The team slowly rose as the rally signal was passed back, each silently slipping their rucks on. Andy moved to the opening and took a knee to provide security while guiding the others in. The two remaining men, Al and Jim, maintained their interval as they moved, still scanning their sectors, heads on a constant swivel. As each man entered the laurel thicket, they rose to their feet and crouching under the low branches, moved into the clearing near the middle where I was waiting. I placed them in two-man temporary fighting positions near the center facing out, then pointed out to each, their assigned sector of fire, limits of fire, their direct compass azimuth back to our last rally point should we have to un-ass the RON in a hurry, and the two primary exits from the thicket. The entrance was at the 6 o’clock, the uphill stream exit at the 9 o’clock and the downhill fallen tree exit at the 3 o’clock. Jim and Andy would occupy one position as fire team A (TM A) with Jim being the Team Leader (TL). Al and I would share the other position and I am the TL for fire team B (TM B). Since we were a small patrol and each of us covered a 90 degree sector, we would lie in the prone and lock ankles with our Ranger buddy. This would allow one to silently alert the other team member. Per our SOP, after occupying the RON, we conducted another 15 minute listening period.
Following the listening halt, I motioned to Al to watch my sector as well as his. He nodded and shifted his entire body so that his natural point-of-aim covered the entire 180 degree sector. Leaving my ruck in our position, I used the modified high crawl, on hands and knees and moved quietly to Jim’s side. He watched as I pointed one index finger down into the upturned open palm of my other hand. Map check. He nodded, insured that Andy would watch his sector and pulled a map case from the front pocket of his ruck. It was secured with a length of 550 para cord to a moly strap pouch on his ruck. We began looking over the 1/24,000 topo map of the area. Jim picked up a thin pine needle from the ground and, using it as a pointer instead of his big stubby finger, indicated our current location on the map, then the ridge-lines running parallel to our position to the north and south overlooking the adjoining draws but, most important, the road that paralleled the ridge to the south.
He said quietly “I think we need to get eyes on that road and look for recent traffic. My team can run the security sweep around our RON to both of these ridges. What do you think?”
After a little thought, I shot his plan down.
I explained “Jim, this is not a large combat patrol and our security relies on not being detected. In order to recon both surrounding ridges your team would have to crisscross this valley twice, covering a distance of nearly 2 klicks. We need to avoid leaving additional spore for trackers to find. Also due to the terrain, the road to the south would not be visible from the ridge line above it. You would have to get very close to examine it for traffic. I’m satisfied that the J-hook we pulled around the site and my visual scan should suffice for our R&S”.
We had left our community early the same day to take advantage of the concealment provided by the ever-present thick fog that gave the Smoky Mountains their name. The fog covers the region’s valleys and low mountains most mornings, except during the winter, and doesn’t burn off until nearly noon. We had moved nearly 7 klicks today, not a long distance, even with our heavy rucks. However, due to the small size of our patrol, we had been very cautious and had been on the move for about 11 hours; less than 1 click an hour. The elevation change had been about 3,000 feet. We were all pretty smoked and had to cover another 7 clicks tomorrow in order to reach our destination. We also needed to implement our work plan before darkness set in.
Jim agreed. We started the work plan.
For camp hygiene, I let Jim designate an area a few feet away within sight as the latrine. We had worked and trained together long enough that we weren’t shy when it came to bodily functions. A deep cat hole needed to be dug for urine. It would be used by all and covered when we closed camp in the morning. A cat hole for feces would be dug as needed and covered immediately. The first one of us to need the latrine would do the digging. It would be interesting to see who could hold out the longest.
In all good combat arms units, weapons maintenance is always the priority task. However, per our SOP, the priority is to set our hooches up first, due to the threat of someone using thermal imagery against us as the day cooled and the ambient thermal background noise of the terrain and foliage around us lowered. The threat of airborne thermal imagery and the availability of inexpensive handheld thermal imaging and infrared devices, the lack of effectiveness of both during warm days, and our ability to defeat both at night if we stayed in one place, were the prevailing reasons we chose to move during the heat of the day rather than at night.
Jim would provide security in one direction while Andy and Al set up two hooches, one over each position, then performed weapons maintenance, refilled water containers, checked their rucks and other gear, and last, they would eat. I would provide security in the other direction. Then we would swap, Jim and I would do weapons and gear maintenance, and then eat.
Al pulled the ICOM R-20 Communications Receiver, that he had been monitoring since we left the retreat, from a pouch on his chest rig. He pulled the short whip antenna loose and replaced it with home-made 292 wire antenna that he had rolled up and stowed in a ruck pouch. He retrieved the 3 small green and brown painted PVC spacers and positioned them between the lower counterpoise wires. He then threw a small lead weight, which was attached to a section of gutted 550 cord and that was also tied to the top end of the antenna wire, over a tree limb and hoisted the antenna up about 20 ‘ into the air. He handed me the radio. I took it, checked to ensure it was scanning, put the ear bud in my ear, checked the squelch and volume, then stowed it on my chest rig. I motioned Al down next to me.
While still watching my sector I asked him “Pick up any new traffic since this morning?
Al said “Not since we first crossed the ridge on Burningtown Mountain”.
I nodded. Al had picked up some broken chatter on the marine band but the signal had been very weak. It could have come from anywhere in our line of sight, which at our altitude then was a pretty large area. It hadn’t been a strong signal and it didn’t repeat so we didn’t stop our movement into the valley. We had stopped just long enough for him to enter the time and freq. in his log.
“Al, who do we know that uses marine band radios?” I asked.
He frowned and said “Dan, as far as I know, nobody in our AI (Area of Interest) has them. When I make comms to Joe, I think I’ll have him check the intel. database.”
“Good idea, let me know what he comes up with” I replied.
He gave me a thumbs up and went back to where Andy was working.
Andy and Al set up the hooches over both positions. They started by suspending a brown Grabber Thermal Blanket, shiny side down, over one position. They stretched 4 OD Green bungee cords from the corner grommets, to low branches and stumps. They then attached a standard Woodland GI poncho over the top of the Thermal Blanket and attached it to the matching grommets. The blanket grommet pattern and size had been modified to match the poncho. Andy tied the poncho hood closed with the hood cord, attached one end of another bungee to the cord and the other end to an overhanging branch to form a peak. Under the poncho, Al tied a piece of 550 cord from the center loop sewn into the Grabber and tied it to one of the small waist cord grommets inside the poncho. The setup left an air space between the two, cutting down on the thermal signature. Had we been in more open terrain, they would have added some local vegetation to break up the square outline seen from above. The laurel was so thick above us that the thermal blanket was probably not needed, but we didn’t want to take the chance. The sides and back of the hooch were about 4 inches above the ground. The front was just high enough for the man on security to see out from under while in the prone and several large rocks provided partial frontal cover and concealment. The peak was about 18 inches high. The pair repeated the procedure over my position. When they were finished we had 2 back-to-back shelters. Our RON Security SOP for R&S is for the two men on security be in the prone, foot-to-foot rather than the textbook setting back-to-back in order to lower our profile. Our SOP alert plan is for each man on security to alert the other silently by shaking one an-others feet. This is a pretty simple alert plan. Keep-It-Simple-Stupid.
Jim watched out of the corner of his eye as his young team-mate Andy, checked the safety, pulled the mag., and cleared his AR, catching the ejected round in his hand. Pulling the rear take-down pin, he swung the upper from the lower. Next he pulled the bolt-carrier-group, checked the movement of the bolt, inspected the extractor and ejector, added a few drops of CLP, from his OTIS cleaning kit, into the two gas ring access holes, examined the upper receiver and bore, checked for grit and dirt, then reassembled the weapon and did a quiet functions check bending over his weapon to muffle the sound of the hammer falling and riding the slide forward. He then examined his Lancer Arms AR Mag. He re-inserted the ejected round, checked the round count (right hand round on top), follower spring tension, feed lips and overall cleanliness then reinserted it into his weapon. He then checked the safety again and performed an admin load, finished by a press check. Satisfied, Andy turned his attention to his sidearm, our group standard, the Glock 17, and gave it the once over also. Jim smiled, he had taught the young lad well.
While Andy was performing weapon maintenance Al was eating. When Andy finished his weapons maintenance, he would eat and Al would clean and check his weapons. Our R&S Team SOP allowed only 1 team weapon to be down for maintenance at any time.
This would be a cold camp; no fires or stoves. We chose to carry stripped MREs as our primary rations. The individual pouches had been removed from the boxes as well as the condiment packets and heaters. The pouches were then taped together, slid into the bottom of the tough outer MRE bag which was then folded over and taped shut with a short piece of olive drab 100 mile-per-hour tape (duct tape). The bag contents were labeled on the outside of each bag. After eating, all trash would be stored in heavy zip-lock bags and carried out in our rucks. The MRE bags would be saved for latrine duty later when in the hide site. No trash would be left behind or buried for animals to dig up and scatter.
When both men had finished weapons maintenance and eating, they began checking the rest of their gear. They looked over their rucksacks and chest rigs for loose, worn or broken straps, buckles and pouches. Anything out-of-order would be repaired before morning.
Both men then gathered up all camel backs and collapsible canteens that weren’t full and carried them to the stream a few yards away. While Al provided security, Andy filled the Sawyer bladders that were attached to the Sawyer Mini filters. He then screwed the other end to the hydration bladders and filled them by squeezing the water from one to the other. The collapsible canteens were filled from the hydration bladders. While one provided security the other conducted personal hygiene, wiping down with small micro fiber towels and brushing their teeth.
After Andy and Al finished their work, we switched places. They pulled security while we performed weapons and gear maintenance, ate and did personal hygiene by the stream.
30 minutes before End of Evening Nautical Twilight (EENT) we all occupied our fighting positions in order to have 100% security for Stand-To. After the uneventful Stand-To hour, we started the rest plan. Andy and I would stand sentry in our positions while the others slept, providing 50% security. Our SOP required at least one leader to be on security at all times during the rest plan. Al and Jim dug out their patrol bags and bivies and turned in. It could be disastrous for a patrol if a sentry fell asleep, so we would each pull 2 hours shifts until morning stand-to, 30 minutes prior to Beginning Morning Nautical Twilight (BMNT). While on sentry, we would not use our bags so that the cold would help us stay awake. We would also occasionally scan the area with our handheld thermal imagers to identify noises and to keep our minds busy. The night passed slowly, with zero natural illumination, the only action was one small opossum noisily sifting through the leaf litter. I watched him for a while through the imager. The scanner was silent throughout the shift. I woke Al around midnight and Andy woke Jim. I waited as he stowed his bag in his ruck and took up the position in the prone next to me. When I was sure he was awake (he had started scanning with the imager), I pulled my bag and bivy from the bottom zip up section of my ruck. My clothing had dried from earlier in the day so I just rolled into the bag. It seemed about 5 minutes had passed and he woke me for my second shift. Sometime during Al’s shift, a heavy fog had rolled down the valley and, as a result, everything was wet. The only sound was the steady dripping of dew from the laurel leaves. Vision was zero feet in the darkness and the fog made the thermal worthless. I kept my self busy reciting Bible verses, old TV commercials, and songs in my head as well as thinking about home. One of the guys had some serious gas, so I kept count. Seventeen events. I guess that’s why we used the term “fart sack” instead of “sleeping bag” in the Army. Two more uneventful shift changes and we were back at stand-to 30 minutes before dawn. 100% security.
Following stand-to, Al and Andy policed up their areas, packed their sleeping gear, ate, performed morning hygiene, refilled canteens, reapplied their camo, and then took our place at security so we could do the same. When we had finished our morning routine, Jim and I pulled down and packed the wet hooches in stuff sacks.
“No need to worry about imagers now” Jim commented quietly, I can’t even see 100’ the fog is so thick.”
“Yep” I responded, “Great weather for patrolling, so let’s get a move on”.
We began to sterilize our site, looking for traces of our passing, such as bits of paper, tape, bits of dropped food and lost gear. We also filled in the cat holes and did our best to camouflage them with the ubiquitous deer moss. A decent tracker would find our sign; the boot tracks left, vegetation crushed by our passing, and pressed down at our fighting positions/bedding down areas. The trick was to make it hard to know how many had passed through and to not leave any indicators to help them determine our numbers, makeup and intent.
Satisfied the area was clean, We pulled out a map and reviewed today’s movement plan.
Next up: Movement to the Mission Support Site (MSS).