A SOLDIER is preparing for a military tour of Afghanistan by taking part in a tough three-month long exercise 8,000 miles from his Wrexham home on the Canadian prairies.
Trooper Ian Owen, 19, is taking part in Exercise Prairie Thunder with Germany-based 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards (QDG) working with three armoured infantry battle groups.
Exercise Prairie Thunder is held at the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS), located in the heart of the vast plains of Alberta in the west of Canada.
The exercise includes a live fire stage featuring multi-purpose machine guns, heavy artillery AS90 guns, Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior armoured vehicles before switching to a dry phase in which soldiers use a state-of-the-art computer-backed system where their weapons and vehicles are fitted with the tactical engagement system.
The system records every detail of an attack, showing simulated injuries from gunfire, shrapnel or mortar attack during a mission. Anyone designated a casualty has to be carried out of the combat zone by their comrades.
Ian, whose parents Susan and David live in Gwersyllt, is a driver and gunner in Boot Troop named because they are dropped off on foot and then gather information.
He said: “I do close reconnaissance which means we get close to the enemy without being seen. This way we can gather intelligence and feed it back into HQ so the commander can make informed decisions.”
A former student of St Christopher’s School, Wrexham, Ian added: “Driver training has been a big focus but the prairie is massive and the weather system is a little bit muddled with really hot days and then thunderstorms. The exercise is definitely different to any I have done before. It is also the longest I have been on exercise and it is important to take one day at a time.”
Including Pashtu-speaking Afghan actors who live locally in Canada, the exercise’s fictional setting of Pokharistan includes mocked-up villages complete with shops and schools.
The battle group is able to train in the kind of environment they will face in Afghanistan conducting counter-insurgency operations, patrols and dealing with locals.
The soldiers have little access to the luxuries of home. Sleeping bags, ponchos, a bowl to wash and shave in and a ration pack to get through the day are just some of the hardships they face.
Ian, who recently helped raise funds for the Special Care Baby Unit in Wrexham as part of a sponsored bike ride, said: “The hours are long but the rations are good.
The hardest part is dealing with the swarms of mosquitoes. The best moment so far was when we took out five vehicles of the exercising 1PWRR battle group.”
Commenting on his upcoming tour in Afghanistan next year Ian said: “I can’t wait. I have always said I don’t fight for anyone else except for the guys on my left and my right.
“So as long as they are all right, I am all right.”
See full story in the Leader