Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut August 27, 2004 - 4:06 pm

Senior Rangers critical of armed forces

"You shouldn't be going out there without us"

NUNATSIAQ NEWS

GREG YOUNGER-LEWIS

Two soldiers would have never got lost on the cold, dark tundra during a recent military exercise in Panniqtuuq, if the army had sent Inuit Rangers with them, senior Rangers from Panniqtuuq say.

Sgt. Simeonie Keenainak, who joined the Rangers 11 years ago, said the soldiers should have never been left alone without back-up from local Rangers.

“You shouldn’t be going out there without us,” Keenainak said while Rangers were still scouring the land on four-wheelers in search of the lost men. “If they dropped them off with the Rangers, this never would have happened.

“That’s the lesson for the day.”

Keenainak also criticized how ill-prepared the two men were for a night on the land.

The two soldiers had only raincoats and thin Goretex jackets to protect them from snow and high winds, after they got lost in the fog on Monday night. Neither had weapons to defend themselves from potential polar bear attacks.

The men, who had never been to Nunavut before this month, spent 11 hours in the mountainous area south of Panniqtuuq, without any means of making contact with the makeshift military base, three kilometres away at Alookie School.

The soldiers were dropped off in the area by a Griffon helicopter at around 6 p.m. to install a radio communications device for a military exercise the next day. But the weather changed for the worse, forcing the helicopter to abandon the men, with the understanding that they would walk back to the community.

Officials organizing the two-week exercise, dubbed Operation Narwhal, said Rangers were already on their way on all-terrain vehicles when the two soldiers were dropped off, but couldn’t find the men once the fog set in.

Rangers later sent out a rescue party but still couldn’t find the missing men in the dark.

Master Corp. Robert Dialla, who coordinated Rangers patrols for the military operation, questioned how the men ended up on their own in the first place.

“Rangers… know what to do,” Dialla said after the men were found. “They know what hills are dangerous, and what areas are safest.

“They’re the ones who should have been leading them [the lost men].”

Military brass later praised the Rangers for their contribution to the rescue effort, saying that their knowledge of the land was “invaluable” to the operation.

During the exercise, about 30 Rangers, mainly from Panniqtuuq, helped train soldiers in general land skills and provided protection from polar bears and wolves when the army went out on expeditions in the area.

Before the two soldiers went missing, Col. Normand Couturier applauded the Rangers, in part for ensuring the hundreds of military personnel respected the land during their visit.

“They know the land, they know the environment,” he said. “They know better than us, in terms of predator control.”

Corp. Brian Thomas, a career military man from CFB Petawawa, Ont., said he was worried about polar bears the entire time he was lost on the tundra.

Thomas, who suffered minor frostbite and mild hypothermia from the ordeal, said he talked constantly with his tall, smiley colleague, Master Corp. Mike Laforce to keep their spirits up while they walked.

After about three hours of wandering blind in the fog, the two men found a cave and huddled together until daybreak.

When they saw a Griffon helicopter around 5 a.m. the next morning, the two men jumped on a rock and “waved like hell”, Thomas said.

“There’s nobody at fault,” Thomas said later while drinking coffee in the Alookie school gym. “It’s a weather-related incident. It’s unpredictable.

“I’m just glad it’s done.”

Senior military officials said they will be investigating to find out how the two men ended up unequipped in a potentially deadly situation.

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