I’m dirty, wet and trapped inside 42 tons of armour. A 105-millimetre gun leads the way. Leaning forward, with my camouflage helmet bumping against the gunner’s sight, I watch the horizon rock up and down as my Leopard tank rumbles down a central Alberta dirt road. Canadian Leopards rolled into Afghanistan recently, the first time this country’s tanks have been sent into combat since the Korean War. But here, in the infinitely safer environment of Canadian Forces Base Edmonton, I sit in the gunner’s seat, below the commander’s chair. It’s a long crawl into this position, and it isn’t made for my six-foot frame. I’m forced to push my legs in close and the moving metal of the turret scrapes my knees with every jolt. I grasp the controls and nervously move the gun. After days of presentations, discussions and get-to-know-you chats, I’m learning from experience – absorbing the sights, smells and sounds as I travel with members of an armoured regiment.

Last May, a dozen journalists spent 10 days in Calgary and Edmonton learning about the Canadian military and how to cover them. The Canadian Military Journalism Course is one of a number of education and training options now on offer to help students and full-time journalists gain practical and theoretical information on the military. Others include the Journalist (Media) Familiarization Course and the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre’s Maple Guardian exercise. Some journalists report on the military and work as war correspondents without officially training, but others are required, for insurance and legal reasons, by their news organizations to attend a course. This requirement is reflected in the increased dangers of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, where 42 soldiers have been killed since 2002 – 34 within the last year.

The Canadian Military Journalism Course – offered as a scholarship by the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute – began to take shape a few days before September 11, 2001, when former Calgary Herald reporter Bob Bergen met with representatives from the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. There was a growing concern that few journalists were covering the military. Bergen, who has written about the Canadian Forces for more than 30 years, first as a reporter and then as an academic, suggested a program for students. “Most journalists I know would rather have a root canal than cover the Canadian Forces because of the culture, the language,” says Bergen. “It’s very foreign, very different to them.”

Bergen’s first course was offered the following summer, with the goal of giving students the tools necessary to work comfortably around the military, both overseas and at home. Legion Magazine staff writer Adam Day, one of Bergen’s first students, has covered conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Sudan for a number of publications since taking the course. “It was useful in learning how to navigate through the military perspective, what they can and can’t say,” he says. “Previously, I wasted a lot of time asking soldiers questions they couldn’t answer.”

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Sitting in a University of Calgary classroom, Bergen and others remind us that success is often in the details – identifying an officer from a Non-Commissioned Member and being physically fit enough to carry your own gear will get you further than you may think. A four-inch course binder leans against my desk, stuffed with media clippings, examples of Freedom of Information requests to the Department of National Defence, the Queen’s Regulations and Orders, recommended reading lists, military ranks and acronyms, backgrounders, defence budgets, an embedded media agreement and other nuts-and-bolts information. The Canadian Military Journalism Course also addresses issues such as the advantages and disadvantages of the embedding program, and the history of tension between the military and the media. Bergen was inspired by the idea that he could, after years of his own piecemeal experience, construct a course that would offer a streamlined, coherent introduction to the study of the Canadian military in action. Military public affairs officers told us about their positive and negative experiences with journalists. National Post reporter Chris Wattie provided tips for successfully reporting and living in Afghanistan. Retired Major-General Barry Ashton taught us about United Nations missions and discussed his leadership role in Yugoslavia. The Calgary Highlanders show us how they field strip and load a C7 rifle (a Canadian variation of the M16 rifle), and Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) invited us for an insider’s look at life on CFB Edmonton.

The two days in Edmonton began with a hearty breakfast in the mess and continued with a whirlwind tour of the troops. Our host, the Strathconas, is a regiment trained to operate Leopard tanks and armoured personnel carriers such as the LAV3. One priority was to teach us the difference between the two; confusing them is an elementary mistake you don’t want to make when trying to win soldiers’ trust. Although armoured personnel carriers may use tracks and have the outward appearance of a tank their purpose is different – APCs move infantry, tanks move only their crew and have enough fire power to engage heavily fortified positions. The Strathconas also introduced us to its Strathcona Mounted Troop, which performs musical rides through much of western Canada, and the Historical Vehicle Troop, which restores and displays historical vehicles at community events. The Strathconas also took us to visit 1 Combat Engineering Unit, 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The Princess Patricia’s vehicle hanger was ominously empty. Many of their soldiers and much of their equipment were in Afghanistan. Members of the Strathconas are also serving there now.

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The Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre in Wainwright, Alberta is the last stop for many soldiers before heading overseas. The 640-square kilometre centre, currently dotted with replica Afghan villages and coalition military bases, is a military approximation of Kandahar province. Starting at the end of October, soldiers from CFB Gagetown, CFB Petawawa and CFB Edmonton will spend over five weeks training for their deployment to Kandahar next year.

As part of this exercise, called Maple Guardian, a number of role-players join the soldiers, including insurgents, civilians and a media cell. Eight student journalists spend three weeks on the base, putting in 18-hour days reporting, editing and broadcasting stories uncovered during the exercise.

The media cell was the brainchild of Captain Tom St.-Denis. It struck him that no matter where the Canadian Forces go they need to deal with media, and since media is part of the environment, why not make them part of the training? Students take turns playing Canadian, international and Afghan reporters, and their newscasts are geared to reflect these different perspectives. Soldiers watch the newscasts at the end of the day, just as they would CNN, CBC or any local news while in Afghanistan.

In Wainwright, students are primarily training aids for the soldiers. However, they benefit from a crash course in military culture, learn first-hand how different networks may take different perspectives on the same story, and leave with a portfolio of their work. The journalists, like soldiers, must learn to cope with the cultural, religious and linguistic differences they would face in Afghanistan. Even the dangers are as real as possible. Both soldiers and journalists wear vests that emit an alarm when shot or caught in an explosion. During a previous exercise, two journalists were “killed.”

Wattie, who has reported from conflict zones such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Sri Lanka, knows all about virtual death. In 2003, while doing a field training exercise in the Journalist (Media) Familiarization Course in Meaford, Ontario, someone from Global set off a trip wire about 20 feet to his right. The “bomb” went off right next to him, and that was it.

The Canadian military offers the four-day course, and journalists pay $200 each to participate. The short program familiarizes journalists with the finer points of checkpoint negotiation, combat first aid and the trials associated with a potentially hostile environment. “The first time you go into a place like Kandahar, it’s terrifying,” says Wattie. “It scared the crap out of me. The more prepared you are, the faster you’re going to get over that and the better you’re going to be able to do your job.”

Canadian Press reporter Stephen Thorne has spent close to a year in Afghanistan since 2002. Like Wattie, he believes that taking advantage of learning opportunities is important. “You’re talking about your life,” he says, “so you can never know too much and you can never be cautioned too often.”

Back in Alberta, my only immediate worry is losing my lunch. Before the ride in the Leopard I’d scooped macaroni and cheese rations from a cardboard box. Cruising up steep hills and over precarious jumps make me queasy, but fortunately I’m too busy enjoying the ride to worry about it too much. The outing comes at the end of our two-day trip to CFB Edmonton, our final chance to experience part of a soldier’s life.

Once we’re done, I climb up out of the gunner’s hole and on top of the Leopard’s turret. Looking around, I can identify all the vehicles in the yard and some of the ranks on the uniforms. Climbing down, with little help, I join journalists and soldiers in casual conversation about the jobs they do and the stories we tell.