The severity of the final exam is always in proportion to the challenge of the course.
It was not expected to be easy.
In fact, it was going to be grueling, arduous and painful, all wrapped in one.
This test was the pinnacle of military training for the people on course that summer in Manitoba.
To fail would mean to discard all the hard work of the last two months and do it all again.
I remember thinking, as our entire course loaded into the back of the trucks, that we really looked like soldiers, my comrades and I. Wearing full combat gear proudly, it was as if this opportunity was as much a reward as a challenge. We had earned the gear, we had earned the skills, and we had definitely earned the right to go play in our element.
We spent a full week out in the Manitoba wilderness; a spectacular contrast of heaven and hell. It had its beautiful moments, with a sky so big and blue it felt like you needed to hold onto something to keep from floating away. It was drastic, compelling and raw. The sunsets and sunrises were the most awesome I’ve seen. The land was our rugged playground day and night, and we made full use of it.
If our course had been the uptight Harvard law school of training, this environment was the media inquisition waiting outside the courthouse after trial. It was chaos.
From the moment our feet hit dirt, we had to be alert. This was a combat simulation and anything could be expected to happen. Trenches were immediately dug and sentries were posted around the clock. If there was any sign of enemy, we would all be called forward to protect our terrain. This seemed to happen most frequently at night, of course, when finding your way to the correct trench and not falling in with the wrong partner was a rather difficult challenge. So was staying awake.
Foot patrols occupied the days, occasionally providing some excitement when we stumbled upon the enemy like kids on an Easter egg hunt. The air suddenly filled with all colors of smoke grenades, the fun of which was only tainted with the knowledge they were meant to simulate real ones.
It was during one of these little battles I had a fantastic moment of appreciation for what I was participating in and how honored I was to be there. Even emotion is intensified tenfold in such an viciously rigorous and demanding exercise.
Over the years some memory of my experience has naturally blurred. I can recall some moments quite clearly and they will always put a smile on my face.
The big bug flaunting a suspiciously large stinger that crawled into the trench and was unnervingly proficient at scaling the loose sand walls. We watched in morbid fascination as my trench mate finally chopped its head off with a shovel and it kept on walking. Lesson learned; do not trust the tenacity of Manitoba insects.
I recall laying a tarp over two bushes and falling asleep in the dirt with my rifle hugged closely to my chest. I was exhausted and surprisingly comfortable. It pays to adapt to your environment.
I remember the sound and feel of the IMP (Individual Meal Pack) package as it opened, and the jokes about finding out the chicken we just ate was actually fish.
Crawling through a cactus and not realizing what happened until my hand, which reached down to comfort my knee, was stuck to it by spines.
Sprawling on the ground to avoid attack only to land inevitably on the largest red ant castle I’d ever seen. See them swarm. This is why we seal our pants to our boots.
Little moments that make big memories.
It was a week of trials and risks. Blistering heat during the day, and freezing cold at night. Some fell to heat stroke, others to hypothermia. On one particular night I thought I was the only one that didn’t. It felt lonely. Some quit. Others didn’t. All suffered, but made the most of it.
As with any exam or contest of endurance, it becomes increasingly more difficult as the finish line comes into focus. You can see it, you can feel it, but those last 500 meters are going to be your toughest.
The last 60 hours were without sleep. The battle intensified, the rest time became shorter. We just kept moving. The grand finale of tracer bullets and smoke was made even more enthralling by the great Manitoba thunderstorm that rolled through. Soaked to the bone, the only thought that kept me warm was I was almost at the finish line.
I thrive on intensity. The black landscaped was sheared time and again by fork lightening; sometimes blue, sometimes green, sometimes striking something far in the distance. The angriest thunder I’d heard. The ink black of the night was sparked alive by nature and tracer bullets cascading through the dark.
The teams pulled together and we fought the biggest challenge of all.
In the end, most of us won.
As with all “camping trips” there is tremendous amount of gear to take care of afterwards. The cleaning and organizing back at the barracks was quiet with the lighthearted exhaustion that follows a great accomplishment. The stark contrast to the battle environment was welcome, punctuated only by the ice cold showers that a few hundred unwashed bodies had to make use of to clean off the sweat and mud. Thanks to whoever forgot to turn the hot water back on that day, it was a very memorable experience.
In thinking now of the transition from battle simulation to a night out on the town in victorious celebration, I can’t help but be in awe. I crawled into bed that night after 73 hours of awake time, essentially the hardest work day I have seen yet, half delirious and fiercely grateful. A place that at first had felt so cold and unwelcoming, that night felt like home.
I was grateful I had succeeded; that we all had, in some form or another. I was amazed by the transformation each and every one of us went though during that time. I was thankful for the sense of peaceful presence it brought, like a cleansing of the soul and the ensuing calm after the storm.
It defined me in a deeper way than I can find words for now, and the lessons I learned here have gone a long way to shaping my life and mentality since then.
I may have had the right traits to embark on this journey in the first place, but they were also greatly enhanced by the journey itself, as was my appreciation for what intense focus can do for the landscape of human accomplishment.