Now they had a respectable fighting position.
From left to right: Canadian Army Cpl. Max Fournier, Marine Lance Cpl. Zachery Trent, and Canadian Army Cpl. Luca Cymbalist man their hasty fighting position and await an enemy counter attack during Exercise Maple Resolve, May 31, 2016. The men were part of an electronic warfare unit attached to Company C, 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry during the exercise. (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. William A. Parsons, 214th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
“What'd you think, Max? Are they going to hit us again?” One of the Canadian soldiers asked.
A mustached man sitting beside him nodded in response.
“Yeah, they will,” added a U.S. Marine standing behind the machine gun.
“At first dark or first light?”
“It'll probably happen at first light.”
At a casual glance these four guys looked and acted like your regular light infantry team. Upon closer inspection, the radio gadgets poking above the foxhole revealed their real job: they were an electronic warfare unit attached to an infantry company.
A couple of things seemed out of place here. Why was a valuable asset like them fighting along the perimeter of a patrol base? And what had happened to the rest of the company on this hill?
As it turned out, a lot had occurred during the past 24 hours. The soldiers in the foxhole caught me up to speed. To summarize:
An assault on a hill went terribly wrong.
Originally their mission called for intercepting enemy radio transmissions, determining which direction the signals came from, and even jamming them when necessary. Now the four were part of a skeleton crew whose sole purpose was to avoid being wiped out.
The four men were members of Romeo Troop, 21st Electronic Warfare (EW) Regiment in the Canadian Army. Two of them happened to be tag-along U.S. Marines who both specialized in electronic warfare and signals analysis.
There were the two Canadians: Cpl. Luca Cymbalist, the de facto leader of the team now; and his reserved counterpart Cpl. Max Fournier, a soldier who sported a distinctive mustache and French accent. On the U.S. side: there was Lance Cpl. Daniel Newton, a fresh-faced Marine who turned 21 only a few days ago; and to round out the quartet was Lance Cpl. Zachery Trent, an astute bi-speckled signals analyst from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.
This motley crew of radio experts had been attached to Company C, 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). The battalion was regarded as one of the superior light units in Canada's Army, and possessed the ability to wage mountain warfare or airborne assaults against its enemies.
Slap these units together, and you had an interesting and versatile ensemble of characters. And so did the enemy, apparently.
Company C had marched into ‘Vertical Village' with over 100 troops. Close quarters fighting ensued. By noon they had the hill and only 19 men left. Romeo Troop also lost several soldiers in the attack, including its leader. By that time the four comrades realized their roles had suddenly changed from electronic warfare specialists to grunts.
During the assault, Romeo Troop broke away from the main unit and saw action up close. For the two Marines, this was the first time they had employed their military skills in a realistic field environment.
“When we broke off we encountered a five-man squad which was acting as an artillery battery,” said Trent. “We silenced the guns.”
After the fighting subsided, Company C gathered its remaining troops and established a perimeter around the hilltop village. Not much else could be done now except lie low and see what would happen at sundown
What these fellows are enduring is a military exercise called Maple Resolve. Conducted at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, Alberta province, the training area sprawls over 220 square miles of prairie wilderness. Its history goes as far back as the 1940s, when it was a detainment camp for German prisoners of war. Back then Wainwright was so isolated, the rumor goes, little security was necessary for the prisoners, as escape meant almost certain death outside the camp.
Now a military facility, CFB Wainwright is the annual site of a large multinational training exercise currently operating from May 24 to June 6. Over 6,000 Canadian troops are participants, along with 1,200 U.S. Soldiers, and 150 British troops. For units such as the 3rd Battalion, PPCLI, the exercise is a validation process, which will prove whether or not these men are ready for the real thing.
Engagements against the British-led opposing force are more than just war games involving laser tag: they are brawls over the right to defend the homeland. But before they can defend their country, they must to defend a mock village on a hill.
Cymbalist explained to me his Troop was gradually trying to integrate with frontline units. The 21st EW saw Maple Resolve as an opportunity to demonstrate the electronic warfare branch was more than capable of bringing their expertise to the forefront of combat. Just a few days earlier, Cymbalist and Fournier had jumped with their experimental radio equipment alongside other paratroopers.
“We've always been trying to get guys more qualified and have more capabilities to integrate with the light [infantry] environment,” Cymbalist added.
There was a lot to prove on this exercise. Right now the priority was simply staying in the game. And waiting.
“We're low on ammo,” said Cymbalist.
“How many mags of his did the Sergeant Major give us?” asked Newton.
“What did he have?”
“I think he said five.”
“The Sergeant Major is walking around with one mag?”
Someone let loose an exhausted chuckle. Days of marching with little sleep, no wash, and eating only what they could carry, was now taking its toll on the men. As sundown approached, their body posture began to reveal the fatigue. Now came ‘the waiting moments'.
I feel obligated to briefly explain this dull phase of field operations, precisely because it is both unmemorable and yet such an essential part of the field experience. Most folks back home want to hear about the combat or high drama of military life. Nobody asks what it is like during the moments in between the action... the waiting moments. The dig foxholes in the sun moments. The idle banter moments. The think about home moments. The wish you had a pair of dry socks moments.
More personal secrets and life stories have been exchanged during these long waits than any other place I can think of. It does not matter where – it can be a training exercise or a remote observation point in Afghanistan. And yet it is all dreadfully monotonous to the men experiencing it.
“I think I'm going to eat again out of sheer boredom,” Cymbalist muttered to no one in particular. He had now flopped on the ground while wearing his rucksack.
It had gotten noticeably darker out. Maybe something would happen. Maybe nothing would happen. Regardless, the war game had turned into the waiting game.
By U.S. Army Sgt. William Parsons
Provided through DVIDS
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