College for killing fields

Hostile environment training is routine for most Canadian war reporters – except Canwest correspondents.

by Geoff Davies

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Global TV cameraman Jamie Butler films Afghan soldiers at the opening of a Canadian-financed firing range. (Photo courtesy: Jamie Butler)

by Geoff Davies

They wore masks and they carried guns and Murray Brewster had no choice, but to do what they wanted. He was made to kneel while they took his wedding ring and his watch. They put a bag over his head. They dragged him into the woods. He was helpless.

Brewster was being kidnapped, and it was only his first day of training.

He’s been covering the war in Afghanistan for the Canadian Press “since everything went to hell in a hand basket in 2006.” He’s worked both solo and embedded with the military, spending eight months there over the course of four trips. But before any of that, CP sent him back to school.

The wire service spent more than $3,500 for Brewster to take Centurion Safety’s Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT). The course is run by a group of former British Royal Marines, men hardened by more than 20 years of soldiering. They teach common sense for killing fields. Brewster – like many other journalists, NGO workers and others heading into the line of fire – learned to see the subtle signs of landmines, to hear the source of sniper fire, and to tend wounds at times when friends are farther away than foes.

“That’s why pre-deployment training for any journalist going overseas, as far as I’m concerned, is imperative,” Brewster said in a telephone interview.

“It showed me what I was going to face.”

The Canadian Press’ Murray Brewster decked out in traditional afghan clothing, called the ‘shalwaar kameez’. Brewster was following refugees back to their homes after Operation Medusa in early 2007. (Photo courtesy Murray Brewster/CP Image)
The Canadian Press’ Murray Brewster decked out in traditional afghan clothing, called the ‘shalwaar kameez’. Brewster was following refugees back to their homes after Operation Medusa in early 2007. (Photo courtesy: Murray Brewster/CP Image)

Every journalist “going outside the wire” – army-speak for leaving the base – faces the possibility of death, dismemberment or abduction. Sometimes they have to deal with all three. The Taliban kidnapped the CBC’s Mellissa Fung and held her in a hole for almost four weeks. A roadside bomb hit the convoy Radio-Canada’s Charles Dubois and Patrice Roy were traveling in, claiming the lives of two Canadian soldiers and Dubois’ legs. Since 2002, at least 16 foreign and Afghan journalists have been abducted in Afghanistan, according to Reporters Without Borders. Fourteen have been killed since the war began.

These risks have been there since the beginning, but it was rare for reporters in Afghanistan to have done hostile environment training back when Brewster first arrived. These days, it’s the norm. Along with CP, most major Canadian news organizations insist their journalists complete it, including the CBC, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and even Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald.

But one doesn’t.

Before shipping out to Kandahar, all of Canwest’s newspaper correspondents do four days of training at the company’s Ottawa office. Aside from the security briefings they get from the military upon their arrival, that’s all the training they get. And some say this isn’t enough to keep them safe, physically and psychologically.

“Do what the sergeant says”

Randy Newell, foreign editor at Canwest News Service, is responsible for running the training. He said the point of the four-day course is “to give (the journalists) an awareness and a base comfort feeling with some of the things they might run into.”

To that end, Canwest’s war correspondents spend the first two days getting first aid training from St. John’s Ambulance instructors. They adapt the course to address the issues of the warzone, where help is far and trauma wounds are common. Graham Thomson, who writes for the Edmonton Journal and has been Canwest’s man in Kandahar twice since 2007, said the first aid he learned during this course was more attuned to an office than a battlefield. But he said it was different than the average course.

After the first aid segment of the correspondent training, the course concentrates on how the military works and how to work with the military. Journalists hear from a public affairs officer from the Department of National Defence, from a few experienced war correspondents, and from an ex-soldier.

Newell said he thinks the most important stories for Canadians are about the troops, so getting to know the military culture is the most important thing for a journalist to do. He said his correspondents don’t need hostile environment training because they’re told to stay away from potentially dangerous situations. Except for a few sorties into Kandahar City with their fixers, his correspondents stay with the troops.

“If they’re in a predicament where they’re either under fire or in a minefield or anything like that, their instructions are not coming from us. Their instructions are coming from the military that they’re with,” Newell said.

“Aside from saying to a reporter do what the sergeant next to you says to do, we’re not telling them anything else.”

That’s all they need, according to Alan Mayer, editor-in-chief of the Edmonton Journal. The Canwest paper sent three reporters to Kandahar so far this year to serve as correspondents for the entire new service. Between the training and the journalists’ own preparations, Mayer said he’s confident they get what they need.

Scott Anderson, editor-in-chief of Canwest News Service, did not respond to interview requests.

Briefings irrelevant

The ‘do-what-the-sergeant-says’ attitude isn’t rare, but it’s more likely to cause problems than solve them, according to Tim Holleran, a training manager with Centurion Safety.

“People say that, but the troops don’t want to have you just tagging on like a little child that they’ve got to look after,” Holleran said in a telephone interview from Centurion’s training centre outside London.

“They’ve got their own jobs to do, and you’re just an embuggerance to them.”

Canadian soldier patrol in Kandahar Province. (Photo courtesy Christian Laforce/Chronicle-Herald)
Trainers with the AKE group stage an abduction during a ‘Surviving Hostile Regions’ training course. (Photo courtesy: AKE Group)

And he should know. Like almost all of the instructors he oversees, Holleran served for more than 20 years in the British Royal Marines.

“Just getting a briefing on something is irrelevant, really.”

That’s why the courses Holleran runs for Centurion – including the five-day Hostile Environment and First Aid Training course – focus on practical scenarios, allowing trainees to test their new skills while ballistics and fake blood make for a believable baptism by fire. Holleran said he doesn’t want them in the classroom. They don’t learn as much there.

These scenarios have been known to involve simulating major traffic accidents, knife attacks, and car bombs. By the end, participants will have dealt with gunshot wounds, blast injuries, major bleeding and other injuries.

Well over 12,000 people have done a Centurion training course, Holleran said. It’s mandatory at most British and European media organizations, he said, and for many American ones as well. Their clients include Reuters, the Associated Press, the Toronto Star, ABC, NBC, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

“We’ve had people on the course who have been covering warzones for 30 years and they’ve stood up in the classroom and said, ‘I’d just like to thank you, I wish I had this course 30 years ago.’”

In Afghanistan, anything could happen

Training or no training, many war correspondents will tell you just how hard it is to judge how prepared or safe you are at any time. There’s just no telling how close your close calls were.

Archie McLean is a colleague of Thomson’s at the Edmonton Journal, and he held down the same post in Afghanistan for six weeks earlier this year.

A Canadian soldier patrolling in Kandahar Province is careful to stay in the tracks of the transport vehicles that went before. (Photo courtesy Christian Laforce/Chronicle-Herald)
A Canadian soldier patrolling in Kandahar Province is careful to stay in the tracks of the transport vehicles that went before. (Photo courtesy: Christian Laforce/Chronicle-Herald)

“It was always in the back of my mind that at any time things could go horribly wrong,” McLean said.

“Who knows? Maybe if I stayed five more minutes at that refugee camp the wrong person would’ve spotted me and suddenly there’s guys in a pickup truck and AK-47s grabbing me.”

According to McLean, when you’re in a place as uncertain and dangerous as Afghanistan, you’re smart to take all the help you can get.

“I would’ve been happy to do (hostile environment) training, but Canwest didn’t offer it so I was happy with what we had got.”

There is, surprisingly, an exception to even this rule. Global TV, a Canwest company, routinely provides its employees with hostile environment training. This was a source of comfort for Jamie Butler, a Global TV editor and cameraman.

According to Butler, such training has been standard for Global’s employees since 2005, when the Canadian Forces moved from Kabul to the more unstable province of Kandahar.

For this, they go to the AKE Group, “a risk mitigation company” with offices in the U.K., the U.S., and around the world.

Butler did a hostile environment course with AKE days before leaving for Afghanistan, and he said he wouldn’t have gone if Global hadn’t provided it.

“This is Afghanistan. Anything could happen. They need to at least teach you what you’re getting yourself into going over there.”

“I was always surprised to hear that guys had gone without having training,” Butler said.

Butler said he didn’t know his Canwest colleagues were among these guys until speaking with Archie McLean, whom he met at the Kandahar Airfield base while they were both on assignment.

Damage beneath the surface

According to Murray Brewster, the Canadian Press has provided this training for at least as long as it has been sending people to Afghanistan. CP has been there for as long as the soldiers have. Though hostile environment training wasn’t as popular when he first came to Kandahar, today it’s getting to be the norm.

Good thing, too. Though it’s sometimes hard for a reporter to appreciate a close call, Brewster said, even near misses can take a toll.

“I was friends with some of the reporters who had gone and had not had training,” Brewster said.

“We had witnessed the same things, we had been under the same pressures.”

“I’m not a doctor, but they were showing mild symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), (such as) not being able to sleep at night, mistaking thunderstorms for rockets, stuff like that.”

“The other journalists that have gone there that took the training, they’ve come out most of them with their head reasonably on straight.”

Brewster may not be a doctor, but Dr. Elana Newman is. She is Chair of Psychology at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, as well as Research Director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

 Canadian soldiers on patrol in Kandahar Province.  (Photo courtesy Christian Laforce/Chronicle-Herald)
Canadian soldiers on patrol in Kandahar Province. (Photo courtesy: Christian Laforce/Chronicle-Herald)

According to Dr. Newman, people can be at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder when they experience “life-threatening events, profound helplessness, horror, and fear.”

She said when a person witnesses these things repeatedly – someone like a war correspondent witnessing death and dismemberment – they don’t get better at dealing with it. They get worse. Stress adds up, she said, and can eventually lead to PTSD that way.

If PTSD does develop, the person could have trouble sleeping, could re-live traumatic events in nightmares, and spend the day in a state of hypervigilance. Supporting Brewster’s guess, Dr. Newman said mistaking the crash of thunder for the crash of shells could be a symptom of PTSD.

As for whether hostile environment training can help ward off PTSD, her answer is  a definite maybe. Though some of these training programs include a focus on psychological resiliency, she said, programs focusing solely on survival don’t address psychological risks. As for the ones that do address them, we’re still waiting for the results to come in.

“We think we know what promotes (psychological) resilience in journalists in hostile environment training, but we don’t actually know if it works,” Newman said.

“It ain’t a movie”

In Brewster’s view, hostile environment training is “absolutely essential” because it helps protect a journalist’s body and mind. It’s a belief he carries with him to the boardroom of the Canadian Association of Journalists, where he sits on the executive.

He said he’s been pushing the CAJ to take a more active role in dealing with the issue of trauma and mental health among journalists. Though he can’t discuss it in too much depth before it’s released, Brewster said the association has been working on a policy that will define its advocacy role. The policy-in-progress will take a multi-pronged approach to mental health. He said it may include a stance on the training and therapy provided to journalists covering traumatic events.

This will be good news for all reporters, not just war correspondents. You don’t have to be in a warzone to witness something damaging, Brewster said. The Swissair crash off Nova Scotia and the Paul Bernardo trial are good examples. Brewster said he knows some reporters covering those stories who had to get out of the business because, “pardon my language, it just fucked them up so bad.”

“(We want to) remind employers…that they have a responsibility to the people they send into harm’s way.”

The risks of war reporting – physical or psychological – should be taken especially seriously.

“It ain’t a movie,” Brewster said.

“Being thrown into a hole in the ground for a month is not fun.”


LaForce Interview from King’s Journalism Review on Vimeo.

click here to read AKE’s “Surviving Hostile Regions” Course Syllabus

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