Our RON (Remain-Over-Night) is hidden well up the mountain in a draw, deep in the tangled nightmare of a laurel thicket, known to the locals as an “Ivy Hell”. The name speaks for itself.
Andy spotted the potential location as we patrolled slowly following the spur northwest, first in a diamond formation then later, as the trees and vegetation thickened, into a Ranger file formation, down from the ridge line of the mountain behind us.
Andy was walking point and, doing double duty as the compass man, reading the terrain and keeping us on course. Al, the second man in the patrol, was keeping the pace count. Andy noted, as he frequently looked back, that Al was maintaining a good interval, just far enough back to be barely visible to Andy.
He stopped after passing the large laurel thicket about 500 meters down into the draw, turned to Al, and made eye contact with him. Andy slowly raised his support hand to a point just below his shoulder, palm open, fingers pointed up, and moved them slowly in a tight circular motion, then pointed to the thicket. Rally point. Al nodded and when he passed the same point, he sent the signal back to the next man in the file, Jim. When Jim passed the same point, he sent the signal to me, the last man in the patrol. By designating this new rally point, the previous designated RP at the top of the mountain behind us, now became the active point. Per our SOP, we would meet there if we were separated.
As I passed the thicket, I knew what Andy had in mind. We needed to find a place to RON soon. It was very early spring in the Southern Appalachians where night comes on quickly in the deep, narrow valleys.
We continued on the same azimuth further down into the draw about one hundred meters, turned north, to the right, continued another fifty meters, then turned west on our back azimuth until we passed the thicket once more, about 150 meters or so. The J-hook put us into position to watch our back trail as per our SOP. Again, making sure Al saw him, he held his hand up just below shoulder level, same as with the rally point but motionless this time, just his hand in the air. Then he touched his ear with the hand. A listening halt.
The signal was passed back. We all slowly dropped to the prone, each selecting a nearby position which would provide some cover and concealment, such as a large rock, tree trunk, slight depression or mound of earth. Then, when in the prone, each of us slipped one arm out of a shoulder strap of our ruck and grounded it at our front to provide additional concealment, weapons support and maybe a little cover from small arms fire. Team patrolling Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) required each of us to keep one arm in the other strap in the event we needed to get them back on quickly. This technique worked especially well at night when you couldn’t see to find the ruck straps. Each man scanned his sector. First man in the direction of travel, second man to the right, third man to the left and last man to the rear.
We silently monitored our back trail for about fifteen minutes listening to the sounds of the forest for anything unusual: cracking twigs, rustling leaves, voices. Looking for anything out of the ordinary such as movement, unusual colors, familiar shapes, such as the human form and straight lines like a rifle. Sniffing at the damp, earthy smells in the air in order to detect unusual odors associated with humans: smoke, cooking food, bug spray, body wastes.
Satisfied the area was safe and we weren’t being trailed, Andy looked toward Al for just a moment and touched two fingers to his forehead just above the brim of his boonie cap. The signal was passed back to me. I, being the Patrol Leader (PL) for this mission, was wanted forward. Rising slowly, I slipped my ruck on and moved quietly past Jim, who, in noting my passing, now turned slightly and began scanning my old sector to the rear, as well as his to the left, keeping our patrol’s 360 degree security intact.
We had intentionally spread so far apart, barely able to make out the outline of the man to the front and back, that I couldn’t make out Al’s location. Jim noticed I had stopped, crouched, and was scanning for him. Jim motioned with a slight tilt of his head toward Al’s location. Al was lying prone in the long afternoon shadows of a large poplar tree among some smaller saplings. He was wearing our groups standard winter patrol uniform: Realtree shirt and pants, Multicam boonie with a little jute and burlap tied through the hat-loops to help break up the shape of the head, coyote Mechanixs gloves and Marine Corps RAT boots. With camo face paint covering his face, neck, and ears, front and back, and an AR-15 painted Duracoat green and brown, he was nearly invisible to the unaided eye. I was still scanning when I suddenly saw the motion of his head turning to look in my direction. He grinned at me, white teeth shining. As I moved past him, he was still smirking, so I gave him a “gentle” love tap with my foot into his outstretched leg to show my appreciation for his camouflage skills.
Soon I was laying next to Andy who pointed to the laurel thicket and said quietly “RON site?” I glanced toward the thick mess. These men had been trained to choose a RON location that a hunter, hiker or OPFOR wouldn’t inadvertently stumble upon. It wasn’t along a natural line of drift. Hell, no one in their right mind would think to look, much less venture into the jumbled-up mess, for the four men who were resting there while planning and preparing for the next phase of their mission.
Looking back at Andy, I whispered “I’ll check it out, you and the fellows stay tight and provide security. Andy nodded as he continued to scan. Looking around toward Al, I waited until he was looking in my direction during his sector scan. I caught his eye and touched the fingers of my support hand under my chin to indicate “me”. Then pointed toward the thicket. I then repeated the sign but then swept the same hand forward and pointed to him. You. I then formed the index and middle fingers into a “V”, and touched the cheeks below my eyes. Al nodded. I had told him I would check out the potential RON site, he would stay and provide security. It was Al’s job to pass the message down the line to the next in line, in this case, Jim.
After occupying the RON, we will normally send out a small two-man Reconnaissance & Surveillance (R&S) patrol into the area surrounding our perimeter, probably over both spurs surrounding our site. So, while Andy continued to scan his sector, I moved to a large nearby oak tree, stood up next to it and looked over the surrounding area. The draw was still wide and steep, about 800 meters across, heavily wooded and littered with small moss-covered boulders and large rocks that were found mostly along the quiet stream. The stream meandered down the middle and bisected the laurel thicket on its way down the mountain to become Burningtown Creek. Wouldn’t have to go far for water. No major game trails or human footpaths could be seen and the surrounding foliage was just starting thicken, so we should be able to hear and see someone approaching from a distance. The natural lines-of-drift wouldn’t lead someone into our site. Nothing left to do now but investigate the thicket. Even though we understood this wasn’t considered a patrol base, the requirements for a RON would be similar.
I left the concealment of the tree, and moved toward the darkness of the thicket. This would be a one man recon-by-force. Not exactly SOP. If there were bad guys waiting, hidden in the laurel, I was a dead man. The terrain was so thick that Andy, the other man on my fire team, would not be able to offer much in the way of support anyway, so I had him remain in place outside the thicket providing security. After finding a small opening near the ground, I got on my hands and knees and began slowly crawling, rucksack still on my back, and AR still in my weapons hand, into the thicket. Pushing aside the occasional briar vine with a gloved hand, I continued to make my way until I came into a fairly large opening that had been caused by the uprooted trunk of a large fallen tree. The rotting trunk had left a small path out of the uphill side of the thicket. It would work as an alternate egress path. The small, depressed stream bed running downhill would be another.
The Mountain Laurel doesn’t lose its leaves along its canopy top and sides, even in the dead of winter. The leaves just droop somewhat until the day warms. But under the canopy of a large thicket, the laurel is a network of interwoven limbs that are usually bare from lack of sun on the inside with a layer of green leaves along the outside. It appears you are in a large room complete with a very thick layer of dead brown laurel lives covering the ground much like carpet. Older, undisturbed thickets can be thirty feet tall and hundreds of feet wide. So, we would have plenty of overhead concealment to help break up our heat signature tonight from the prying eyes of any aerial platform equipped with thermal imaging equipment that might over fly our area, as well as thick concealment on the sides to thwart handheld thermal devices from ground forces. There were a few small boulders that would provide some cover for a short period of time.
A four-man reconnaissance element shouldn’t be expected to wage a protracted fight. It relies on stealth and camouflage and therefore travels very light. Or if it is compromised, it relies on speed to un-ass the Area-of-Operations (AO) quickly. Stealth and speed requires proper training, specialized equipment, good fitness and a plan.
Having checked out the thicket to my satisfaction and noting that it met all the criteria for a RON, I rolled out of my rucksack and pushed it under some dead fall to hide it. Retracing my way back out of the thicket to the patrol, I caught Andy’s attention and called them in by making the rally hand signal and then placed my hand on top of my boonie. Rally on me.
Up next, establishing the RON.