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Rare glimpse of soldiers training offered

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TORONTO—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 said 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 said “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,” said executive producer Paperny, who also was 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 said 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 added his crew worked closely with the military to make sure strategic secrets were not revealed, but insisted 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 remarked.

“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.”

The final episode details the soldiers’ first two weeks in Afghanistan, which kick off with a bang.

Director of photography Frank Vilaca said 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 said 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,” said 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 added.

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