Soldier for a day: executive training with a twist

Imagine pushing back from the keyboard and picking up a machine gun that fires 100 rounds per minute.

How about swapping your BlackBerry for a mine detector?

Maybe skip the board meeting to traipse through a booby-trapped field, picking out trip wires attached to hidden IEDs.

That’s exactly what two dozen businesspeople did in May when they signed up for Exercise Collaborative Sapper, a day-long adventure designed to simulate the regular tasks of combat engineers.

It’s all part of a program called Executrek.

In the words of 33 CER commanding officer Lt.-Col. Peter Kelly, it’s all about building a bridge between the military reserves and businesses, especially those related to civil engineering.

The goal is to build an appreciation for the training, skills and work ethic of “part-time citizen soldiers” who make up Canada’s reserve regiments. And, in doing so, perhaps increase the likelihood of businesses hiring reservists or, if they already employ reservists, allowing the flexibility sometimes required to have them on staff.

Mr. Kelly notes that, at their peak, reservists made up about 30 per cent of the total number of soldiers that Canada deployed in Afghanistan. In recent decades, 33 CER members have also served in United Nations and NATO missions, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Cyprus, the Golan Heights, Kosovo, Pakistan and Somalia.

Mr. Kelly’s own career with the reserves started in Newfoundland, in 1995. At the time, reservists were paid a flat rate of $50 per day. Today, that number has risen to $100 per day. But that’s not the only improvement over the years.

Equally as important, says Mr. Kelly, is that the gap between training standards of reservists and regular members of the armed forces has dramatically narrowed.

In his pitch to hire reservists, Mr. Kelly says they can bring passion, dedication, work ethic, critical thinking and teamwork to private sector employers.

Most reservists work one evening per week and then train some weekends to gain basic soldier skills and also learn specific trades. However, they can be deployed in full-time missions.

Thinking of his own experience, the 38-year-old carries extra responsibilities as commanding officer, so it’s like having two full-time jobs – one with the reserves and one as a senior programmer with Broadview Networks.

Still, he wouldn’t change a thing, given the formative impact of the reserves on his career and life.

COLLABORATIVE SAPPER

At Connaught Ranges Primary Training Centre, with Kanata’s Brookstreet Hotel clearly visible in the distance, six civilian teams (mostly gathered from local civil engineering firms) gather at 8 a.m. and sift through bins with combat clothing, webbing, helmets and backpacks.

After suiting up, it’s a short march to the firing ranges.

After an official welcome from Mr. Kelly (and well-known real estate executive Paul Hindo, an honourary colonel), some training on C9 machine guns follows.

One by one, the teams pick up 80 rounds of bullets, each measuring 45 millimetres, and make their way to the target range. Following instructions, six people lie prone, secure bipod-mounted C9s on their shoulders, peer through the sites at targets 200 metres down range and squeeze off short bursts of gunfire. Bullet casings fly through the air. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Behind the targets, small bits of sand explode.

Another short march for lunch. Military rations are distributed, and foil-wrapped meals are dropped into boiling water. Smoked meat, Thai chicken and salmon fillet are on the menu. “Don’t eat the cookies” is the joke.

After lunch, comes a series of competitions.

IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are hidden in a field. The teams must avoid trip wires and spot the bombs.

Trucks weighing almost five tonnes must be moved several metres with nothing but pulleys, ropes and manpower.

Buried mines must be located and properly identified with prods and metal detectors.

Bomb disposal robots controlled with joysticks must pick up cups, move them a few metres and empty them into containers.

Military jackhammers are used to chisel away large blocks of concrete that must be placed into buckets and piled high.

They are all everyday tasks undertaken by combat engineers. When deployed, they ensure troops can live, move and fight on the battlefield. That can include everything from highway construction to operating heavy equipment.

Barry Grover of Milestone Environmental Contracting, which participated in Executrek, says the experience left him with a strong impression of combat engineers and reservists in general.

“The day was very well organized by people who are clearly passionate about what they do,” says Mr. Grover. “As a participant, it was amazing to see the teamwork and energy that the reservists showed during all parts of the day … all with a smile.”

Even when things went wrong (such as an equipment failure), the reservists persevered.

“Nothing could get them down, they saw the issues, did not panic and went about correcting the issues, all the while continuing to engage with the civilian participants in a very upbeat tempo,” he says.

Would he hire a reservist? “Without hesitation.”

Mission accomplished.