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Canadian soldiers suffer frostbite during winter training

About 20 Canadian Armed Forces members suffered frostbite, and some required hospitalization, following a military training session near Petawawa, Ont., held earlier this month in extremely cold weather. 

On Jan. 17-18, nearly 120 soldiers with the Royal Canadian Dragoons participated in basic winter survival training while the temperature dropped to –31 C. 

The soldiers, part of the immediate response unit (IRU) vanguard, left in the morning on a 12-kilometre march and returned the next day after spending the night outside.        

Approximately 20 soldiers reported frostbite or minor hypothermia, and “a very small number” had to be hospitalized for more serious cold-related injuries, said public affairs officer Capt. Daniel Mazurek.

Mazurek said medical staff and ambulances were present during the training to provide care. The frostbite cases were treated immediately, he said, and soldiers with more pressing injures were taken to hospital. 

No amputations were necessary, Mazurek said, and all the soldiers sent to hospital have now returned home or are back at work.

maj kevin wong

Maj. Kevin Wong said he was given notice the winter survival training would be taking place only a few hours before it got underway. (Radio-Canada)

‘We must accept some risks’

Maj. Kevin Wong was one of the soldiers taking part in the training. He said it was a “no-notice exercise,” meaning they were only told it was taking place only a few hours beforehand.

“We do this more than once a year.” Wong told Radio-Canada.

“We train for the worst-case scenario [in] the harshest conditions, whether it’s cold or hot, whether it’s on land or near water. We have to be ready to respond to the needs of Canadians.”

Mazurek said that IRU soldiers are required to tackle emergencies like floods or ice storms “on a moment’s notice,” and therefore exercises in such extreme conditions, while difficult, are also necessary.

“Our job is to protect Canadians, regardless of the environment or situation,” he said. “To prepare for this incredible responsibility we must accept some risks.”

equipment armed forces petawawa winter training

Some of the equipment that Canadian Armed Forces soldiers brought with them during the winter survival training exercise, which took place while the temperature dropped to –31 C. (Jeff Smith)

‘Serious lack of leadership’ 

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, however, said he believes the soldiers were exposed to significant risk.

“It is a serious lack of leadership, and we should not put our young people at risk in this way,” he said. 

Nevertheless, Drapeau agreed that Canadian troops must be ready to operate and survive in Arctic climates, hence the importance of training in harsh conditions.

“Canadian soldiers are trained for this kind of exercise — and are much better equipped than the general population — but sometimes commanders want to push their troops,” Drapeau said.

“There is a fine line between pushing their soldiers … and abusing their power as commanders.”

michel drapeau

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau said the soldiers who took part in the winter training exercise near Petawawa, Ont., were exposed to significant risk of frostbite. (Radio-Canada )

Richard Blanchette, a retired major-general and the chair of the Royal Canadian Legion’s defence and security committee, said that the injuries sustained by the soldiers during the training were not “normal.”

Blanchette said those types of injuries can occur when training conditions are extremely difficult — but also if the equipment wasn’t suitable for the situation. 

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