COLCHESTER, VT, UNITED STATES
Story by Joshua Cohen
A small group of Vermont Army National Guard Soldiers made a cold and wintery trek into the Canadian wilderness starting at the end of February.
Maj. Matthew Heffner and his small team of Green Mountain Boys recently took part in “Guerrier Nordique,” a two-week extreme cold-weather exercise in Canada.
Conducted outside Havre-Saint Pierre, a small village in Quebec Province, Heffner said they trained 80 miles north of town. Havre-Saint Pierre, already approximately 600 miles north-east of Burlington, Vermont, meant the Soldiers were training nearly 700 miles from home in a harsher climate.
In 2012, the Vermont National Guard began a small unit exchange with Canadian cold-weather specialists. Heffner said he has attended the exercise since 2015.
“We now partner with the 35 Canadian Brigade Group, a reserve formation specializing in extreme cold weather survival, this time we worked with the Brigade Group Arctic Response Company,” said Heffner, who is the action officer for the 86th Troop Command in the VTARNG.
The 2022 scenario simulated a severe winter storm disrupting power and freshwater supplies to local villages. Heffner said Canadian and U.S. military personnel assisted civil authorities.
“We were there to assist in a mission similar to what we might do with the National Guard in the U.S.,” said Heffner. “During this exercise, we did a lot of cold-weather search and rescue training. There is a great benefit to training this far north with Canadian forces; their winters are a lot harsher.”
Pointing out the need for reoccurring training, Heffner said the first time a Solider attends Canadian arctic training, “they are not good at it, no one is initially, you need repetitions in order to gain proficiency and a level of comfort with basic skills.”
Due to the extreme conditions, Heffner said few people are interested in attending more than one exercise.
“You take people to these cold-weather training exercises and they won’t want to do it a second time, because it is brutal. To execute a tactical piece under these conditions, you must be comfortable in the environment you’re in.”
Heffner continued to explain the difficulties of military operations in an arctic climate.
“In -35-degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures you are fighting to stay alive where everything is a struggle, getting water, heating food, trying to stay warm and not get frostbite.”
He said the extreme cold not only adversely affects humans, but weapon lubrication freezes, batteries drain faster and there can be problems with optics.
The exercise involved six days living in tents across three sites with transportation performed by snowmobile. This was a key area the Vermont Guardsmen were able to provide field guidance.
Heffner said the Canadians used toboggan-type sleds pulled behind snowmobiles to carry cargo and the Vermont Guardsmen helped with securing supplies.
“Because of Mountain Warfare School, we’re pretty skilled at tying knots. When you’re bouncing over rough terrain you must do a really good job of securing your supplies. If you’re just tying square knots, it does not typically end well when gear goes flying, we gave an impromptu knot class that really helped them.”
In return, Heffner said the Canadians showed his group their method for Meals Ready-To-Eat heating in arctic conditions.
“During the exercise, we used Canadian MREs, they prepare them differently,” explained Heffner. “We tend to use dehydrated cold weather rations requiring a lot of water to prepare,” Heffner continued with how the Canadians soldiers use a pressure cooker in the field.
They add just a little water, a few handfuls of snow, the MRE, and the pressure cooker is extremely efficient with using less water. Heffner believes there is no better arctic training experience.
“A preponderance of the Canadians have much more experience in harsh winter environments than we do and it’s a great opportunity for us to work with them.”