In the midst of a dusty desert landscape, Pte. Dan Martin clambers up a well-positioned hill to scope out potential threats to his fellow Canadian Forces soldiers.
But he fails to take proper cover while perched atop his post and instead serves as an easy target for Taliban gunfire.
Thankfully, this deadly mistake took place in training, and not out on the fields of Afghanistan.
“It’s a real eye-opener for me,” the sheepish Martin says after being chewed out by his commanders for forgetting basic strategy on the new reality series, “Combat School.” “If that was real I would have been dead so I’ve got to be careful now.”
This rookie mistake plays out in the first of six episodes that offer a rare glimpse of Canadian infantry soldiers preparing for their mission in Afghanistan.
The show follows a platoon of 40 men and women from 1 Platoon, Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment as they undergo technologically advanced, intense and realistic warfare training. Along the way, viewers get to know them personally with one celebrating a marriage, another the birth of a child. It all culminates with on-the-ground footage of their first days in Afghanistan.
Creator David Paperny says “Combat School” doesn’t try to promote or condemn the war, but rather inform Canadians about the men and women who are being sent overseas to fight Taliban insurgents.
“Billions of dollars are being spent by Canadian taxpayers on this war in Afghanistan and it’s important for us as citizens to know as much as can about where that money is being spent and who is risking their lives and how are they being trained and what are the goals and objectives of our mission in Afghanistan,” says executive producer Paperny, who was also behind last year’s military pilot series, “Jetstream.”
“It’s one thing to hear about all of this from our politicians and our defence minister and the generals but it’s a very different thing to learn about this and see it unfolding through the eyes of the actual men and women who are in those forward operating bases outside the wire – on the front lines and actually risking their lives for this mission.”
Paperny says he and his crew were granted unprecedented access to training facilities in Fort Bliss, Tex., CFB Wainwright in northern Alberta, and CFB Petawawa in eastern Ontario.
Paperny says his crew worked closely with the military to make sure strategic secrets were not revealed, but insists the independently produced series is not a propaganda piece for the military.
“There were times where we didn’t go here or didn’t go there or shot close-ups of high-tech machinery that we didn’t use or blurred but we had a very trusting relationship with the military,” he says. “They realized that they need the public to understand where their soldiers are going and where Canadian taxpayer dollars are going…. They realize that to do that they needed us as we needed them.”
Storylines include that of Capt. Jon Cox, a 25-year-old platoon commander whose father is a retired brigadier general. Faced with his first mission to Afghanistan, he’s got a lot to prove to himself, to his family and to his platoon.
As the platoon’s youngest soldier, Corp. Evynne Sop is a hot-headed rookie who finds it difficult to control his temper when faced with actors playing Afghani villagers.
Then there’s Maj. Cayle Oberwarth, a determined leader responsible for 200 soldiers who make up Mike Company. This tour in Afghanistan will be his first as company commander, and his first in combat. About a quarter of the company haven’t seen combat duty.
The final episode details the soldiers’ first two weeks in Afghanistan, which kick off with a bang.
Director of Photography Frank Vilaca says two mortar rounds landed in the forward operating base on the first night. In the ensuing two weeks, soldiers on patrol came across mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun fire at least half a dozen times.
Pte. Jeremy Hillson says training was extremely realistic, but he still found his first days in the field nerve-racking.
“We can be prepared for the situation, I guess, but you can’t really be prepared for the mental aspect of it,” says the 24-year-old Hillson, who joined the military when he turned 20 and was trained as a C9 gunner for 1 Platoon.
“I’m definitely more grateful for what I have back in Canada, after seeing the way people live over there.”
He says one of the hardest things to adjust to was the weather. Temperatures soared above 40 C some days, while soldiers were saddled with heavy gear for their foot patrols.
Vilaca says the most important lesson for the platoon was to work as a team.
“The whole year of training was I think pretty well designed for the platoon to bond and know that your buddy beside you is going to do what he has to do in order to keep you alive and you know you’re going to do the exact same thing to keep him alive,” says Vilaca, who spent 10 years in the reserve infantry in Peterborough.
“I don’t think a lot of civilians understand the Canadian forces and the guys in the Canadian Forces are just like everyday guys,” he adds.
“At the end of the day, that’s what I hope the viewers will see, is that these guys are just like your brother and your sister and your neighbour. They’re such regular people doing extraordinary things.”
“Combat School” debuts Tuesday on the Discovery Channel.