Military exercise transforms Medicine Hat into Kandahar

People in Medicine Hat , Alta., are getting a taste of what life is like for some residents of Afghan towns as the military uses parts of the city for a training exercise.
Cpl. Adam Naslund participates in Exercise Total Ram, a two-week training operation in Medicine Hat, Alta. ((Alison Myers/CBC))

People in Medicine Hat , Alta., are getting a taste of what life is like for some residents of Afghan towns as the military uses parts of the city for a training exercise.

Hundreds of Canadian soldiers who are deploying to Afghanistan this fall have set up camp in Medicine Hat's stampede grounds as part of Exercise Total Ram.

Leonard Bueckert, who's been in the southeastern Alberta city for almost 30 years, lives down the street from a newly constructed tent city, dubbed Camp Saamis Tiger.

"They don't bother us," he said while enjoying lunch with his wife, Joanne, and their friends at the nearby Tim Hortons. "I think it's a good experience to see them walking around and realizing what others have to go through to have military in their villages to keep the peace."

"It's really different for us," added Joanne. "We're not used to that kind of stuff. People live with that their whole lives, but we don't. So we have no idea what it's like. It gives it a little bit of perspective."

Pte. Eric Buckley, left, and Capt. Daryl Watts go through a training exercise at Police Point Park in Medicine Hat, Alta. ((Alison Myers/CBC))

The two-week training mission is designed to give troops a more realistic experience of urban combat by turning Medicine Hat into a makeshift battleground.

"From past experiences in previous rotations, it was noted the provincial reconstruction team is operating almost exclusively within the city of Kandahar, so we need to be in that urban environment," said Capt. Daryl Watts, a Calgary firefighter who is part of a platoon of reservists heading overseas this fall.

The soldiers use fake ammunition for all the training taking place in the city. Even so, the sight of light armoured vehicles in early morning traffic is throwing some Hatters off guard.

"It's kind of frightening watching them come in," said April McCullough, who lives in the nearby community of Redcliff. She had heard of the training exercise on the radio, but friends of hers had not.

"They see these big vehicles coming in and wonder whether they should duck and cover."

Other Canadian cities have stood in for Kandahar during military exercises in the past, including Sherbrooke, Que.

Mayor plays politician who requires armed escort

Usually, the military constructs fake Afghan villages on its bases and hires actors to play the part of Taliban fighters. During Exercise Total Ram, local actors pretend to be environmental activists fighting a planned development in Police Point Park. One training exercise saw the troops storm the park in the early morning hours to clear the "insurgents" out of the park.

While opinions may vary on the street, Medicine Hat's city councillors were unanimous in their support of the military's request to train in its streets.

Mayor Norm Boucher said Medicine Hat's hills and valleys offer a more challenging terrain than the open prairie of the nearby military base at Suffield.

"The other thing is just having access to parks, for example, and trails,' Boucher said. "We have a lot of trails where people can come up behind you at a moment's notice. You would have that in a foreign land."

Boucher has his own role in the training, playing the part of a politician who requires an armed escort. Boucher used to work as an RCMP officer on the VIP unit, so he said he knows what the job entails and plans to keep the soldiers on their toes.

Exercise Total Ram wraps up on May 10.