These pictures have been hanging around on my hard drive since late October, when I had the chance to make another trip out to the training area (or “The Prairie” as the British call it) to see the last of the UK Battlegroups go through this year’s training exercises, PRAIRIE THUNDER. I had the good fortune to go out as the guest of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, the British armoured unit that was here this summer as the OPFOR (OPFOR = Opposing Force, the troops who play the “bad guys” against the exercising troops). Thanks to the QDG’s padre, Major Alex Bennett, I was able to link up with their QM (quartermaster or supply officer), Capt. Tim Moore, who was going out with his cooks and supply trucks to provide a barbecue meal for troops that had been out for oer a week.

The weather was cold, slightly above zero Celsius during the day and around -7 at night. We arrived in the training area about three PM and the cooks set up their tents, large gas barbecues, copious supplies of food, and got cooking.

Capt. Moore and his staff cooking for several hundred expected guests.

The first guests arrive. Land Rovers of the QDG light reconnaissance force.

I had the pleased of helping serve the troops as they arrived, hungry and cold, many of them having been awake and active for several days straight. I heard a number of strong and melodious Welsh accents and learned that the QDG are mostly recruited from Wales. Ah, that explained all the fellows I’ve been seeing on the base’s running trails wearing PT shirts with “The Welsh Cavalry” stencilled on the backs. Amidt these young squaddies I heard a strong Canadian voice and met a strapping young man from Vancouver. He explained that living in the UK was expensive and the British Army looked like a good job. Good for him.

During the afternoon I had a chance to look around and see some of the kit that the British have assembled to prepare their troops for the sights and culture of Afghanistan. Here is a so-called “jingle bus”, one of the colourfully painted buses and vans you see in that part of the world.

I’m not too sure what this was all about.

Possibly another one of the goat mascots that the British army are so fond of?

As sun was setting I linked up with Major Alex Bennett, the QDG/OPFOR padre, an Anglican priest like myself. We bumped into British Army photographer Steve Woods, who had flown over to Canada to cover PRAIRIE THUNDER, and he was gracious enough to take some shots of the two of us – his email sending them to me was entitled “Prairie Padre Photos”, displaying a nice touch for alliteration. This one is my favourite.

Sgt. Woods, or “Woody”, has a blog here, and his work is well worth a look. He’s a truly gifted photographer.

A very cold and dark night descended on us. Alex and I waited for transport to a mock Afghan village known as “Hettar”, where the next phase of the exercise would begin. We were next to a platoon of Nepalese Ghurka soldiers, who appeared cheerfully impervious to the cold. I chatted with their English officer, who when asked admitted that he knew enough Nepalese “to get by with the lads”. I once wrote a paper on England’s Gurkha soldiers while an undergraduate and it was a thrill to see these representatives of a proud soldiering tradition live and up close.

Once bussed to Hettar, Alex and I dossed down, as the Brits say, in a building meant to represent the local mosque. I say “represent” because I want readers to be clear that this was not a consecrated religious structure used for worship, so there was no question of disrespect or worse. The building was used as an HQ by the exercise control staff, and was jammed with all sorts of kit, including these rather gruesome mannequins representing victims of bomb blasts.

It was rather discooncerting to have these chaps feet from my head as I tried to sleep, but at least they didn’t snore, which is more than I can say for Padre Alex.

When morning came I learned that there would be at least a day’s lull before the training resumed, so I caught a lift off the prairie. Two days later, however, I was back in Hettar. BATUS was looking for bodies who would get dressed up in Afghan clothing and help populate the village as the British troops came through, practicing their patrolling techniques. Here’s me dressed up as a local.

Pretty unconvincing, but fortunately the real atmosphere was provided by Afghan-Canadians who are brought in to act as the local population. I have no pictures of these folks to post here, since there are security considerations. The Afghan-origin interactors are understandably nervous about the bad guys identifying them on the internet and then taking reprisals against family and friends overseas. The Afghan-Canadian interactors are recruited and supported by an Alberta based film company that provides the same services to the Canadian Forces at our training base in Wainwright. One of the Canadian staff of this company that I spoke to was an ex-Canadian army infanteer with several tours of Afghanistan, so these folks knew their stuff. Once you were on the ground in Hettar, I felt I was on a film set, and it was as close to the real thing that I am likely to get for some time. Here’s an exterior shot of Hettar’s “mosque” against a crisp prairie sky.

Besides myself BATUS dressed up a number of Canadian civilians, including teachers from the grade school in Ralston, where many of the British kids go, and some business people from Medicine Hat. It was an excellent and thoughtful way for BATUS to give these folks a perk and a chance to see what they do. For those of us who liked flying, we also had the thrill of a helicopter ride out to the prairie and back, rather than a jolting hour long ride along rutted dirt roads.

These shots were a bit of a challenge for my little iphone camera, but they convey a sense of the prairie. In the second shot you can see a herd of antelope to the left.

Once in Hettar we milled about, waiting for something to happen. The Afghan interactors brewed a constant supply of tea, or chai, and it was a thrill to accept a cup from one elderly gentleman, who tried to teach me a few words of Afghan which I’ve sadly forgotten. In time the British army arrived, and their patrolling techniques were tested when a simulated suicide bomb went off in the middle of the market. We had been warned to stand clear of the area, because a very powerful charge was used to simulate the blast, but what followed was extreme. The interactors rushed into the smoke with a variety of gruesome simulated wounds, and the resulting chaos and carnage and noise was overwhelming. According to a British sergeant major who was the minder for us Canadians, the troops reacted well, always vigilant while doing what they could for the local populace. It was an excellent simulation for these troops, who are, unfortunately, likely to see the real thing when they go overseas sometime soon.

So ended my last trip to the prairie for 2010 and another adventure in Suffield. I came away with a healthy respect for the work that BATUS does. As the BATUS CO Col Carver said at his Christmas address to the troops, if all this work saves just one life in theatre, then it will have been worth it. Amen.

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