As a group of Canadian soldiers walked through a village in Afghanistan, local kids threw stones at them. Some stood on rooftops, pointing out the patrol’s location to others ahead. At any moment, the soldiers could find themselves under attack. “You could feel the tension,” recalled cameraman Frank Vilaca, who accompanied the troops.
The patrol was the culmination of months of intense training for the 40 soldiers of 1 Platoon, Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. Every step of it was captured by Vilaca for Combat School, a six-part series starting March 10 at 10 p.m. on Discovery Channel. (Vilaca is himself a former soldier, having served as a field cameraman in Rwanda and Bosnia.) The show is a raw look at the challenges soldiers face in preparation for the violent uncertainty of warfare.
About 18 months ago, Paperny Films approached the Canadian Forces with the idea of filming an infantry platoon preparing for combat, and then going with them in action in Afghanistan. The military agreed, with one caveat—the footage would be vetted in case the crew “might have seen things we shouldn’t have,” says executive producer Cal Schumiatcher. Creative control, however, remained firmly in the creators’ hands. “The minute it’s a DND promo film, it’s a waste of time.”
The fast-paced, warts-and-all documentary starts in the harsh desert terrain of Fort Bliss, Texas. There, all 200 soldiers of Mike Company, including 1 Platoon, practice nighttime live fire exercises, IED-detection training, convoy drills and how to inspect a village for Taliban presence. The exercises are designed to test their ability to not only react under pressure but to adapt to ever-changing circumstances as well. Mistakes draw withering, and sometimes graphic, reprimands from trainers and commanders.
The platoon and the documentary crew then move to CFB Wainwright where the military has constructed a replica of Kandahar, complete with roads, villages and even the layout of the Canadian base. On their Alberta base, Canadian soldiers cope with everything from downed helicopters to suicide attacks in what is essentially a sophisticated game of satellite-controlled laser tag. The soldiers never knew what was coming, but Paperny was given advance information so Vilaca, the director of photography, could figure out how to deploy his camera crews for maximum coverage. “The guys knew I knew and they’d try to get it out of me,” says Vilaca. “It never worked.”
The series culminates with 1 Platoon’s first weeks in Afghanistan last fall. “It is amazing to watch the transformation. Everyone is incredibly alert,” says the veteran cameraman. “Visually, the reproduction was pretty accurate, but still, in the back of your head, you know you’re training. It’s completely different when you’re really there.” And soon that reality involved a rocket-propelled grenade whistling over the heads of soldiers.
The soldiers of the Royal Canadian Regiment are still serving in Afghanistan. And though other members of Mike Company have suffered casualties, no soldiers from 1 Platoon have been wounded. Paperny plans to send a copy of the series to their base in Kandahar.