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“The Patrol” – by danmorgan76

The following chapters are the short story “The Patrol” by an old school Green Beret blogger that went by danmorgan76. Sadly he didn’t get to finish it before passing. I had the opportunity to correspond with him a couple times and from what I’ve been told by people who knew him personally is that he was a really great guy. The fact that he was willing to write not just articles about his experiences, but actually embed them in an entertaining read has always really impressed me and I’ve always been very grateful anytime anyone is willing to do that. Rather than link to his page I’ve copied his writings and put them into one page for posterity sakes. All the credit belongs to him and if you get time his blog is still up and full of lots of great knowledge. – BR


Chapter 1

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.


Chapter 2

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).

Chapter 3

I signaled the two junior members of the patrol, Al and Andy, to pull security while Jim and I lay on the ground behind our rucks, close to the southern edge of our RON.

“Jim, I said quietly, show me today’s route.”.

Jim pulled out his map case, opened it and studied the map under the clear plastic cover for a few minutes.  Then, looking around into the thick fog enveloping us, he struggled to get his bearings from the terrain around us in order to orient the map. Finally he gave up due to the poor visibility, he just couldn’t make out any of the terrain features. He took his primary compass from the same case and after opening the top, he placed it on the map with one edge of the compass lined up with the maps north-south grid lines. He rotated the map until the needle and the lines matched up. Satisfied, he lifted the compass to his eyes, rotated to the right a few degrees and nodded in the direction of a large oak tree about 50 meters outside the thicket.

“That oak tree’s dead on our first legs azimuth” he said. “That’s the way we head out.

Next he retrieved an aerial photo dated 2013 and placed it beside the map. It covered part of the same area, but was much more up-to-date than the 1978 map. Since the internet had quit working, at least in our neck-of-the-woods, it was the best we could do. Fortunately for us, Elizabeth, one of the intel. gals, had downloaded the aerials of the entire AI to her computer a few years ago. Even better, she had also printed out and stored the same photos in a binder for future use. If we needed one that she didn’t have, she still had a limited ability to print them. Elizabeth also had stuffed a cabinet full of various topo maps of the AI.

Using a blade of grass as a pointer, he indicated our RON site on the map and began tracing the primary route as he quietly spoke.

“From here, we move west along the side of the spur below the military crest, to the south of our present position, the one that parallels Ben Creek road, hand-railing just below this ridge line so we don’t silhouette ourselves. We follow it until we hit the saddle, cross over in the saddle and down the south side along this smaller spur to the southwest, toward the survey benchmark shown in this clearing on the road. That saddle will also be our next rally point”.

By comparing the map and photo side-by-side, it was obvious that new roads and buildings had been built since the map was last updated. Others had vanished. Forest had been cleared and old pastures had grown over. However, the terrain on the photo appeared flat and featureless, so we would still rely on the map to determine the terrain features along our planned route.

“O.K., what happens if there’s company on the road?” I asked.

“We sit tight, gather intel., and wait for them to move. If they don’t, we go around them.

I raised an eyebrow and asked “Intel. ?”

He frowned as he realized his mistake.

“You got me” he sighed. “We gather whatever information we can in the SALUTE format, and send it back to Elizabeth. She looks it over, works her spook magic and turns it into intel.”

I nodded and said, “Something like that. You think we can find that benchmark? It could be gone.”

“If we can’t find the post, no big deal. The photo is only 8 years old and the clearing was there then….” he paused pondering. Then added “and it’s shown on the map in the same location. We can use the clearing as the checkpoint instead. Also, look at the photo here.” He tapped the picture with the grass. “It looks like another dirt road intersects with the main road there. That’s not on the map. That will help us lock down our location.”

I nodded in agreement. “Then what?”

“We skirt the clearing, cross the road and Ben Creek, move off the road, about 100 meters south, depending on terrain, turn west and hand-rail the road, counting the draws as we go, until we hit Cold Spring Road. That’s our backstop. There we turn south-west, follow….I mean we handrail the hard road as it makes this hard swing back to the east. We cross the road and Whiteoak Creek where it intersects Holloway Branch. Then we follow the branch up into the draw and find the nastiest place we can to set up the MSS.”

I noticed he was intently watching for my for reaction.

I nodded again.

“Good job Jim. A couple of things to remember: the photo shows some houses that aren’t on the map, on the other side of the road just before we get to Cold Springs Road. Also, according to the photos, it appears like some new dirt roads have been cut in and new houses built around the area of our planned MSS. We need to be on our toes in both areas. And, we’ve got to have line-of-sight from the MSS to the hide to get comms between the two with the DTRs . We need room at the MSS for Al to set up his wire HF antenna for comms back home. Do you remember all the azimuths? This fog won’t break any time soon, so I don’t know how much terrain association we’ll be doing today.”

“Yep, he answered, I’ve written them up, azimuths only.”

He handed me a small sheet of green paper. The text on it was handwritten neatly in pencil and the paper was from a small weather-proof storm pad. The letters would not smear and the paper would not dissolve easily if it got wet.

“Andy checked them last night.”

He was still watching my reaction because he knew the risk of writing mission information down where it could be compromised.

Now I understood what Andy had been doing last night. I’d noticed he’d been laying face down in his position, propped up on his elbows, with his poncho over the top portion of his body and head to block the escape of any light. Instead of sleeping, (he seemed to always function just fine without much) he apparently had been using a red lens flashlight to go over the map, double checking the route figures one last time just in case we had gotten it wrong during planning. No one had asked him to, he just did it. These were good men.

Carefully looking over the sheet, I checked to ensure it contained only the azimuths from the RON to the MSS. Back on the team, this information would have had to been memorized, not written down, or marked on a map. I let them get away with this one as long as our maps were clean and the distances between the points and our check points were not recorded. If a list was lost or one of us was captured, no one could use the information to find the path from the RON back to our homes in the cove.

“Thanks man, this might come in handy. Did you make one for the others?”

“Sure did, 4 copies, he stated.”

“Did you check Andy’s map to make sure he didn’t mark it up last night?” I asked while stowing my copy of the sheet in my map case.

“Yep, it was clean.” he replied, nodding.

I rolled out of the prone and crouched on my knees near him while he was putting the last of his gear into his ruck.

Time for pre-mission equipment and personnel checks. This was a ritual for us before we started any patrol and during the patrol if we stopped for an extended period and removed equipment from our rucks. While it seemed a waste of time to the newcomer and might seem demeaning to an old hand; treating everyone on the team like a Private, it kept everyone honest and helped build a very basic leadership skill – looking out for your troops. I took over security for Andy so that he and Jim could do their check as a team.

Andy stood in full equipment, including his weapons, in front of Jim, hands on his head. Jim pulled the first three inverted mags on Andy’s plate carrier, checked to see if they were full and replaced them in the same orientation.

“Canteens full?” Jim fired off quietly, not taking his eyes off of Andy’s gear.

“Yessir” Andy drawled.

“VS-17?” Jim asked.

Andy pulled the boonie cap from his head and held it so that Jim could see a bright orange 6″ square section of a VS-17 panel sewn into the underside of his cap. The VS-17 panel is a large nylon signalling panel used by the military for short to medium range identification and signalling. One side is fluorescent orange and the other is magenta. We had larger 12″ panels stored in each of our rucks.

Jim nodded and Andy replaced the cap.

Jim circled around him looking over his gear, occasionally tugging at a strap or fitting. He was looking for any loose, shiny or noisy items. He stopped on his right side and unzipped the top of Andy’s BOK (Blow Out Bag) or IFAK (Individual First Aid Kit) and quickly checked the contents. Jim had him jump up and down a few times listening for loose or noisy gear. There was a soft metal-on-metal tapping coming from one of the pockets. Jim opened it and found the source; two metal magazines had fallen out of their bandolier. He repacked and secured them.

“O.K. hero, let’s try it again, he whispered.

This time there was no sound.

“Better” he said. “Canteens full?”


“Good, Check your weapons”

Andy nodded and performed a press check and function check on his AR and sidearm with Jim watching. Jim nodded approvingly as Andy finished up.

Jim patted him on the butt and said “Good-to-go Hot Rod, now my turn”

Andy helped him get his ruck on and started on his check.

“Jim, you missed a spot of camo on the back of your neck, give me your stick”

Jim handed him a green and loam camo stick that he pulled out of the zipper pouch under the ammo pouches on his plate carrier and Andy covered the white spot on his neck. Handing it back, Andy continued to check his equipment.

“Change your socks today Troop?” Andy quipped, doing his best John Wayne impersonation.

“Yeah, Jim said grinning, wouldn’t want the smell to give us away.

When he got to Jim’s AR-15, Andy spotted a piece of green 100 mph tape, that was used to silence the front sling swivel, was coming lose. When he pointed it out, Jim turned and asked Andy to retrieve a small flattened roll of the tape from a rear pocket of his ruck. Jim replaced the tape on the swivel, checked to ensure it was not loose and then asked Andy to stow the old piece of tape in his ruck with other trash in a zip-lock bag. When he was satisfied Jim was squared away, he returned the butt tap and said “O.K. Big Guy”

Finished with their inspection, Al and I took our turn while Jim and Andy took security. We finished quickly and soon we were ready to go. We made one last sweep to check for items left behind.

I took a knee near Jim, who was scanning his sector.

“Jim, Al and I are going to set up comms and make the shot.”

“Roger that” he replied without looking up.

Our team communications SOP  required all radio shots to take place at least one click (Kilometer) or one major terrain feature from our Patrol Base. Or if the Patrol Base was used for a transmission site, it must be abandoned immediately. The only exception was when we used the frequency hopping Motorola DTR.

During  our movement on the previous day we had used one of the Motorola DTR 550s handheld radios to report our progress to Joe back at the retreat as we reached each checkpoint per our Operations Order (OPORD).  The Motorola had no problem making the line-of-sight shot on the way up the eastern slope of Burningtown Mountain, but once we crossed over the ridge line and moved westward down into the valley below, we knew the mountain would block the UHF transmissions.

Now Al would have to put up a very long wire antenna to make an HF radio shot that would reflect off of the ionosphere above us and reach our retreat just on the other side of the mountain. This special process is known as Near Vertical Incident Skywave or NVIS. Joe and I had practiced it on a daily basis, with other like-minded ham radio operators throughout the region, for a few years now. Initially we’d had quite a few problems setting up the net, but thanks to the perseverance of a few key operators in the region, we had worked through the issues and created a very dependable network. Not only would it fill in the gaps caused by the surrounding terrain, eliminating the need for mountaintop VHF and UHF repeaters (repeaters which were all now dead due to lack of electricity), it was much harder to locate HF transmitters with direction finding (DF) equipment.

The antenna Al needed to set up would be 128′ long and would run parallel to and about 12′ above the ground with two thin wire elements, each approximately 64′ long. It is connected in the center by a short section of RG-58 coax cable which leads down to the small Elecraft KX3 HF transceiver. The radio is then connected to a tiny Winbook TW7 tablet through a very small Signalink USB modem. Everything combined is small enough to fit in a Zip-lock freezer bag. The tablet is running a free peer-to-peer communications software known as RMS Express. We had used the program extensively before WROL with an organization known as AmRON. They helped groups of preparedness minded radio operators set up nationwide and local radio nets and radio bulletin boards. Joe was still in touch with a few of them in communities scattered around the mountains. One of them was his life long friend Jack Conner. Jack’s radio had gone silent about 2 weeks ago.

Jack’s home was our destination.

Al has already encrypted the situation report (SITREP) to be sent back using the team’s “transmit” one-time-pad (OTP) that he and Al had generated with dice before the mission. Joe had the matching “receive” pad back in the radio room that he would use to decrypt or “break out” the message from the team. Joe kept another pad labeled “Transmit” back at the radio room. If Joe had a message for the team he would encrypt it using this pad. Then Al would use the teams matching “Receive” pad to decrypt the message from Joe. Using two sets of pads allowed both sides to have messages ready to send simultaneously.

If Joe had messages for the team, he would have already encrypted and then loaded them into the computer tied to his base station radio. The beauty of the system is that no one has to be at the base station radio when it is called up by the deployed team. It can be programmed to scan several frequencies until someone calls it on one of those frequencies and queries the base call sign. If the calling station has its call sign loaded in the base station computer, the base radio will automatically send all messages loaded in the computer for the calling station and then receive any messages intended for the base station. Just like the upload and download of email.

Since the FCC seemed to have gone away along with most of the FedGov, at least in our little part of the mountains, and the airwaves seemed to be mostly quiet, we tended to occasionally ignore the ham radio regulations such as no encrypted messages and using your legitimate call sign. We now generated random call signs to keep unwanted listeners from grabbing our traffic. Once the base and team call signs were used once, they were stricken from the list and not re-used. The multiple frequencies given to a deployed team that the base station monitored were also random and once one was used would not be re-used for months. These random items were listed in the Signal Operating Instructions (SOI) given to the team before it deployed.

Al followed me just outside of the RON. He had given the ICOM R-20 to Andy to monitor while we worked. The little handheld communications receiver was programmed to intercept radio transmissions near our location. Back at the cove, Al and Joe had programmed it to scan the common civilian channels: GMRS, FRS, MURS, Marine and CB. If anyone nearby keyed a radio mic using any of the bands, we could listen in as well as have a good idea of their distance from us. Al had extended the range of the scanner to a few miles by constructing a special portable antenna known as the RC-292 that we could unfold and hoist up into a tree overhead when we were in a fixed or static position.

I watched as he used his compass and map to determine the azimuth back to our cove from our current location. Once he was satisfied with the direction, we began looking for two trees that lined up on an azimuth 90 degrees out, or broadside back to the direction of the cove. He found two that were just a few feet further apart than the antenna would be when rolled out to full length.

Al unrolled two thin un-insulated antenna wires from their spools while I held the free-running ends. One of the wires was marked with small pieces of green duct tape at 5 feet intervals with the distance marked on each tab. When he had rolled each out to the 60 foot mark, he took a small, rolled up tailors tape out of the canvas antenna bag and measured out the final 4 feet of wire on each. He quickly replaced the section of bicycle tire inner tube, that had been cut to resemble a large, heavy-duty black rubber band, back around the spool, holding the remaining unused wire in place.

I laid the antenna wire on the ground between the trees then tied a section of 550 cord to the plastic insulators at each end. Using a large fishing weight tied to the other end of the para cord, I selected a low limb about 15 feet off the ground at each tree, threw a weight over the limb and then, when it fell to the ground, pulled the 550 down, and hoisted one end of the antenna up about 12 feet above the ground. I then tied the cord securely around the tree truck. Al had already connected the coax to the connector at the center of the two wires and now he pulled the other end up until the entire antenna was about 12 feet off of the ground between the trees, and then tied that end off also. He connected the radio to the other end of the coax, turned the radio and tablet on, set the freq. and gave me the thumbs up.  Everything was ready.

“Send away” I said.

Al tapped at the small tablet, then knelt back on his knees, watching it closely. After about 1 minute, he said, “They got it. and there’s a message for us.”

Al handed me the tablet and started breaking down the gear. The message was in the clear and read “Expect rain later today.” I deleted the message and after shutting the tablet down, then handed it back to Al. Joe had sent the message without encrypting it since it was not mission critical. His action saved us the time required to stop to break it out, as well as saving the limited decryption pages for future messages.

While he was packing the radio and tablet, I dropped the antenna and started rolling it up. Working quickly we finished packing the radio gear and checked for anything left behind. Jim signaled “move out” by raising his support hand, open palm facing forward, to his left shoulder and then slowly let it arc forward down to his left hip. The signal was passed back and we were moving out less than 5 minutes after our radio contact.

As each man passed me, I gave them the weather info we had received and I fell into the file formation. Andy, our guy with eyes like an eagle, was on point with the compass, then Jim on pace count, Al, monitoring the scanner, and finally, me, taking up the rear. Soon were moving quietly through the thick early morning fog on azimuth along the side of the spur to our south.

Chapter 4

We move slowly through the dense morning fog, for all appearances simply dark shadows slipping silently through the forest. Each man constantly scans his area of responsibility around the patrol while also keeping track of each others disposition. Foot placement is carefully considered to avoid snapping twigs or rustling brush. Slippery moss-covered stones and logs are stepped over or around to avoid injury due to the burden of our heavy kit or leaving any sign of our passing. Branches in the way are lightly grasped with gloved hands, slowly moved to the side or up to allow for better vision and ease of movement. After passing they are slowly returned to their former position to avoid quick movement or noise when released and to avoid tell-tale breakage.

The predominant sound in the woods is the steady dripping of the mist from the trees which, along with the thoroughly soaked and rotting leaves covering the forest floor, helps to mask our footfalls. With experience from extensive time spent in the back country, we all understand that while this weather is not the best for a stroll in the woods, it is great for patrolling. The untrained eye of the casual observer traveling through the area would be hard pressed to notice our passage along our route-of-march.

Quite frequently while walking point, Andy stops and slowly drops to a knee, using a nearby tree or boulder for concealment, to thoroughly scan under the low branches in and around our path. He looks though the brush and beyond the trees and foliage surrounding us for movement and anything that does not belong or look natural. Some patrol leaders let the point man set the pace. However, this method can cause members of the patrol to lose contact with one another or move like an accordion through the woods. Our method is to let the last man in the patrol set the pace. If I felt we were moving along too fast, when the man in front of me would turn and notice I was lagging behind, he would then stop until I caught up. We have worked together long enough that this was not a problem we encounter very often.

We trekked just below the ridge top along the northern side of the spur heading west on an azimuth of roughly 260 degrees magnetic. As the trees thinned and the terrain opened, we automatically spread out into a diamond formation, still just within visual contact of one another. Jim, the second or even-numbered man in the file, now moves to the right, and Al, the third or odd-numbered man moves to the left. Each man would still be responsible for watching their sector, right and left respectively. I, being the last man in the file, stay roughly aligned with Andy in the front. This makes communications between members of the team tricky. Now, the lead man needs to ensure both men behind him see his hand-and-arm signals. A signal from one of the men on the flanks would need to be seen by the man on the other flank. The diamond movement formation is our primary formation used during a 4 man patrolsince it allows 75% of the teams firepower to be concentrated any direction. While the file formation is very easy to control, it only allows a small percentage of the patrols total firepower to be projected to the front or rear of the formation, in our case 25% or one man.  At least until the even and odd-numbered men step out to the right and left flanks, respectively, in relation to the point man. Then they must each move forward until they are in a line abreast in order to avoid fratricide. This is not a simple battle drill, especially at night, and requires extensive rehearsal.

Soon Jim’s pace count indicates we are below the saddle in the ridge above and he passes the halt signal up and down the patrol. After the patrol halts and everyone has taken a knee, he touches his support hand to the heel of his left boot (pace count) then bumps his support fist once on his carbine and held up 5 fingers bumps it again, and holds up 4 for a total of 900 meters traveled. He then points to the top of the ridge. We all give Jim a thumbs up to indicate we understand. Andy and I both check our route cards against our memory, then set the next azimuth, 225 magnetic, into our compasses and the patrol moves out along the new azimuth.

Due to the thick fog, Andy can’t see the two hilltops at the top of the ridge to verify we are in the saddle. He does recognize that the ground on both sides is now rising and that the pace count is positive we were nearing the top of the saddle. Before crossing the saddle, Andy sends back the hand-and-arm signal “Rally Point”, indicating the saddle as our next en-route rally point. That would activate the last en-route point, the RON. In order to minimize his profile and to avoid silhouetting the patrol when crossing the ridge line in the saddle, Andy now drops on all fours and began a modified high crawl. We fall back into the file and follow suit. As I cross I momentarily let my head and shoulders drop to rest my arms on my elbows and am quickly rewarded when my ruck suddenly slides forward and slams my face into the ground. Spitting leaves and dirt out of my mouth, I roll onto my back in order to get the ruck off of my head then roll again back on all fours. Looking up ahead, I notice Al has crossed over the ridge line and is almost out of sight. I began moving forward again, ignoring my aching shoulders and arms.

I think to myself, “Got to do more push-ups and chin-ups when we get back home.”

After we cross over the ridge and have moved a few meters down the spur, the danger of silhouetting ourselves against the skyline has passed. We stand, fall back into the diamond formation and continue toward the road ahead. I soon call a rest halt where we drop into the prone, rest, hydrate, and set the next azimuth into our compasses. As usual, security is paramount, so we are each in the prone behind and under cover or at least concealment and are each scanning our sector. While resting the fog begins to switch over to a light rain. I glance over at Jim who was giving me one of his infamous “This is starting to suck” looks. I shrug and pull my snivel gear from the top section of my ruck. He watches as I put on the light Gortex MossyOak jacket and pants and then one-at-a-time each man follows suit. Even though the rustling sound of the rain gear can be noisy, the sound of the falling rain will counter-act it and the gear will protect us from hypothermia in the chilly spring air.

Soon we start back down the south face of a spur falling away from the ridge above.  After about 20 minutes, and a pace count of 400 meters, we all know that we are within 100 meters of the road and the bench mark pillar. Suddenly Al stops short, calls a halt, then puts his hand over his ear (since he is monitoring the scanner through the ear bud in his ear, this is our team signal indicating he is picking something up) and takes a knee. We all go into the prone.  I watch Al for a few seconds as he is writing intently in his storm pad, then shift my position to monitor his sector as well as mine. After few minutes he motions me over to his location. I rise to a low crouch and move slowly to his side and drop into the prone next to him, now both watching our separate sectors. Al hands me his open pad where I quickly read the following:

030835RMAR20 GRID 01206545

1. SS8* 462.5625M/FM**
0835** Voice 1: “Lewis, this is Wade’?” (Male, nasally)
0837 Voice 1: “Lewis, you there?”

2. SS3 Freq Same
0837 Voice 2: “Yeah, whats up!?” (Male, gravelly baritone, sounds angry, loud, over-driven mic )

3. SS8 Voice 1: “Lewis, were at the end of the hard road at the top of the mountain. There’s nothin’ up here but a foot trail that follows the ridge.  We’re turnin’ back. (Voice 1 drops gs at the end of words, southern accent)

4. SS2 Voice 2: “No houses at all above those two we hit already?”

5. SS8 Voice 1: “None so far. We took another side road through the woods comin’ up. We’ll check the rest of the hard road down to those houses on the way down.”

6. SS1 Voice 2: “What’s on the other side of the mountain at the top?” (Lots of static, signal popping in and out).

7. SS8 Voice 1: “Can’t tell, fogs too thick, we can smell smoke though. Somebody’s burnin’ wood down there”.

8. SS1 Voice2:  “All right, that’s good to know. Get on back, I’ve got other work for you.”

9. SS8 Voice 1: “On the way”. Sound of engine starting in the background.

0839 EOT***

* (SS is signal strength 1 to 10, a rough, subjective indication of range of the emitter from the communications receiver due to the signal strength bar display on the receiver)                                                                                                                                                                             **(Time of transmission with time zone indicator, in this case Romeo time zone)
*** (F is the Frequency of the Emitter, in this case 462.5625 Mhz channel 1 FRS / FM – Type of modulation
**** (End Of Transmission)

I nod to Al,  “Good work man. I’ll pass it on to Jim and Andy. Sit tight”.

I move to Jim’s position. “Sounds like we have some company using a FRS HT (Handy-Talky or hand held radio) nearby checking for houses along the road. The other end was weak, probably not close by.  Heard a vehicle on the radio also. Might be using the road up ahead.”

Jim just nods his head and continues to peer toward the road through the light rain. I leave him to his thoughts and move on to Andrew’s position at point.  When I give the news to Andy, he grimaces slightly and whispers “OK.”

“Keep your head on a swivel, that first signal was pretty close. Let’s get a move on.”, I reply.

“Not that it is necessary to tell him that”, I think to myself.  Andy’s got eyes like an eagle, which gives him the uncanny ability to spot anything out-of-place.

I motion us up and forward. As the patrol makes its way down the east side of the small spur just below its ridge line, and passes my position where I had been with Andy, I take up my position at the rear. We only move about 50 meters when Jim holds up a tight fist “Freeze”. He was facing downhill but now has turned his head to the east. After a few seconds of listening, he touches his ear with his support hand, indicating he has heard something unusual, makes the hand-and-arm signal for vehicle, a “V” formed with the index and middle finger of his support hand palm facing toward himself and then points to the east using the same hand, all fingers and thumb extended.

Looking quickly at the terrain around us, I decide I want us on-line, parallel to and facing down the slope toward the road below us as quickly as possible. I signal for a”Hasty Ambush”, my index finger pointed skyward and the thumb parallel to the ground forming an “L” with the remaining fingers folded to the palm. I then sweep the same hand one time from left to right parallel to the road. This is not our first rodeo and it shows: everyone immediately moves to concealed positions. We had rehearsed this battle drill many times prior to leaving on our patrol. Also, in the past couple of years as times had gotten hard, and then even harder, some seriously evil human predators have descended on our little valley, as well as on our neighboring communities, giving us the opportunity to defend our home turf and to conduct several real world hasty and prepared ambushes.

As I move forward to the left flank, I pass Al who has already set up in a small depression behind Andy’s position and now faces to the rear providing security in that direction.  I set up behind a large stone to the left of Jim, facing about 45 degrees off axis of the road providing left flank security. Jim is now in the prone providing security on the right flank facing 45 degrees in the opposite direction while Andy has set up in the center facing the road. We are now in a rough line, parallel to the road below, spaced out about 20 feet apart. This would be the same hasty ambush battle drill for a large combat patrol, but for our small unit this was now our defensive position battle drill. Because we are a 4 man R&S patrol, we have no intention of conducting an ambush. We’re merely using the drill to get us into a well protected, hidden position with 360 degree security in the event we are compromised and need to break contact. We are set up about 35 yards above a narrow paved road named Ben Creek Road on the map. Directly in front of Jim’s position a small tree has fallen across the road, blocking it totally.

Soon we all hear the faint sound of a small diesel engine approaching from the east, or up the road, moving toward our position. Now I pick out the movement of a large green 4 door all-terrain vehicle with yellow wheels making its way down the road. From my position, using my binoculars while laying in the prone, I can just make out the face of a man behind the wheel as the single small wiper sweeps quickly across the windshield. The UTV comes to a slow stop just outside of my peripheral vision in front of the tree blocking the road. I catch myself trying to shrink even closer into the ground as my breathing becomes shallow. I am looking for any target of opportunity.

Before the vehicle pulled up, Jim had already retrieved his binoculars from the exterior pocket of the ruck he was laying next to. The old fallen tree stump in front of him provides good concealment.

“Now it’s time to put all the “Kim’s Game” stuff that Dan had us practice to use.” Jim thought to himself as he was adjusting the pair of small binos. “What was it he always said?…… KIM means Keep-In-Mind. Yeah, another of the bazillion acronyms the Army used.”

Glassing the vehicle with his binos, Jim is amazed at its size. 4 wheels in the back under the bed and two at the front. Green and yellow: “John Deere” he whispers to no one in particular. Jim is able to read the sign on the door. Under the picture of a fish the lettering reads “Kyle Trout Farm”. Jim vaguely remembers a visit to the trout farm a few years back when things were normal. It was a Mom and Pop operation run by a pretty good fellow with a nice family. He is trying to make out the occupants behind the fogged up side windows when the noisy little diesel shuts down, the doors swing open, and four men step out into the rain. Jim watches them intently as they stand gazing at the tree blocking their path. The tree had fallen in such a way, suspended about 2 feet above the road bed due to the high banks on both sides, that the group would not be able to drive the UTV over it. The trees and brush on both sides of the road are too thick and the banks are too steep to allow them to circumnavigate.

“This ain’t rocket surgery guys, ” Jim thinks to himself, “Your going to have to move it or go back the way you came.”

Jim studies the men closely making mental notes to transcribe later in his SALUTE report. They are a rough-looking group. All four are deeply tanned indicating a recent life in the outdoors and only one looks old enough to be called an adult. The other three appear to be older teenagers. The older man, who had been riding shotgun, is dressed in filthy blue jeans,  muddy cowboy boots and an old faded woodland pattern BDU shirt with a military patch on the right sleeve.

“Looks like the head of a black bird screaming at the sky on the patch.” Jim thinks. “Have to ask Dan what that stands for.”

The man has long stringy, unwashed dirty blonde hair falling out from under his tan ball cap. The hair matches his thin beard. His sleeves are partly rolled up and his exposed arms, hands and fingers are covered with tattoos as is his neck. Jim also notices when he moves that the right side of his shirt is tucked behind a holstered sidearm.

“Looks like a semi-automatic pistol in a black fabric holster. One of those cheap clip-over-the-belt types. Maybe a spare mag in the pocket attached to the front of it.” Jim notes to himself.

He is carrying, slung over his right shoulder, muzzle up, what appears to be an AR-15, with the collapsible stock retracted completely, and iron sights. A magazine is inserted, the bolt is locked to the rear, dust cover open and there is mud smeared on the butt plate.

“Doesn’t appear like he’s too worried about running that weapon in a hurry. And so much for weapons maintenance” Jim concludes.

He can see no outright evidence of him carrying additional magazines except for the bulge in the lower right pocket of his BDU shirt. But then he notices the bent, short black whip of an HT radio sticking out of his right back pocket.

“Bingo.” Jim says to himself. “Wade with the whinny voice is right-handed.”

The skinny driver has long greasy black hair under an old blue ball cap, a scruffy beard and lots of piercings. Ears and nose.  He also wears bent wire framed glasses. As he moves to the front of the vehicle next to Wade, Jim notes he was wearing dirty black pants, with the left knee torn out, which are tucked at the bottom into old scuffed black combat boots. He is also wearing a fairly new, brown denim jacket about three sizes to big. More importantly, in his left hand he is carrying a beat up wooden stocked SKS without a sling. No optics, only iron sights. As he appears to be talking to Wade, he gestures and points at the fallen tree with the carbine.

“Wonder were Skinny Man is carrying his extra ammo?” He thinks, “Maybe in his jacket pocket? And where did he come across that clean jacket? It doesn’t match the other dirty clothes he’s wearing. No sling, watch him set that SKS down and walk away from it. Wonder if he can use those iron sights with those dirty glasses? Wonder if its even BZO’d?” Jim remembered Dan requesting Martin to authorize extra ammo for the patrol to Battlesite Zero our weapons before leaving the retreat.

Jim now watches Wade talking to the others and motioning toward the tree. They were too far away to make out what was being said, but it appeared that he is giving orders to the others.

“So, Wades the boss of this crew” Jim makes another mental note.

Another stooped over scrawny teen with long brown hair is carrying a bolt-action hunting rifle with a wood stock in his right hand. It also has no sling and by the diameter of the barrel it appears to be a .22. He is wearing filthy green pants, a gray hoodie type sweater and muddy black boots.

The last man is a short, stocky fellow with dark features, with his long dark hair tied into a pony tail. He walks with a noticeable limp, and is carrying a rusty AKM, with the standard brown stock, slung upside down over his back, magazine inserted. Again, no optics. The sling appears to be made of rope. When Shorty turns his back him,  Jim can see that the bolt is forward and the safety selector is in the “fire” position.

“Holy Crap, what a cluster this bunch is. I’m surprised any of them have lived long enough for their weapons to rust.”

Shorty is wearing a dark rain jacket, black pants, low-cut black leather shoes and a dark green boonie style hat with a wide brim. Jim sees he has a wooden revolver handle protruding from an old leather holster and a large, wooden handled knife in a leather sheath, both on his right hip. Again, no sign of spare magazines or ammo. Jim makes a mental note of the fact that Shorty also has several long fresh bloody scratches down his right cheek and neck.

“How did they get the UTV and diesel to run it with?” he wonders to himself.  He doesn’t remember the trout farm being big enough for the owners to have any employees working for them.

Jim watches as the three move to the tree. Then Skinny leans his SKS  against the vehicle, while Hoodie lays his on the road.

“Yep, that figures.” thinks Jim.

The three squat under the tree and attempt to pick it up and move it. After a few minutes of playing with the hand-held radio while leaning against the hood, Wade walks up behind them, slaps Hoodie on the back of the head and points to the winch mounted on the front of the UTV. After a few minutes of discussion, they have the cable played out and are hooking it around the tree. While the three stooges are working on the cable and tree, Jim watches as Wade walks back around to the passenger side of the UTV, drop his pants, squats and defecates on the road.

“Wonderful.” Jim thinks. “Just what I wanted to see today.”

Now Jim can read the tags sewn on Wades shirt just above the pockets: “CONNER” on the left and “US ARMY” on the right.  When Wade finishes, he stands, pulls up and fastens his pants, then walks around to the driver’s side. He yells something at the group, opens the driver’s door and climbs in. He promptly starts the UTV, puts it in reverse and pulling the cable taught, with the help of the trio pushing on the opposite side of the tree, tugs the crown end of the tree far enough into the center of the road to open a space that the UTV can now pass through. Wade then shuts down the vehicle, opens the door, leans out and shouts at the group. While the trio works in the rain unhooking and retrieving the cable, Wade slides back over to the passenger side and appears to be eating something with his hands from a large glass jar. Soon the others have disconnected and reeled in the cable, loaded up and are passing the downed tree that is now out of their way. Wade tosses the empty glass jar out of the window into the grass beside the pavement. Soon they disappear down the road to the west and the sound of the little diesel fades away.

After waiting silently for 5 minutes, Andy wonders “What are we waiting for?”

He finally turns in Jim’s direction with a questioning look and gives him the “What?” signal, both palms facing up and raised simultaneously a few inches. Jim looks back at him, then points to the road directly in front of his position. On the road, partially hidden under the repositioned tree, lies Hoodie’s .22 bolt gun. Andy sends Jim the “OK/I acknowledge” sign: a thumbs up.

Sure enough, within a few minutes, Jim gets our attention and signals “enemy approaching” from his flank, using the “L” shape, thumb pointing toward the ground, index finger facing the direction of the “enemy”. Shortly we see a lone, wet, miserable looking Hoodie come into view slowly running up the road toward the fallen tree, where he stops and sits down on it, sides heaving, with his head between his knees.

“So much for the Buddy Team concept.” Thinks Jim. “If we were a combat patrol we could snatch this lone guy, easy, and no one would notice. Probably would spill his guts in a heartbeat.”

After a few minutes to get his breath back, Hoodie stands, looks around and sees his rifle under the tree, retrieves it, and while turning to leave, promptly steps in Wade’s pile of feces on the road. When he looks down and realizes what he’s stepped in, he shouts and throws the rifle to the pavement, breaking the wooden stock into 2 pieces. Suddenly realizing what he’s done, Hoodie stops and stares silently at the broken rifle for a few seconds, picks up the broken pieces and shuffles down the road, head down and soon disappears out of sight.

“Ah, why so sad Hoodie?”, Jim chuckles silently in his head. “A little duct tape and it’ll be good as new. Wade probably wont even notice”.

Chapter 5

The area around us has been quiet for 10 minutes and I decide now’s the time to cross the road and continue the mission. I slowly rise and give each man in the patrol the up signal, slowly lifting the up-facing palm of my support hand, followed by the sign for a linear danger area (the road), using the same hand, palm down, drawn across my throat, then point to the road. Finally, I tap my left shoulder indicating we will cross the danger area using the “scroll-to-the-road method” and then point to the area on the road where we will cross. The crossing point has good visibility in both directions down a long stretch of the road with no nearby curves. We won’t be surprised by someone suddenly turning a bend in the road at a short distance from our patrol.

The point man in the patrol, in this case Andy, stands and moves toward the road. He takes a knee just inside the treeline, using a large poplar tree for cover and concealment, with his left shoulder (the Ranger scroll or unit patch is on the left shoulder) facing the road. He is now looking down the road to the west, providing security in that direction. When he is in place and sees that the road is clear in that direction, he motions the next man, Jim, forward. Jim moves to Andy’s position, and taps him on the shoulder. Andy then turns around to face the opposite direction, east, insuring it is also clear. By then Jim has taken a knee in Andy’s old position and Andy then quickly stands and moves across the road, still facing east, until he has found concealment just inside the opposite tree line. There he takes a knee still facing the opposite direction from Jim. Andy’s left shoulder is still facing the road but since he is on the far side, he is still facing east. Now both directions of the road are under our observation. Next Al moves to Jim’s position, where he taps his shoulder, and the entire process is executed again. This time however, as Jim turns and moves quickly across the road, he taps Andy on the shoulder. Andy stands and moves into the woods a few yards where he stops at the head of the patrol. He is now on one knee facing in the direction of forward movement. Finally I move to Al, tap his shoulder and the process repeated once again, this time Al turns and after moving across the road, he taps Jim who moves into the woods to Andy’s old position as Andy moves deeper into the woods. Finally, I quickly cross the road, bump Al who moves into the woods with me following when he reaches the proper march interval. If done correctly, the patrol will cross the danger area smoothly without stopping movement. As the last man crossing, I drag a small branch behind me in the dirt of the shoulders of the road to help obscure any footprints we might have left. This technique is more useful when crossing a dirt road and while it will not cover all traces someone has crossed, it does help to conceal the number of folks who have crossed.

We continue movement in a file formation through the ever thickening underbrush and canopy until we come up hard on Ben Creek. The branch is narrow and twisting and so we don’t treat it as a danger area. We ford the noisy, narrow branch, through the knee-deep, ice-cold water and with the help of one another, struggle to scale the high, steep bank on the far side. After crossing we continue to move perpendicular away from the road, due south up the rapidly rising slope. At about 100 meters beyond the branch, Andy passes back the new rally point signal, pointing to a massive, room-sized, boulder jutting out of the mountain side. This activates our last rally point at the saddle on the top of the ridge we have left behind. I send up the signal for the patrol to turn west in order to handrail the road. After we’ve moved about 200 meters from the danger area crossing location, I feel it is safe to stop the patrol long enough to allow each of us to empty the water from our boots and wring out our wool socks.

We continue to slowly, steadily and silently follow the terrain features, checking off each on the map as we pass it, in order to keep track of our location. We wind in and out of the draws and cross the spurs while hand-railing the road below us. In a matter of minutes the fog lifts but the rain steadily gets harder and the temperature is noticeably dropping; our breath now is visible in the air. After moving nearly 1 kilometer Andy stops the patrol and signals for me to come forward. As I approach his position I see that he is looking down the mountain at a small home in a clearing on our side of the road.

Scanning the house, I quickly decide to bring Jim, the assistant patrol leader, up to my present location. I get Andy’s attention, point to him, then send him the security signal, index and middle finger forming a “V” held under my eyes. I bump the  stock of my AR with my closed fist, then holding my palm facing down I show him two fingers pointing down, close my fist, then five fingers, also pointed down, (25 meters) and point in the direction I want him to go in order to provide left side flank security.

Next I motion Jim to join me and for Al to provide right side security at his present location, using the freeze/hold sign, a closed fist. Both Al and Andy know to include rear security in their respective sector scans. 360 degree security is ALWAYS our first priority

Jim joins me in the prone under a small copse of bushes at the edge of the clearing where we have an unobstructed view of the homestead below. Through the binos our gaze is immediately drawn to the bodies of a man and boy laying about 15 feet apart in the tall grass of the large overgrown yard behind the 1 story ranch style house. Or what is left of the bodies. It appeared that they had been worked over pretty good by coyotes or buzzards. Four of the large black birds are standing around the adult now. The man, who was fully clothed except for his bare feet, is laying on his back with both arms, which are probably bound, under him. If he had a face above his bearded chin, it would be staring into the sky. His torso has been ripped open by the scavengers who have been after his intestines, which were strung out like random lumpy red and yellow ropes around his body, as well as his lungs and other organs.

“Jim, looks like his head and face have been crushed like an egg. That’s not something coyotes can do.”

“Yeah, whispers Jim. I’d say someone took a sledgehammer to him.” After a moment’s hesitation he adds “Dan, take a look at the young’uns neck.”

The boy was thankfully laying on his side away from us but I noticed his head is laying at an odd angle. Looking closer, I see a thin piece of line or thick wire that had been pulled so tight it around his neck that it has nearly severed his head. His wrists have been bound behind his back then lashed to his bound feet.

“Father and son” Jim grumbles as he lowers his binos and turns to look at me. I see the darkness in his eyes.

I’d seen that look and heard that tone from him in the past and it usually meant it was going to end very badly for someone. Jim is a fellow that keeps score.

We both turn back to the scene below when Jim nudges me and says, “Dan…the clothes line at the far side of the house.”

To the left side of the house I see the line. Hanging among the now wet sheets, towels, pants and shirts are several dresses.

“Dresses?…. Women….. Where are they?” I think to myself.

Glassing the house carefully, I look for any sign of other bodies. Nothing. There are no bullet holes to be seen from our angle in the wooden structure. All the window glass is still intact. The back door is open into the house and is hanging loosely from the top hinge.

“They gained entry from the back” I think out loud. “Subdued the family inside, bound those two, but why drag them outside to finish them?

“Dunno,” Jim whispers back. “Who knows why friggin” psychos do what they do.” He pauses for a few seconds, then adds slowly in a flat tone, “All I know is… this won’t stand.”

“No it won’t. Not if I can do anything about it” I think to myself.

A small stone building set into the hill to the right of the house was most likely the family’s root cellar. Most folks in the mountains have built them to store their garden produce and home-canned goods in when electricity for refrigeration had become unreliable. The root cellar door, with the hasp and lock still attached, has been torn from its hinges and now lies flat on the ground near the small building. Empty canning jars and lids are scattered on the trampled grass around the front of the root cellar where the looters had eaten the family’s carefully raised, prepared and stored food.

Jim remembers Wade throwing the empty canning jar he had been eating from, out of the UTV earlier in the day.

The last building in our field of view is a small shed just below us at the bottom of the hill. It’s situated next to a piece of tilled ground, which was most likely the family’s garden plot. On one side of the shed is a covered area where several cords of split fire wood are neatly stacked. The closed portion of the shed had been their chicken coop, but it’s now empty except for a few feathers on the ground near the open coop door.

While I am trying to wrap my head around the scene below, Jim throws yet another wrench in the works. He slowly says as if thinking to himself “Wonder why no one has buried those two yet? Why have they been left to rot and be eaten by the critters? Where are their neighbors and other family?”

Jim is right. No one lives alone out in the sticks anymore. In order to survive in the small, isolated coves of these mountains, everyone lives in small clusters of family and friends who help and look out for one another.

That little switch in my head clicks. “Time to go Jim. We need to get to the objective and call this in. Nothing we can do for them now.”

“Sucks that we can’t bury them” Jim says flatly.

“Turn it off man. We’ve seen a lot worse.” I reply without looking at him as I slip my ruck on and start to back out from under the bushes.

“Still sucks” he says.

Chapter 6

Jim slowly slides back out from under the thick brush that conceals our position overlooking the homestead. He joins me at a spot deeper in the forest roughly centered between Andy and Al, who are still providing security to our flanks and rear. It’s time to move on, but first I take advantage of the break to rearrange our order of march. Walking point requires a constant, intense mental focus and Andy needs a break. If left at that position too long even the most experienced soldier will eventually loose concentration and begin making mental errors which can lead to disaster. I also want to give Jim something else to occupy his mind other the carnage that we are leaving behind. I signal Jim to take point, with Andy behind him where he will take up pace count duties. Al stays in the number 3 slot, manning the receiver, while I stay in the slack position at the rear of the patrol.

We don’t waste time discussing what we’ve seen. We’ve all experienced much worse in the last few years and if we feel like we need to talk about it, we’ll have time for that later. Andy had gotten a good look when he initially came up on the site while walking point. While Jim and Andy are occupied verifying our present location on their maps and going over the next leg of our journey, Al and I provide security.

Soon Jim and Andy agree on the route, give me the thumbs up, and we resume our trek on azimuth to the west. The temperature continues to drop as the wind increases out of the northwest. Low gun-metal gray clouds scud by and the rain changes to a fine, hard sleet that bites at the exposed skin of our faces. The sound of the wind blowing through the bare tree limbs and the sleet rattling on the dead leaves combine to mask the noise of our footfalls.

Due to his extensive experience on previous patrols, Jim instinctively uses the noise of the wind through the trees and underbrush along with the subsequent increase in the ambient noise level as an invitation to pick up the pace. With the probable exception of a cold rain, this is the best weather for patrolling. He knows that if anyone else is out in this weather, they will most likely keep their heads down. But we don’t have that luxury and so we keep up our guard, using all of our senses to continually scan for threats.

We’ve only traveled about 300 meters when Jim suddenly detects the slight smell of wood smoke mixed in the bitter wind. He stops the patrol, takes a knee, turns to Andy, and touches his support hand to his nose, then points in the direction of the wind, indicating he smells something unusual. Andy gives him the thumbs up and passes the signal. Standing slowly, Jim turns back in the direction of movement and stepping out cautiously, begins to intently look for the source. Jim suspects it is wood smoke coming from the chimneys of the homes he noted earlier during his map and photo recon. Soon he spies the obvious horizontal ridge line of a roof ahead about 75 meters through the trees. Jim calls a halt, signals for me to come forward and waits in the prone while I move slowly in a low crouch to his location. After dropping silently beside his prone position, he points toward the roof. I nod. He then points to me, touches his thumb to his chest, touches his eye with his hand and then to a clump of evergreen trees a few meters ahead. I nod again and after sending the “provide security” signal back, I follow him as we low crawl about 15 meters and then push under and through the lush low branches of a massive hemlock tree.

Laying side-by-side, hidden under the branches that are so low they touch the ground, we survey the scene below us. Per our surveillance SOP, one observer will conduct a hasty scan, looking for threats and threat indicators with the unaided eye, while the other conducts a deliberate scan of the area before us. Once those scans are completed, usually taking no more than a few minutes, one will then conduct a detailed scan with optics while the other either sketches the scene or provides security. Jim, who has better eyesight, starts the hasty scan after seeing me retrieve my binos. He is looking at the overall scene trying to spot obvious threats. I quickly scan the same area concentrating on specific spots that are more likely to conceal a threat but might be missed by the naked eye. Starting directly in front of our position, we each scan in an arc from right to left from 0 out to 50 meters, looking for threats that would be an immediate danger to our patrol. Then we enlarge the area out to 100 meters and repeat the scans. We continue to enlarge each subsequent scan area by 50 meters until we are finally observing the area to the far tree line and can see no further into it. Next, I repeat the cycle using my binoculars for a slower or detailed scan paying extra attention by lingering over areas that would conceal someone, such as areas in the shadows and on the right-hand side of any cover and/or concealment since most folks are right-handed. As a rule-of-thumb, I look at the areas that I would normally take up a position in. I also look for any observable indicators that would betray their presence.

Two building clusters stand slightly off our path in a large clearing to the right, down the mountain side, well below our current position. The closest house, which is about 60 meters from our location, sits on our side of the paved road. It is a two-story wood frame affair with a metal roof that has been twisted, blackened and warped by fire. The nearest side of the slightly smoldering structure has been mostly consumed by flames which leave it partially collapsed over a gaping black opening cluttered with burned, darkened timbers and other blackened debris.

Neatly mown lawns are a thing of the past due to the shortage of gasoline and as usual, the ubiquitous, well-worn foot paths wind through the tall grass and weeds between the outlying structures and the main house. The weeds and grass in the yard on the damaged side of the house have been burned away in a strange semi-circular pattern and several broken and blackened glass containers lay among the ashes. Someone has used the containers as Molotov cocktails to start the blaze, most likely to force the residents out of the structure.

The root cellar, and the small greenhouse have both been looted and the very large early spring garden has been trampled and ruined, the cold weather produce having been pulled up by the roots. Next to the greenhouse there is a long wooden building that was most likely used as a chicken house. The wooden door to the house as well as the chicken wire door to the run are both standing open. Random feathers are scattered on the ground around this building but no birds are to be seen. I make out 2 sacks, which appear to be pillow cases taken from inside the house, trampled in the mud at the coop entrance.

On the far side of the house away from our location stands a medium-sized 2 story wooden barn. It appears to be intact. The doors on the front facing the house have been slid open exposing the front of a small blue tractor parked inside. It is too dark inside the barn to make out any further detail. On the nearest side of the barn, the long wooden gate to the fenced-in corral is standing open also. Since the hay bunker in the corral holds fresh hay, I assume that whatever livestock that may have been kept fenced in has been stolen. A second pen near the first appears to have held pigs. The lot is muddy and a wooden feeding trough is next to the fence on the ground. It’s gate also stands open.

A man’s nude body is laying curled up in the center of the road that bisects the two homes. I swap out the binos for the teams more powerful spotting telescope kept in the long outside pocket on the back of my ruck, which Jim retrieves for me. Looking back at the scene I can see the man’s hands have been bound behind his back and he has been shot in the back of the head. His skin has taken on that very light gray, almost porcelain shade of the recent dead. From this distance it’s hard to tell how long he has lain there. The weather has been cool lately. I spot the shine of a single piece of sidearm brass not far from his body. He has been executed, probably for the benefit of anyone watching from the house across the road.
The second, smaller, single story, wood frame home across the road has been severely damaged by gunfire. All of the windows within our view are shattered and the exterior walls surrounding them are riddled with bullet holes. The area around the front door shows the heaviest gunshot damage. A quick study of the amount and placement of the gunshot damage indicates a lack of fire discipline as well as the type of weapons used. Bullet holes ring the tops, bottoms and both sides of the windows as well as the top and both sides of the front door. Random holes appear along the length of the exterior walls. An experienced soldier understands that most folks are right-handed and will tend to post up behind cover on the left-hand side facing out. Usually only trained shooters can easily transition to the left shoulder to take advantage of right-hand cover. The more experienced also understand that wooden structures offer very little cover to small arms fire and wood exterior walls are easily penetrated unless properly hardened with sandbags. They will then concentrate their fire below windows and on the right hand side of openings from their perspective. When faced with a concrete or stone structure they will concentrate their fire on the lower right hand or left hand corner of windows and doors.

Laying face-up, just outside the front door on the porch, is the body of another man. From our vantage, it appears he has taken a shotgun blast to the upper chest, neck and face at a very close range while attempting to gain entrance at the doorway and subsequently died in place. Through the ‘scope I can see that he is barefoot and his pants pockets have been turned inside out.

Discarded items apparently looted from the house and garage are scattered between the front porch steps and across the overgrown front yard to the paved road. The tall grass around the house has been trampled flat in numerous paths from the road and the woods surrounding it. The doors are standing open on a pickup and small car parked on the circular drive in front of the house. From the looks of the dust-covered vehicles, they haven’t been moved in months. Both have flat tires, while the body of the truck is pock-marked with bullet holes and it’s windows shattered. There is a large, ominous brown stain on the concrete drive on the road side of the truck. Expended rifle and pistol brass of various calibers and a few shotgun shell casings are scattered around the scene, but are mostly grouped behind the truck and car near the large stain. This is curious since most folks now-a-days save even the smallest caliber brass for possible future reloading. Obviously, the raiders tended to cluster in groups behind what they thought was good cover but had to cross large open areas along natural lines-of-drift to get to it. Both are signs of arrogance, laziness, and lack of experience. Hopefully for us and others in this valley, they won’t learn from their experience and adjust their tactics.

Still scanning with the spotting scope, I notice a large, bright piece of cloth at the edge of the overgrown yard next to the road. Adjusting the focus, I make out a ripped woman’s print dress laying discarded in the weeds. Lying near the torn dress there is a single small shoe and torn undergarments. A coldness creeps up my spine and when I lower the scope and close my eyes I see the faces of my wife and both daughters-in-law back at home. I suddenly get the feeling in my gut that we should be back at the retreat protecting them. Jim notices that I have lowered my face and closed my eyes. He bumps his boot against mine to get my attention.

“What?” he mouths, looking in my direction.

“Nothing” I shake my head, not looking his way. I slowly bring the scope back to an eye and gaze back at the house, careful to avoid looking toward the dress. I keep the my thoughts to myself for the time being. Jim has a wife and small granddaughter at home.

Nothing at the scene is moving except the torn curtains in the shattered windows. The only sound is the wind blowing through the trees and the clattering of the sleet on old leaves. No one is alive here.

Jim touches my boot again and points over his carbine in the direction of a line of neatly stacked cord wood under a long, low shed about 50 feet to the right of the smaller house. There, unwittingly thinking the split wood would provide adequate cover, sprawls the body of another man. The top of his head is missing as well as his shoes, trousers and weapon. He still has a glass container with a rag stuffed in the top clutched in his left hand. The fire-bomber got his reward.

“Looks like he was peeking over the top of his “cover” and caught one in the melon,” Jim thinks to himself. “Stupid mistake that you can’t take back. If you’ gotta’ look, look around the side of your cover. Didn’t help that he’s bald as an egg and his head could have used a little camo or at least a hat to cover that bright white dome. Split cord wood’s not good for cover anyway.”

I continue to study the scene for a few more minutes when Jim suddenly leans toward my ear and remarks so quietly I almost miss his words over the wind, “I’d say these raiders don’t give a rats-ass about their dead. They stripped everything useful off them and left ’em for the buzzards, just like their victims.

“Yeah,” I whisper back, “Great for morale, I’m sure.”

As I continue to take in the scene, it appears to me that the bad guys didn’t catch whoever was in the small house by surprise and the homesteaders gave as good as they got. But the final result was still the same; they lost. Probably it all came down to numbers. More of the bad guys, less of the good. I still don’t understand why folks think they need to defend their homes from inside. It didn’t work at Masada, Yorktown, the Alamo, the Maginot Line or Waco. As a defensive tactic, it really limits your options. Let the bad guys have it and take it back when you decide and on your terms. If your going to go on the defense, make sure it’s a defense-in-depth using terrain and maneuver to your advantage. Know the terrain in your AO like the back of your hand and make them pay for every inch of ground prior to the house and then make them pay even more to keep it. And most importantly, get them before they are in your front yard.

At least now I’ve answered my earlier question; why no one buried the dead at the first house we came upon. There’s no one left. Their neighbors/family have either been killed, taken or ran away. By the looks of the smoldering embers at the burned house, this happened a few days ago.”

While thinking about all this Jim suddenly exclaims, “Sons-a-bitches” a little too loud for my comfort. I look sharply his way, about to give him a quiet dressing down when I see that he has his binos out and has seen the dress in the grass. His lips are tightly pursed and his hand are clenched around his glasses so tightly that his hands are shaking. This time I tap his boot. He turns to look at me and I see that same far-away look clouded in black.

“Get a grip” I whisper quietly while looking him straight in the eye. He blinks a few times and then his eyes regain their focus.

“Yeah… yeah, okay man” he whispers back before he turns back to the scene.

“You sons-a-bitches, that’s two” he whispers again, this time, full of venom.

Studying him for a moment, I’m wondering how this is going to play out and if we can keep him under control when the time comes. I find myself thinking of the Norse Ulfhedinn and how Jim always carries that big-assed black Osogrande combat kukri knife on his kit.

I’m thinking,“This is really gonna’ suck for someone” when my closest friend turns back to face me, gives me that quizzical look I’ve seen many times before and shrugs. He’s seen enough and so have I. Time to go.

I give him a quick nod while I’m thinking to myself. “Yeah, it’s really gonna’ suck.

Chapter 7

As we continue our movement to the west, a thought nags at me; we’re just getting bits and pieces of the situation in this valley. There’s no way those four knuckleheads in the UTV could have caused all this destruction. It’s imperative that we get to our destination, a hide site on the mountainside overlooking the valley, in order to get a better look at the overall situation.”

During mission planning, we decided that it would be best to take the more populated route, the forest/clearing interface that follows the roads around the valley, rather than taking a direct route going against the grain across the unpopulated mountain spines. Although we would have to be extra cautious to avoid contact with any inhabitants, resulting in slower movement, we would have access to much more information regarding the situation on the ground.

My thoughts are interrupted as we approach a typical small mountain field, some 100 meters across from where we stood. It has been cleared of forest from the road below us to a point about 300 meters up the mountainside. The clearing follows the sides of a small, relatively flat draw, known locally as a holler. It is widest at the road and then tapers to a point at the highest end. The hay stubble is ragged, uneven and cut close to the ground. In the absence of tractor pulled haying equipment, someone has cut the hay by hand, and then stacked it in several piles, 1800’s style, around 20′ long locust poles that have been stood with one end buried into the ground. Only folks with livestock such as cattle or horses would go to the trouble. Considering that the field is not fenced in, then their livestock would not graze there. The hay would have to be transported to the animals. That meant in the absence of a vehicle, the animals must be close by. Most folks in these mountains don’t let their livestock get out of sight these days. Not if you wanted to keep them. My best guess is that unless we come upon another farm shortly, it belonged to the folks in the ruined homestead we just left.

Jim halts inside the tree line, slowly takes a knee behind a tree trunk and sends back the danger area signal. This is not linear danger area like the road we crossed earlier. But it fits the definition of a danger area: an area where the patrol can be exposed to enemy observation and/or fire. Due to the pastures width, we would be in an exposed position much too long if we were compromised while crossing it, and so we use a different method.

Jim scans the far side of the clearing and identifies a large, lone white pine tree standing just inside of the wood line on the opposite side of the pasture. Using his compass, he verifies that the pine is nearly on our azimuth. Once he has chosen the pine as his far-side target, the patrol swings to the left, and staying well back in the wood line, we handrail completely around the southern perimeter of the pasture until we arrive at the pine. Even though it is the only pine of its size in the area, Jim verifies that it is the correct tree. Kneeling near the pine, he shoots the back azimuth to our previous location across the clearing by using the opposite end of the compass needle, in this case the white end, and aligns it with his direction of travel arrow. It matches the general location where we came upon the clearing, 180 degrees out. Satisfied, Jim now designates the lone pine he is next to, as our next rally point, activating the last RP above the earlier Ben Creek crossing point. We then turn back into the woods where we resume the march on our original azimuth.

We enter a dark section of pine forest which has very little underbrush and each man slows without being told, in order to spread our interval. The pines are thick overhead, cutting the wind somewhat. Small snowflakes noticeably drift slowly to the ground around us. After walking quietly across the soft pine needles for about 400 meters, we come to our next planned backstop, the T-shaped road junction made up by the road which we have been hand-railing, and another road coming from the north. Jim stops next to a small pine tree that is surrounded by boot high grass, and looks back toward Andy, watching him slowly scanning his assigned sector; our patrols right flank. Andy slowly moves his head right-to-left and when he finally looks toward him, Jim bends slightly to his left, and, because his boots are not visible in the high grass, touches his support hand to the side of his calf. Pace count. With the signal acknowledged, Jim takes a knee as does the remainder of the patrol, one-by-one. Andy fingers the Ranger beads secured with 550 cord to the front of his chest rig, and counts 4 of the 9 beads pulled up from the knot. Using his support hand, Andy bumps his carbine with his fist, then holds up 4 fingers, bumps it again and points 2 fingers down. 420 meters. Jim acknowledges by giving him the thumbs up.

“Pretty close match” Jim thinks, but quickly verifies his memory is correct by checking his map. Satisfied, we turn on the new azimuth of 200 degrees and continue our march, continuously matching our pace count against the changing contours shown on our maps. The pines give way suddenly to deciduous forest. The forest lightens, the underbrush thickens and the wind picks up again through the bare limbs. We close our interval.

Soon, we come across the faint signs of two old logging roads running perpendicular to our path. Jim’s keen eyes quickly notice subtle differences in the forest; 2 slight, sunken linear depressions running parallel to one another and the sudden dominant presence of thin young pines and poplars growing in the old sunken road beds. While they are so thickly over-grown that neither constitutes a danger area, they show up on the map and match the pace count so we use them as a checkpoint. Jim sends back the rally point signal, indicating a stand of young pines growing on the spot where both old road beds intersect. This activates our last RP at the lone pine on this side of the pasture behind us. We move through the area, passing the RP signal to one another as we each pass the point.

Not long after passing the small crossroads, Jim sees the dark outline of two houses, set close together in the distance, down the steep slope to the west. Stopping to get a look at them with his bino’s, he determines that they’ve long been abandoned. Neither house has a chimney for wood heat, which nowadays is a primary requirement for a dwelling in these mountains. The yards are neglected and wildly overgrown, the forest is reclaiming them. Most of the windows are broken and dark. A tree has fallen against the roof of one and both back doors are standing open. We can just make out the paved road running north and south that the houses front. We move on.

Soon, as we are descending from a spur into a large draw, Jim signals another danger area and he calls me forward. When I join him, he is lying on a bluff that is the lower end of the spur coming down from the mountain above us to the east. We are overlooking a small, noisy, rock filled stream running below and parallel to a dirt road. Jim hands me his open map case and, with the blade of grass he had been chewing on, indicates our location. The name on the map reads “Gold Pit Creek”. Looking up again, I can see that on the far side of the stream is a steep red clay bank about 6 feet high that leads up to the near side of the road bed. The far bank of the road is nearly vertical and about 10 feet high. From the top of the far bank the slope runs straight up the thickly wooded mountainside. Jim bumps my shoulder and when I look his way he mouths the words “Road Bed” and nods toward the road.

Looking down from our vantage point we can see that the road bed has been churned up and is covered by numerous footprints of men as well as the tale-tell sign of horseshoe prints. It appears that a small army has passed down the road into the valley below. Another piece of the puzzle falls into place.

Jim bumps me again and whispers “Head Count”?

I think to myself, “Good idea”. We were sent here to recon the valley. The “S” in SALUTE stands for Size of Enemy Unit. Just because we don’t have eyes on the folks that came down the road doesn’t mean we can’t use this opportunity to get a head count. We can see that the footprints are filled with water, so they’re not new, which means there’s a good chance no one is in the immediate area. Establish a listening halt for a few minutes, then put out security; far side, up and down the road then let Andy put his tracking skills to work.

I look at Jim and give him a thumbs up. We watch and listen for 15 minutes.

During the listening halt I look the trail over for a relatively hard packed and dry stretch of the road to use as our crossing point. Luck is with us and I spot an area where the creek bank on both sides is covered with laurel. Unless someone traveling down the road climbs into the laurel thicket, they won’t see any slide marks we might inadvertently leave while climbing the slick red clay of the opposite bank in order to cross the road. In fact, with the loads we are carrying, it’d be a miracle not to leave a very obvious trail. The far side road bank at that location is also covered with the same Ivy and appears to be much shorter there also. I signal “scroll-to-the-road” to Jim and indicate the crossing point. Then I pass the signal back. We move to the left a few yards and enter the thicket. Jim carefully crosses the stream, avoiding stepping on the moss-covered rocks. The stream itself is too choked with vegetation to be considered a danger area, and he slowly moves up through the laurel tangles to the lip of the road where he alternately peers down its length in both directions.

When he is satisfied the way is clear, he signals me forward to his position. I pick my way across the stream and push through the tangled thicket as quietly as possible. Moving individual branches aside to avoid breaking them, I finally reach him and bump him across. Once he has cleared to the far side. I signal Andy forward. He then moves silently across and up the bank. When he joins me I notice his face is red and sweat streaked. I wonder how I look. When he bumps me, I cross quickly, still watching up the road and bump Jim, who moves to a point further up the opposite slope and deeper into the woods. He disappears from my view into a stand of low growing holly trees. I trust him to still have us under his observation.

When Andy is bumped by Al and joins me, I point to him, signal “head count” by tapping my head, and point to the tracks on the road. I then indicate myself, then signal security to a position up the road, followed by indicating Al, make the security signal again, and indicate down the road. Andy nods “OK” and I head up through the brush along the road for about 30 meters where I can just make him out down the road. When Andy sees that I am in place, he signals Al to cross, who then gets his assignment from Andy, and moves down the road to his security position.

Al is lying near the upper bank of the road, well hidden under a long, tangled hedge of blackberry briers, where he is peering down the length of the road below. He chose this position for two reasons. “First,” he thinks, “I’m only about 100 meters from the junction of the two lower roads. If we get compromised and they have horses or vehicles, they will be below us pretty quick but the steep bank and the briers will slow them down. Then we head up hill into the thick stuff. If the riders are stupid enough to pursue us through the low hanging branches, horses make big targets. Just don’t get intimidated by them.”

“Second reason,” he muses, “This is the only concealment on this side of the road.”

Confident that we are adequate security, Andy stands a few feet away from the road at the foot of the bank looking over the area for a few moments. He is looking for a soft spot that will reveal all the “ground spoor”, or tracks, of those who passed this way. He notices a low pine bough overhanging the road that has been partially broken and is dangling in the direction of travel. Inspecting the break closer, he sees that the pine sap has started to harden and turn white giving an indication of time. In tracking parlance, this is known as “aerial spoor”. Along the road side he finds a bit of “litter”. It is a brown cloth glove partially buried in the mud.

Finding a low, silted up section of the road, he squats near it and begins studying the tracks. The water standing in each is clear. If they had been recent, the water in each would still be muddy. Andy also notices that quite a bit of forest debris, such as leaves, have blown into the some of the tracks and settled to the bottom and each bit covered with a thin, watery layer of silt. The top edges of the foot prints are crumbling and worn down, not crisp and sharp.

“Definitely not today” he thinks to himself.

Andy studies a strung out pile of horse manure or “road apples”. The lumps have started to dissolve and have begun to turn from their normal dark brown color to gray. This falls into the tracking category of “sign”.

“These tracks are several days, but not more than 2 weeks old.” he decides. “Fortunately, this is the only rain we’ve had during past two weeks and they haven’t washed all of the detail away.”

Looking closer at the tracks he quickly identifies the distinctive tread of a boot. He then locates matching right and left boot prints. This is the “key print” he has been looking for. Andy lays a long thin branch across the road at the heel of the rear print. Next he lays another similar branch across the instep of the forward print. He then counts all the full footprints in between the two branches. 1 footprint for every person meant that approximately 16 men and 3 women (indicated by their smaller, narrower prints) have passed this way on foot. The size of the prints indicates they were all adults.

“No one is barefooted” he thinks to himself.

Some of the prints are deeper and the strides are much shorter. The heels and toes of these prints show long drag marks with each step.

“Huh, looks like some of them were carrying heavy loads” he notes.

Andy turns his attention to the hoof prints of the horses. He moves a few yards up the road to a drier, rockier area. All appear to be shod. By the way the triangular-shaped, flatter toed, rear prints are nearly over the more rounded front prints, he determines they were walking slowly. The flatness and depth of the prints indicates they were all loaded with riders or gear.

“That’s odd” Andy frowns while peering at 2 peculiar sets of hoof prints. “These aren’t horse prints. They’re too small and more angular shaped.”

He rocks back on his heels for a few moments, thinking. “I’ve seen these before but where”? he mutters to himself. Suddenly he remembers:

“Mules,” he breathes quietly to himself, Old Jack’s mules out in Sanderstown. That’s it. So, O.K., here we have 2 mules…and they’ve been shod…., that’s really odd. Most folks around here don’t bother to shoe their mules unless they are working them on pavement or gravel. And I don’t know anyone around here that does. Well, let’s see what we’ve got here”

Laying out another area spanning roughly 36 inches, he determines there are 8 individual sets of hoof prints.

“If all the horses and mules had riders,” he thinks to himself, “the final count would be around 27 people passed down the trail. Unless they were both pack mules. Then it would be 25”

After looking over the area for a few more minutes to see if he missed anything important, Andy is satisfied with his numbers. He retrieves the 2 sticks, tosses them into the woods, signals Al and I to rally on him and, working his way up the steep slope joins Jim further into the woods. Jim is cloistered in the thick holly grove well above the road. We have a perfect over watch.

Andy gives us the head count and other particulars.

“Do you think they all went on down the road”? I ask.

“Looks like it from here. He replies. No telling where they got off though. We’d have to follow both sides of the road down to the road junction to see which way they went then follow it to their exit point to be sure.”

“We’re definitely not doing that”. I replied flatly. “Anything else”?

“They were pretty spread out across the road, that made it easier to get the count. If they had any military training I would expect to see the tracks in 2 single files one on each side of the road. Then it would have been a lot harder to get a number, what with the rain and all”

“If they had any training worth a darn or some common sense, there wouldn’t be any tracks on the road. They should’a hand-railed it.” Jim adds, then turns his gaze back to his sector.

“Yeah, but then not everybody can be as tough as you are Jim”. Al adds quietly, with an impish smile.

Jim glares at him or a moment, then retorts as he looks away, “You forgot to add that I’m also a freakin’ military genius”. I can see the satisfied grin on Jim’s face as he continues to look over his sector.

“Or maybe they weren’t worried about being followed. Jim, you still good with point”? I ask.

“No problem” he replies.

“Then let’s do it”

We continue on azimuth for roughly 30 minutes when Jim stops and signals me forward once again. When I join him behind the trunk of a large oak tree, he is staring intently through the trees to an area down the slope about 50 meters away. There, beneath the trees, is a large area at least 100 meters across where the brown winter vegetation has been beaten down and the ground churned into mud. Numerous old fire pits are visible at various locations around the camp, each near crude shelters that were constructed from forest material and roofed with pieces of blue or green tarps. Litter is everywhere as well as discarded articles of clothing. Stumps reveal where many smaller trees have been chopped down, while the larger trees that haven’t been felled are missing every limb within reach of the ground. The wind is blowing in our face and carries with it the reek of unburied human feces and urine, mixed with the smell of wet wood ashes and cooked food.

From what we can observe from our position it appears that the large party that moved down Gold Pit Road, had taken the left fork and traveled using the dirt road below us. Then they camped here for several days before moving on. With our binoculars we can see the route they took from the camp through the woods further down the spur to the hard ball road. They went south straight into the upper section of the valley.

How the residents of the valley didn’t discover them is beyond me. Nearly 30 persons on horseback and foot, cutting trees and burning fires nearby is not something you would miss if you were conducting even rudimentary security patrols in your AO. Then, thinking back, I recalled during our mission brief, Joe had passed on details regarding his previous radio conversations with his friend Jack Conner. Jack had stated that the homesteads in his community were fairly scattered and while the families got along and helped one another, they tended to resist any organization, preferring to keep to themselves and their extended families. That lack of basic organization and streak of independence may have cost them dearly.

“Wonder why they left their tarps on the hooches?” Jim asks quietly.

I think about it for a second and reply. “Maybe they figured they wouldn’t need them anymore. They had found new digs.”

Jim just grunts.

Feeling too exposed near the old camp we decide to move out and so, soon we find ourselves back on our azimuth, again slowly following the contours of the unfolding terrain. We don’t stop to eat, but push ourselves to stay alert and to ignore our aching backs and tired legs as well as the freezing sleet and wind.

At one point Al picks up additional radio transmissions on the same frequency as earlier and stops to transcribe the traffic. He finishes quickly and I look over the sheet. Same freq. as before, one transmission with a much stronger signal strength.

A weak signal sending: “Hey this is Frank, where’s our food, when will it get here?”

A much stronger signal answers: “Frank, quit yer whinin’. It’s on the way”.

Soon after we resume movement, we hear the sound of the little diesel engine from the UTV passing some distance off to the west. We go to ground and attempt to get a visual on its location but the forest is too thick and soon the sound fades off behind the long ridge bisecting the valley.

Rucking up, we pick up the march again. As we move through the forest we occasionally catch the smell of wood smoke in the wind coming from the west. The sleet is starting to mix with small snowflakes as the temperature steadily continues to drop and the wind increases. After 2 hours of slow but continuous movement we stop well behind a large home situated squarely in our planned route.

Jim spots it from point, calls a halt and signals me forward. Again I move to the front of the column, where he points out the house in the distance through the trees. Jim retrieves his aerial photo of the A.O. and passes it to me. The house isn’t on the older topo map but the newer aerial photo shows it situated about 15 meters on this side of the road that we were intending to use as our backstop. I wonder to myself how we missed it on the photo during our pre-mission planning.

With our glasses, we can just make out a roof line with two large dormer type windows attached. Dark black scorch marks above both window openings indicate that this home too has been attacked and if it fits the model, probably ransacked, then set ablaze. Due to the thickness of the trees between our location and the house, we can’t observe the lower floor or the ground surrounding it. We decide to give it a wide berth.

I point to the east and give Jim the hand-and-arm signal for 200 meters. Jim looks over his map and the photo for a few moments, then gives me the thumbs up and dials in the new azimuth of 110 which is a 90 degree offset from the original azimuth.

Soon we are perched on a small knoll overlooking a paved road known locally as Forest Service Road 711. The road follows a deep, steep-sided gorge which separates us from our final destination, Holloway Branch Ridge. 711 is a wide paved road with narrow ditches on each flank. The ditches are now overgrown and the road has been made impassable down it’s length by random dead fallen timber. At first glance I think someone has deliberately blocked the road by dropping dozens of tree across it, but then realize that the stumps are not the clean, neat cuts made by a saw. They are mostly ragged and occur at random heights above the ground. Some of the trees entire root ball has been upended out of the ground. This is just nature doing what it does in these mountains.

I remember that this road was once a favorite of hunters, fishermen and sightseers in times past when gasoline was commonly available. It started on the edge of the wilderness and ended on the opposite end with only thickly wooded and wild National Forest between. When the Forest Service went away due to lack of funds, road maintenance and downed tree clearance on these isolated roads ended. This is good for us since the road cannot be used as a high-speed avenue-of-approach. In layman’s terms, we don’t have to worry the off-chance that bad guys in wheeled vehicles or horses using it to quickly bear down on us as we cross it. The downed timber actually gives us quite good cover and concealment and the crossing is made without incident.

Once on the far side of the road, Jim leads us across White Oak Creek, a wide, shallow, but swift moving stream. This creek is so wide and straight, that we treat it as a linear danger area and cross it accordingly. Now we slip again into the dark, tangled laurel that chokes all normal movement.

As we push through the tangled mass, guided by the sound of water splashing across the rocks ahead, Al is checking our back trail. He sees a branch that has been freshly broken by our passage and retrieves a small folding multi-plier from one of the pistol mag pouches attached to the front of his plate carrier. He cuts the branch cleanly at an angle next to a leaf junction below the break and then shoves the cut branch, break down into a small space between the river rocks at his feet.

“It won’t fool a good tracker, but it’s not obvious to the average guy” Al thinks as he continues his scans.

Finally we clear the laurel and wade up a small stream that runs perpendicular to, and feeds the larger creek we left behind. Named “Holloway Branch” it leads up into a small isolated valley. Once in the cove, we ascend up the east face of the mountain and deeper into the valley that we have designated to establish our patrol base in. At about 700 meters I send up the signal for the “J” hook to over-watch our back trail. Exhausted and panting from the climb up the steep slope, we drop into our ambush positions per our SOP. Though our sweat soaked clothing is uncomfortable in the cold air, we are all grateful for the few minutes to rest our aching legs and shoulders during the listening halt.

Chapter 8

The bitter north wind roars through the bare limbs of the trees along the ridge line above our position causing them to sway and creak. The ridge acts as a natural wind break for the side of the mountain we occupy and tiny snowflakes fall silently around us. We lie in the prone on the cold wet leaves of the forest floor, feeling uncomfortably exposed in the sparse underbrush, each of us intently watching down the mountainside toward our back trail.

I think to myself how once I gave the listening halt and the hasty ambush signals, an “L” shape with the thumb and index finger held in the form of an “L”, and the direction of the back trail, each man had quickly spread out in a hasty ambush formation. Jim, at the head of the patrol, immediately looked for good cover, and due to the lack of concealment in the area, stepped off of the line of movement and to the left about 20 paces. He then dropped in the prone behind a large rock, facing the direction I had indicated. I continued on azimuth until I passed in front of Jim, turned in his direction, walked to the right of his position and hooking behind him, turned back in the direction I had come from. After moving to a point that I could just make out his form behind me, I also took cover behind a large oak, facing prone in the same direction. Andy came up next to pass in front of Jim made the same hook and when he reached my location took about 10 steps to my rear and went prone facing in the opposite direction to provide rear security. Next to turn at Jim’s location and then pass between us was Al, who continued on until he was just within eyesight, when he also went prone to provide what was now our right flank security. We are far enough apart to allow hand and arm signals with the man on each side and able to mutually support one another with our small arms. When the listening halt was finished, we would still be in the original patrol formation and could move out in the same direction without re-arranging. Lots of practice.

During this listening halt, we are also taking stock of the surroundings in order to get our bearings. We are situated in a wide, steep draw on the eastern facing, reverse slope of the spur we intend to use for our observation of the valley below. The spur above us, at over 4200 feet elevation, is about 1000 feet above and to our rear. The forest in the immediate area generally consists of large poplar and oak with very little understory growth.

I glance at the sky trying to determine the time and note the occasional patch of pale blue now peeking through the slate colored clouds. My guess is around 1300. Turning the underside of my left wrist up and pulling the top of my glove down, my watch confirms my estimate. We’ve been on the move for seven hours.

After an uneventful listening halt, I move to Jim’s location where I find him calmly studying the terrain.

As I lower myself next to him, he motions with his support hand as he speaks, “Dan, I don’t like the look of this place. Too open.” He nods downhill. “I can see all the way down to the branch and to the ridge line across the holler. There’s no proper place to set up the MSS” (Mission Support Site).

“You’re right,” I reply, looking around. “This won’t work. It doesn’t look anything like the aerials.

“Let’s have a look at the map,” I say as I open the outer pouch on my ruck and retrieve the case. Opening it, I lay it on the ground in front of us and orient it.

I brush the small snowflakes away. “We’re about here.” I pick up a dead leaf, strip the stem, and point out the spot on the map. “The aerial shows a dark area on the northeast side of the mountain about here,” I add as I trace the stem along the map.

“Yep,” Jim agrees, as he looks over my shoulder in the general direction of our planned movement. “That’s the spot we picked for our alternate MSS during mission planning, right?”

“Uh huh.” I reply back. “Usually the best high Rhododendron thickets grow near the crowns on the north side and that might just fill the bill. I say let’s just keep going and look it over. The slope looks pretty steep below it. Look how close the contour lines are there.” I add as I tap the location on the map.

“That’s mighty ugly.” Jim says. “And it’s only a-couple-a-hundred meters or so to the ridge top, maybe all Rhododendron, so there’s no way to j-hook and clear the area below the site first. Looks like an occupation by force.”

“Four of us, not much of a force.” I reply, frowning at the map. “But I don’t see a better way, besides, if we can’t traverse that steep area, chances are no one else is going to be down there either. Anybody trying to make an approach from that direction would play hell and will make a lot of noise. I hate to do it twice in two days, but we’ll just have to ease into the thicket. Okay then, that’s the plan. What’s your water situation? I checked with Al earlier, he’s good-to-go.”

“I’m good and I’ll check with Andy.” Jim replied.

“Just checking before we move further up the mountain. Looks like our closest source is back down there,” I add, nodding down the mountain. “I’ll let Al know the plan, you fill Andy in, give me the thumbs up when you’re ready and we’ll move out. Same movement order.” I pull the loop of 550 cord that is tied to my map case over my head and around my neck, then tuck the case behind my plate carrier and stand, slinging my ruck on my back.

Soon we are circling around the mountain summit toward the north. As we crest the spur running down the mountain, we leave its protection and catch the harsh brunt of the winter wind in our faces. The sudden cold blast tears at my boonie and causes me to turn my head to catch my breath. My eyes water up behind my shooting glasses. The wind in the trees drowns out all other sound. As we slowly work our way down the opposite side of the spur the Rhododendron thickens. As the thicket closes in around us we begin to feel less exposed. Soon, my pace count says we have arrived and I signal Jim to the location where I’ve taken a knee.

Jim joins me and whispers “We in the right place?” Looking his way, I notice his beard and mustache are covered with frost.

“This is it,” I reply looking around. “I think this ‘ll do.”

“Yep,” Jim agrees, “It’s pretty thick. No normal person would want to be here, but then, I never claimed to be normal.” He adds. “Or the fellers I hang with.”

“Thanks” I reply.

Jim continues. “Good overhead and lateral concealment. It’s got everything but water, and like you said, we can get that down the mountain. Large rocks for cover, just hope there’s no timber rattlers around. You know how they like the rocks.”

“Too cold for them to be out, but hey, rattlesnake is good eating you know?” I reply grinning, knowing from past experience he doesn’t care for snakes or spiders.

Jim doesn’t look my way but replies dryly, “You can have my share.”

We move toward the center of the thicket and establish a small four man patrol base with another listening halt. Al and I are laying side-by-side, foot-to-foot with Jim and Andy who are also laying side-by-side facing the opposite direction.

After we finish the listening halt we go to 50% security. Fortunately, the thick Rhododendron slows the wind somewhat and provides excellent concealment. We spend the next few minutes taking turns layering up by putting on our poly-pro long underwear and changing into dry socks. I notice we are all wearing our snookies under our boonies to hold in the large amount of body heat usually lost through the head. Another reason to have oversized boonies for winter operations.

Al retrieves a small plastic bag filled with Miss Lucy’s home-made pemmican bars from his ruck and we pass them around. Not the most tasty item on the menu, but packed full of energy. One team member changes and eats while his team mate pulls security. Instead of laying on the ground like the night before, we’re now sitting in pairs, back-back in order to get us off of the ground and help retain body heat. Due to the thickness of the surrounding vegetation and time of day, our thermal signature is minimal.

After we’ve all eaten and changed, I sit down next to Jim.

“Jim, looks like we’ve got about 5 hours of light left. We need to have a look at the primary hide and if we have time, the alternate hide. If we can, I’d like to get the hide built and occupied while this crappy weather lasts. I want to leave you and Al here with the rucks, Andy and I will poke around.”

Jim looks my way and says, “You sure you want to take Andy with you? You’ll be breaking up the fire teams.”

“Yes,” I reply, “I want Al to set up comms and get the next SITREP out. Any questions?”

I watch him mull the situation over in his mind for a few minutes knowing that he wants to be in on the recon of the hides.

“You say you want to get the hide up today. What if it takes most of the night? You up for that?” He asks.

“Don’t know about you Jim, but I’m smoked.” I replied. “But… by the looks of those clouds, this weather’s going to clear out by tomorrow, so we need to go to ground before then.”

Jim looks up through the spaces in the overhead cover at the clouds for a few seconds then replies in typical Jim fashion, “Let’s do it.” Short and sweet.

“We should be ready in 15 minutes, I say as I get up from the ground.

Jim glances at his wrist watch and nods to the affirmative, his head still on a constant swivel, always alert, looking around the area.

Andy and I cache our rucks under some leaves next to a large poplar, growing up through the thicket. “Andy, we’re going to travel light”, I say looking him toward him. “Fighting loads, one DTR each and a set of binos. Also, let’s top off our water. If we have to E&E, we live off of our survival kits. You have yours on you right?” I ask.

“Right here as always.” Andy says as he taps his right cargo pocket. “Dan” he adds, “Let’s leave the binos and just take my monocular. It’ll fit in my shirt pocket and it’s pretty light.”

“Good idea Andy, anything else?”

“Yeah, I’d like to take my veil. It’s kinda open terrain out there with the leaves down and all. We’ll be exposed to the valley.”

“If you think they will help, I’m all for it, but you know, movement’s what the eye is attracted to first and the veils won’t cover up carelessness.”

Andy nods and says “I know, I just want every edge I can get. You know, “stack the odds in our favor” as you always say.”

Before we cover the rucks, we remove Andy’s monocular, two HTs and sniper veils. The veils are simple affairs. Each consists of a couple of square feet of light nylon webbing, coyote colored to match the dominant browns present during the winter months in our mountains. Tie on a little jute and burlap then add some local vegetation for texture on the portion that extends over the head and shoulders. In this case, some large brown leaves and tufts of brown grass, leaving the portion of netting that covers the face without garnishment. Each veil is stuffed in a cargo pocket.

The Vortex monocular goes into the zippered pouch mounted under the mag pouches on the front of Andy’s chest rig. The radios are tucked into radio pouches on the front of the plate carriers after checking the freqs against the current SOI and making a quick radio check. We both top-off our camel backs from the collapsible 2 quart canteens stored inside of our rucks. It’s time to issue the 5 point contingency plan.

I look in Jim’s direction and say, ‘You take security, I’ll brief.”

Jim nods and I call the other two over to our position.

Once they have settled in, I lay my map on the ground. Using a small twig as a pointer, I give them the standard five-point contingency plan: GOTWA, where I’m Going and what I’m doing, the Others going with me, the Time we will be gone, What to do if we don’t return on time and Actions to take if either element makes threat contact. *(As found on page 5-13 of SH 21-75, the Ranger Handbook, dated July 1992. In my opinion, the last good Ranger Handbook for dismounted patrolling.)

“Fellas,” I begin, while pointing out the various areas on the map, “This area we had planned on using for the MSS was too exposed, but it looks like this spot will work, so Andy and I are going to recon further west around the peak behind us and take a look at the tentative primary and alternate hide sites, here and here, that we selected during mission planning back at the retreat. Afterward, we will return and start the next phase. If we make any changes you need to know about, we’ll call on the HT. We’ll also give you a heads-up on the radios when we are on our way back.”

“Al, what’s the far recognition signal?” I ask.

“Orange VS-17 challenge, Magenta acknowledge.” he replies, “the running password is “Yosemite Sam” and the number combo is “12”, he adds.

“Good answer. Jim’s the senior man here. We should be gone for no more than 2 hours. If we don’t return by then, move all the sensitive items into your rucks, move unnecessary items to ours. Leave our rucks in the cache, and move to this planned emergency rendezvous point.” I indicate the RV point on the map while adding, “The RV is 100 meters, at 130 degrees azimuth, below the next large mountain peak in the ridge line to the northeast. If either of our elements makes contact with anyone, bad or good, we break contact, pop smoke, and meet at that RV. Any questions?”

No one replies so I add, “Then, per our SOP, wait there 12 hours. If the other team doesn’t show, pull the plug and head home”.

“So we just head on home?” Andy asks, a slight tinge of doubt in his voice.

“You know the deal” Jim replies, looking at him intently. “We activate the E & E plan per the OPORD, we find our way home, you find yours.”

“O.K.” Andy says as he nods in the affirmative. “Just checking.”

“That’s it then, did I miss anything?” I question.

Al speaks up, “I need to cack up several messages for the retreat. The next window will open in about an hour.”

I agree. “Yep, Martin’s probably having a cow about now. He hasn’t heard from us since this morning.”

“Don’t forget ol’ Joe” Jim adds. “He can be a real granny when he’s baby sittin’ those radios of his.”

“You know that’s right.” I reply. “Al, start ginning up the traffic and I’ll look it over before we leave. If you have time while we’re gone, get your comms set up, and when we get back from the recon, you can send it.”

They both nod. Jim stays on security while Al retrieves his notebook to work up the messages.

Andy and I check our camo, weapons and gear.

About the same time we finish, Al hands me the message sheet. It reads:

061355RMAR21 02

C. 26549010
E. 060844RMAR21

C. 26389008

C. 26339007

C. 26439011
D. 061013RMAR21 3-5 DAYS AGO

C. 26409013
D. 061057RMAR21 1-2 DAYS AGO

C. 26279002
D. 061305RMAR21 UNK DATE

A. 060835RMAR21
B. 060835RMAR21
C. 462.5625
F. 1-S7, 2-S1

A. 061225RMAR21
B. 061225RMAR21
C. 462.5625
F. 1-S8, 2-S2

A. 1&4 MSS, 2&3 RECON
C. RECON 061430RMAR21
D. MSS VIC 26268997

I carefully look the messages over for accuracy and brevity, compare them to Al’s message format sheet to check for omissions, then hand the sheet back to Al.

“Al, that’s a lot of traffic. How are you going to send it?”

“Four separate messages” he replies softly while glancing down at the sheets. “The first will be the SITREP to get a feel for how much power I need to get through. The lower I can keep the power, the longer my batteries will last. Once I’ve determined that, then I’ll break up the INTREPs, COMINTS and EVTREPs into the last 3 messages.”

“Good job” I reply.

Al smiles at the compliment with a nod and replies, “I had a good teacher.”

“Do you need help with the encryption?”

“No thanks, by the time you return, I should have them done.”

Turning back to Andy I say, “Okay, let’s go have a look at the primary hide.” I point up the slope “We’ll move a little higher up out of this thicket and then follow the contour around to the north side. You lead.”

“Roger that.” Andy replies, looking up through the thick foliage.

He leads the way up until the thicket thins out and we are again exposed to the cold wind. We then turn back to the right and follow the contour to the northwest. The chill in the wind and snow slashes at our faces. Andy stops just inside the edge of the ivy thicket, kneels and pulls the veil from his cargo pocket. The veils would have snagged in the tangle while we moved through the thicket.

Taking off his boonie, Andy ties the veil to the loops above the brim of his boonie, dons the hat draping the garnished portion of the veil over his head and shoulders while the garnish free portion falls over his face. This allows his view to be unobstructed while still shading and concealing the shape of his face. The familiar shape of his head and shoulders now blend into a brown indistinguishable blob. When he finishes I follow suit.

As I exit the thicket behind Andy, I glance over my right shoulder. Through the bare trees, the open expanse of the western valley below comes into view and I get the uneasy feeling we are being watched. We move slowly and cautiously from one position of concealment to another with frequent looking/listening halts while avoiding areas that will silhouette us along the sky line along the ridge above us. After about 200 meters Andy halts, signals me forward, then drops prone. As I crawl through the leaves next to him he points ahead and up the slope slightly.

“There’s our hide site.” he states confidently. He hands me the Vortex monocular he had been scanning the location with.

I lock both elbows into the ground to stabilize the monocular at my right eye and slowly adjust the focus until the view sharpens. Scanning below the ridge above us I see the large red scar that has been carved out of the steep mountainside. In the years before the collapse, flat landers would build vacation homes, exclusively for the view, on lots high on the mountainsides. Builders had been more than happy to carve a large vertical slice down into the mountain, then scrape out a horizontal ledge to perch a house upon; the locals had no practical use for the steep property.

The lot we were looking at had never been built on. Small pine trees, thick briars and bushes have grown up to choke the flat bottom section of the lot as well as the badly rutted, clay switchback road leading up to it from the valley below. The vertical red clay cliff at the rear of the lot was about 45 feet high at the center apex and sloped down to meet the mountain on both sides about 300 feet across.

The thickly wooded area above the cliff was the spot we were interested in. It would provide great fields-of-view and would be inaccessible to foot traffic from the front unless using climbing gear. Access from each side would be exposed, slow and difficult. Concealment would be adequate but could be enhanced. We could access it from the northern slope via the Rhododendron thicket just below it.

Using the monocular, I study the slope and clay road below the red gash. “No vehicles will be coming up that road” I whispered to Andy. “By the looks of those briars, I wouldn’t want to walk up it either. I can’t make out exactly where the road begins down the mountain. The slope up is pretty steep on this side. I’d like to see the far side. Let’s move back to the top of the thicket, take it up and behind the site, then over to the southwestern side. From there we can look that area over and then move back to the MSS.”

I hand the monocular back to Andy. He slowly lifts the front of his veil and quickly scans the valley below us.

“Don’t see any movement” he says quietly. “Snow’s screwing up the view.”

I follow his gaze. The blowing snow comes toward us in waves across the valley and reduces everything to vague shapes. The low clouds hide the mountain peaks above the valley floor. I can faintly discern the hulking mass of the mountain base to our west.

“Well, I see patches of blue sky, so this snow’s gonna let up soon. But I’d say when it clears out tonight, it’ll get colder than balls,” Andy adds flatly.

“The sooner we get in place the better,” I reply.

Andy pauses scanning for a moment, hands me the mono and points a gloved finger down the mountain, “House…. about 300 meters below the cutout.”

“Good eyes, I missed that one. Looks empty, probably no access to water without electricity, I’d say. What do you think?” I hand the mono back to him.

“That’s what I thought, no danger to us.” he replies as he stows the mono into his pouch, “The dirt road up to it is in pretty rutted.”

We back our way out and find our way back to the top of the thicket, turn right and follow the back side of the spur up to the rear of the area we observed earlier. The location consists of a fairly wide cedar grove. Andy provides security as I crawl closer toward the grove. Looking around I notice the trunk of a large downed poplar tree. The enormous root ball is mostly exposed and has heaved up a large area of earth.

“Andy, let me borrow your glass again.” I whisper.

Rising slowly into a crouch I glass the root-ball area with the mono.

Dropping back to the forest floor I hand the mono back to Andy and say, “All of us can fit in that hole. And from the far side, we should be able to see the target area. If the other side of the mountain checks out clear, this is where I want to set up.”

“All of us? Andy asks.

“Yeah, we’ll close down the MSS and just roll it into the hide. It’s not a problem as long as we are this far from the target. Cuts down on the chances of someone stumbling upon us. Also, from what I’ve seen so far, there’s not much chance of being DF’d by a bunch of jokers using FRS HTs for comms.”

We then move to and visually clear the far side of the mountain, opposite the MSS.

Soon, after alerting Al on our DTR, Andy and I return to the MSS using the same path we exited from earlier.

“Green, Blue, over.”
“Green, over”
“We’re inbound your location, over.”
“Roger, out”

Chapter 9

We return to the MSS by a slightly different route to avoid possible ambush on our previous route, eventually making our way to the designated entrance entrance/exit point. Using multiple entrance/exits at an MSS or patrol base increases the risk of it’s compromise by anyone coming across the additional sign. Also, anyone not approaching the base toward the designated point should be regarded with extra scrutiny.

As we approach the entrance, Andy assumes we are close enough to be under the observation of the man on security, so he signals a halt and then goes to ground. I turn to watch our back trail as he reaches up with his support hand, lifts his boonie of his head and holds it with the sewn-in VS-17 panel inside showing toward the entrance. After waiting for a few seconds, he sees the reply through the thicket, the magenta side of another small VS-17 panel flashed our direction. This is the proper IFF sign-countersign per our current SOI. If the wrong color is displayed on either end, it is assumed that end is compromised and under duress.

Moving through the concealed entrance we find Al on security. Andy and I take up positions on his right and quietly watch our back trail for a few minutes.

After determining we aren’t being trailed, I stand and move next to Al. “Rally on the rucks” I whisper to him, having noticed that our rucks have been retrieved and are lying ready next to the others at the center of the MSS. Jim is lying prone near them, watching in the opposite direction.

Al nods, falls in behind Andy and we gather next to Jim, who looks our way and gives a nod.

I look toward Al and ask, “Messages go out O.K.?

“Yes,” he replies, “No traffic our way though.”

I nod and then tell them, “We’ve found a good spot for the hide. Good news is, it’ll fit all four of us and there’s not much digging involved.”

“Digging, all four of us?” Al questions, a confused look on his face.

He goes on to say, “I thought you were going to set up a hasty above ground hide while we were running the MSS here. Just long enough to look the area over before we go down to Mr. Conner’s place. You know, make sure nothing is out of the ordinary first. “

Jim rolls over on his side to face us.

“Al, do you honestly believe that everything we’ve seen in this valley is “ordinary”?” Jim remarks using his fingers to make apostrophes in order to emphasize the word “ordinary” and then adds, “I agree with Dan. I think we’re gonna be here longer than we bargained for. There’s a lot of bad actors moving around in this AO and I for one don’t want 30 of them bringing heat down on the four of us just because we were too lazy to build a proper hide. All it would take is a hunter out looking for a deer or turkey for his pot to stumble on us and next thing you know we’re fighten’ for our hides. No sir, I’m all for diggin’ in.”

Jim has said his piece and turns back to his sector. It’s quiet while we take in Jim’s comments. I look over at Al half expecting him to take offense at Jim’s usual tactless reply.

Andy not wanting to be left out of the conversation adds dryly,

“Jim, we haven’t seen any sign of a deer, bear, hog, or a turkey in these mountains for over 2 years, let alone the real thing. Not even a whistle pig.” Andy adds, referring to the local name for the ground hog. “They’ve all been hunted out, you know that. It’s so bad the coyotes have left”

“Well… squirrels then. We still got lots’a tree rats around here.” Jim responds, this time not turning to face us.

I shake my head and smile at Andy. He grins back.

“Okay guys,” I say, “I’m doing a FRAGO (fragmentary order or change) to the OPORD. That’s why the MSS is listed as “Tentative” in the OPORD. That gave us some flexibility in case the proposed site sucks or the mission changes. And as I see it, the mission has changed from checking up on Jack’s place to getting an understanding of the overall situation in this valley and sending that info back to the retreat so they can analyze it and make an informed decision on how we’re going to handle this. Remember, this is very close to our back yard. You wrote the radio intercept transcript Al. You know they were making comments about our valley. My guess is that after they clean this area out, they are headed there next.”

Al nods in agreement, or at least understanding, as I continue. “It’s going to take a little longer than we anticipated and the threat level has gone up considerably. So we’re going to all move to the new location where we’ll set up a dug-in observation hide. I know in the past you’ve worked out of a temporary “sniper hide” or FFP (Final Firing Position). This is a little different. An observation hide is a long term hide used primarily for surveillance missions, so it’s more complicated and usually takes more time, muscle, material and different tools to construct. We’ll run a combined MSS and hide until Martin pulls us out or the mission changes.”

“Al,” interjects Andy, “It’ll be built a lot like the over-watch bunker up on the hill at the entry road to our cove only not quite as permanent.” Then he adds, “Hey, remember when Jim, and Randall and I had to work out of one over near the airport back before everything started to get real bad? This is the same thing.”

“Yes, I remember. “Al replied. Then he added quietly, “Randall never came back, he’s still buried over there.”

Jim, turning again on his side toward us says quickly, “Andy, thanks for that great example, you knuckle head. Al, this ain’t the same as that. We were pretty green then. This ain’t our first rodeo and you know it, so don’t go gettin’ all spooked on us.”

I reach out and put a hand on Al’s shoulder.

“Jim’s right Al.” I add. “This isn’t the same situation. Back then we had no idea who was our friend and who was our enemy, and we were stabbed in the back by some folks from outside of our community. A lot has washed out since then. I trust you three men with my life and the lives of my family.”

“Sorry about that.” Andy says.

“No big deal.” Jim responds with a shrug. “We took care of those SOBs and nobody in the entire valley has missed ’em.

It’s quiet again as I watch for Al’s reaction. He lowers his head sightly, peering toward the ground for a few minutes, deep in thought. Andy fiddles absentmindedly with his knife.

After a few moments Al shrugs his shoulders, looks up and asks, “So we’re going to run everything from the hide, no MSS?”

“No MSS. It’ll be tight but it’ll make it easier on all of us. One less body pulling security, smaller footprint, less chance of compromise, more rest.” I reply.

Al asks, “What about comms? How will we run comms back to the retreat without a separate MSS?”

“We’ll run them out of the hide.” I answer.

Al gives me a confused look.

I reply, “Not to worry Al, I’ll help you set up. I’ve done it that way more often than not. Really, the only difference is instead of leaving our extra equipment and rucks with the MSS, we will have to build a separate hide for the rucks once we empty them. No room for them in the primary hide.”

“You’re not concerned we’ll get DF’d transmitting out of the hide?” asked Al.

“From what we’ve seen so far I don’t think this bunch has the capability. In this environment, I’m a lot more concerned we’ll get scarfed up by someone out looking for some meat for dinner, like Jim so eloquently stated.”

Jim snorts.

Al has been listening with a thoughtful look on his face and then abruptly replies, “OK, I’m on board.”

“Good,” I reply. “Any questions?

There are none.

Jim, this place sterilized?” I ask.

“Yep, ready to go.” Jim replies.

“Andy and Jim up front, Andy take point, you know the way. Al pick up slack, let’s go.”

We ruck up and slowly leave the thicket then stop about 50 yards out to watch our back trail again. While waiting, we notice that the snow has completely stopped and the wind has slowed a little. The clouds are thinning out. I figure we have about 4 hours of daylight left.

We patrol back up the backside of the spur, stopping about 50 yards short of the hide spot. Prior to occupying the hide location, we set up another over-watch and keep eyes on it for about 15 minutes in the event that someone moved in while we were gone. If we had a larger patrol, I would have left a 2 man team to maintain eyes on the site while Andy and I returned to the MSS to bring up the remainder of the team.

Andy takes security while we work on hide construction.

Per our SOP, we approach the tentative hide from the side opposite of the target area and will avoid moving through the target side if at all possible. Regardless if it would be near impossible for threat personnel to approach the front of this hide due to the cliff, it would build bad work habits that could lead to future mistakes. Surveying the hole under the unearthed root ball, we determine that we will be able to fit all four team members in it.

“Well, you’re right, we won’t have to do a bunch of diggin’, unless you want a full-on sub-surface hide.” Jim states, staring down into the hole.

“No”, I reply, “We don’t have the tools or supplies to build one. We’d need shovels and mattocks and pre-fab roof sections. I think a modified belly hide will do. A little deeper than a belly hide where we can move around some and sit up occasionally, and a deeper area where the observer can stay seated.”

Jim steps into the depression to locate the direction of the target and to determine the best location for the viewing aperture. The rest of the hide will be situated and built around it.

“The clouds are really lifting out.” Jim states as he looks over the lip toward the west. “We’re gonna have a birds-eye view of the whole valley from here.”

“This is a good spot.” Al adds, looking around. “The cedars provide a nice dark area to work in. There’s very little danger of being silhouetted against the ridge behind us. Very good for antennas.”

“Yep, good piece of real estate.” says Jim. “The cliff out front is a nice touch. The only way anyone gets to us is from the rear or sides and we’ll have plenty of warning if they try. I like it.”

“I’m glad you two approve. Now let’s get to work.” I reply.

We pull all of the empty sandbags from our rucks and lay them out in a square outlining the proposed hide. Then due to the wind, we temporarily peg ponchos around the outside of the hide to protect the area from disturbance and to catch any loose dirt taken from the hide.

Next we remove the large twigs, limbs and leaves from the ground on top of the future hide and set them aside for later use. Jim then uses a small pair of pruning shears to lop off the brambles and small saplings growing from the bottom of the pit.

We then cut any sod inside the hide boundary with e-tools. We carry one per 2 man team. The e-tools are locked at a 90 degree angle and the sod is first cut into 2′ wide sections perpendicular to the hide, from the center of the pit toward the sandbag boundaries. When the sections are all cut length-wise, we set the e-tools at full extension, then undercut and roll the sod away from the hole onto the ponchos, keeping the outside edge of the sod attached to help hold each section in place when it is rolled back out. Next we cut the walls of the hide perpendicular until the floor is completely flat, about 24 inches deep. Then we cut a lip in the dirt, 8 inches wide and 6 inches deep, completely around the hide next to the walls. Most of the spoil is placed in the empty sandbags. Jim points out that we have enough room to excavate a sitting area for up to 2 side-by-side observers. This area is directly behind the aperture, near the right hand corner of the pit, facing the target. The area for the feet is about 24 inches deep below the seat. The seat is about 30 inches below the lip of the hide. Any roots we encounter are either cut with the e-tool or by plunging the 10” blade of a Sportsman folding saws into the ground and cutting it loose. Rocks are pried out with the e-tools.

Since the heavy sod will cover about 1′ to 2′ of the hide roof from the edges when it is rolled back out, its weight will cause the poncho roof under it to sag. To support the sod, we select 4 small trees, place a poncho on the ground at their base to catch the sawdust, then cut them as close to the ground as possible and limb them. The sawdust is placed into one of the sandbags while the small limbs are cut into small sections with the pruning shears and disposed well away from the hide along with any extra soil. The tree stumps are painted with a mixture of soil and water to age the cut and then covered with leaves.

To support the poles, a filled sandbag is placed about a foot from each corner of the lip. The end of each pole is then laid on a corner sandbag and the pole ends are lashed together. Each horizontal pole is then supported at the center by lashing it to a short vertical pole stuck into the ground. We stand back and look at our handiwork while Jim completes the last of the lashing. He puts the weight of his body on each pole in turn and grunts his approval. We now have a sturdy pole support system, about a foot inside the lip, completely surrounding the pit.

We fill the rest of the empty sandbags with a majority of the removed soil. To deal with the left over soil, Al and I empty two of the rucks, then line them with black trash bags. After we work for a few minutes I notice Al is shoveling a lot of soil in his ruck.

“Al, you might want to take it easy with the dirt” I warn him.

“Why don’t we fill the rucks? Less trips right? Al replies.

“Well, these are 110 liter rucks and 1 liter of dry clay weighs a little under 2.5 lbs. Do the math.” I say as I close up the bag and top flap on my ruck.

Al stares at his ruck for a moment, and then with a grunt, attempts to lift it. He tips the ruck back into the hole, dumping a good portion.

“Ready” he announces as he lifts the ruck onto his back.

It takes 3 trips. We find an area of thick briars growing just below a small rock face. There we dump it off from the top of the cliff into the thick mass below.

“Al,” I point out, I picked this spot out to dump the dirt because these rock faces usually make good dens for Timber Rattlers. I don’t think we need to worry about anyone poking around in the briars beneath them and finding it.”

Al looks the rocky area over intently and nods.

I go on to add, “If we didn’t have this slide, we could look for a groundhog hole or the hole from a rotted tree stump to dump it in. Even better would be a large creek or river. Worst case we would have to scatter it over a large area.”

While we are dumping the soil, Jim connects and arches 4 flexible fiberglass tent poles sections over the top of the hide and then pushes the ends into the ground on each side forming a low dome. The poles are held together with internal shock cords. Then the overlapping poles are secured to one another with duct tape at each cross-over point. He snaps 2 military camouflaged ponchos together, stretches them over the poles and secures them at the lip surrounding the hide with small aluminum tent stakes pushed through the grommets. Next he places the filled sandbags along the lip surrounding the excavation and onto the edges of the ponchos to hold them in place.

Jim retrieves the patrol’s two 4’x8′ camouflaged nets, tie-wraps them together and drags them face down on the ground through an area behind and below the hide. This will cause the net to pickup a lot of natural plant material. The net is then stretched over the camouflaged ponchos and sandbags and also pegged into place. Last, he rolls the sod back in place over the sandbags, the wooden support poles and up the net about a foot. We return from our dump mission in time to help camo the sod and the rest of the net with the dead fall and leaves that were saved from the pit.

Al asks, “Why do we use the camouflage netting, isn’t the camouflage poncho enough?”

Jim looks up from his work, wiping his hands on his trousers as he replies. “Well, the poncho works O.K. at a distance, but its better if you add a little depth and texture for up close. The net adds that. Now, if the sod completely covered the hide roof, we wouldn’t have needed the net, but we would have to spend a bunch a’ time building a stout frame underneath to handle the weight. So, I reckon it’s a wash. Another thing, when that nylon poncho gets wet from rain or the sun hits it at a certain angle, it’ll shine like a nekid babies butt. So, we use the net and the leaves and twigs and such to hold down the shine.”

“Interesting” Al replies, looking closer at the netting.

“Yeah, interestin’” Jim replies.

Opposite the aperture, I dig a small entry opening below the support pole and the 2 sandbags are removed. At the opening, I hang the door itself which consists of a brown section of burlap with a small section of camo net sewn at the top edge. It has also been garnished with natural vegetation. It is then attached to the exterior net and is allowed to drape over the door opening. It will be held in place from the inside with a few small rocks placed on the lower end of the flap. During the day the burlap section can be rolled up inside and tied off while the net is left hanging covering the opening. This will provide more ventilation.

The aperture is constructed next. Al and Jim dig a wide ledge, 36” wide by 12” deep, slightly below ground level to accommodate 2 sandbags. They will be used as a rest for the spotting scope tripod. Several short branches about 12 inches long are pushed into the ground about 24” apart on each side of the opening and lashed together with 550 cord. Next a filled sandbag is placed on either side of these branches, perpendicular to the sandbags around the perimeter of the hide. Then several other large branches about 36” long are placed on top of the sandbags forming a top shelf. The ponchos edges are pulled over the shelf, sandbags placed on top to hold them into place, then the sod is rolled back over the wood frame opening. From the inside, the small aperture opening is then cut out of the sod. Lastly, the camo net is draped over the aperture and pegged down.

“Jim” Al asks, “Why is the hole in the sod so small, why don’t we make it bigger like the bunker at home. Then we would have a wider field of view.”

“Well, mainly because at night, if someone down there,” he points toward the valley below, “has a thermal imager, then all the body heat inside this hide would cause a bigger opening to light up like a neon sign. So we keep the opening just small enough to get our scope or nod lens a good view. We’re far enough away they won’t spot a small image. Don’t take much of a hole to see out of. Now, during the day, we can roll it open and just use the net. It’ll get some fresh air in, and believe me we’re gonna need it if were here for long. We’ll get mighty ripe.”

While Jim and Al are busy inside, spreading out a large piece of black plastic that makes up the floor covering, I do a walk around the hide to look for deficiencies.

The hide is about 18 inches above ground level at the center and about 12 inches at the edges. The south side of the hide is hard against the upturned root ball which adds to the camouflage effect with its tangled mass of roots jutting over the net. The north side is partially covered by some low hanging spruce boughs. I adjust and add camo here and there. Then I moves about 25 yards away and carefully walks around the hide looking for problems just stopping short of walking in the area facing the target. I will do another check after dark when we will use a red lens light inside to test for leaks.

Next, we unload the equipment from our rucks that we will need to operate in the hide. The following equipment is kept in a dry bag in the observation area: Our 0-60 power spotting scope, one set of binoculars, one set of NVGs with spare batteries, blank sector sketch sheets and a small log book.

Al places all of the communication equipment and batteries as well as the radio log, SOI, and one-time pads in a dry bag in the admin area next to the observation area. We unload 1 sleeping bag; it will be warm in the hide and only one will sleep at a time. Food is packed into another dry bag kept in the admin area. Other non-essential equipment is kept in the rucks, which are placed in rain covers, then moved to a separate simple hide site, an area of thick briars, about 50 yards down the mountain but still within view of the man pulling security.

The interior of the hide is now separated into three areas: observation, rear security, and admin/sleeping area. A blackout poncho is hung from the ceiling tent poles to separate the admin area from the observation area. Another is hung near the rear opening or rear security area. No light will be used in the observation or security areas, and only red light is used sparingly in the admin area.

One man will be on observation, one on radio watch and one on rear security at the door opening. The last will sleep. We will rotate through each position once every 2 hours with the man sleeping getting 6 hours at a stretch.

Al and I setup the HF antenna system. We cut and install the dipole antenna low and well hidden in the trees about 25 feet away from the hide, insuring that the antenna wire is not touching any vegetation. This time the cobra head at the center of the antenna is located at a fairly large tree. After the antenna is hoisted, we trace the flat gray painted coax down the tree trunk and lightly tack it at the top and bottom with painted fence staples. Next we cut a shallow slit in the ground with our e-tools from the base of the tree to the hide. The portion of the coax on the ground is then pushed into the slit, which is then closed as we go. Ground litter is then sprinkled over the slit.

Next we install the 292 receive antenna for the scanner. It is ran up into a cedar tree overhanging the hide where it disappears between the boughs. It’s thin coax is also stapled loosely to the tree trunk, then buried in a slit in the ground which runs into the hide. Both buried coaxes will be checked every morning, if one were to be dug up at night by animals, they could be seen and would lead to the hide location.

“Dan,” Al asks as we work, “Are we going to have to re-cut the antenna every day since the SOI stipulates a new frequency every day?”

“Yes” I reply. “Even though I said I don’t think these guys have the ability to DF us, if they have access to Jack’s radio room, they can listen in. I don’t want to make it easy for them.

“You’re probably right, It’s just that I thought it would be better if we stay out of sight as much as possible.” Al replies without looking up from his work, burying the coax.

“You say that now,” I say. “I think you might re-think that after you have been cooped up in that hole for a few days.”

Al stops working for a moment then replies, “Jim said the same thing earlier. I hadn’t thought about that. This will be a new experience for me.” He mulls it over for another moment, then goes back to his task.

After we push the end of the scanner coax into the hide, I call everyone together.

“OK, let’s go over our routine. This will be a little different than operating two sites like we normally do. First, clothing. Put on whatever clothing you are going to need. That includes cold weather gear. Since the sod doesn’t completely cover the hide, we’ll lose some heat. Also bring your load bearing gear, you’ll have it on at all times, to include when your in the sleeping bag. That goes for boots too, we sleep with our boots on. Once we cache the rucks, we won’t access them again until the mission is complete. You can take stuff off if you get too hot. I would suggest everyone have his woobie to wrap up in if it gets real cold. For sleeping, I had Jim put my fart sack in the hide. We will hot rack until we finish. If you want a change of socks or underwear, there is enough room for extra dry bags in the hide.”

Everybody nods understanding.

“Next, shifts. We will rotate on two hour shifts to each position. Sleep shift will be 6 hours, then rotate to observation first, then admin, last security. Then back to sleep. Observation follows sleep because it’s the only position you can sit up in. Less chance of falling back to sleep.”

I look into each man’s face. Still no questions.

“Duties will be per SOP. Admin will monitor the radios, scanners and their logs. Security will keep an eye on our six as well as emplace and monitor the solar panel as needed. We don’t know how long we’ll be here, so it’s whoever is on admin to monitor the batteries. Observation, we made the hole big enough to fit two, so if you feel like there’s too much going on to keep the log, call in the man on admin to help. If that happens, the radio will answer a call on its own, just take the scanner with you. Make sure you keep good logs, everything you see gets logged; structures, personalities, activities, supplies, vehicles, weapons, comms, anything you see day and night. Speaking of night, watch the nod batteries, keep the spares charged.”

“Eating will only take place in the admin area. No hot food, we don’t have enough butane canisters for the Jet Boil to heat food and if even if we did, the smell could give up our location. Also, no MRE heaters. Start one and the fumes will run us all out of the hide. The Whisper-lite stove is a no-go in the hide also. We don’t need a liquid fuel spill or fire in the hide. The man coming off of sleep detail can heat a cup of water for an instant coffee or whatever. Again, use the Jet Boil. The dry bag with the food will be in the admin area. I don’t have to tell you that we will be on short rations due to the situation we’re in. Originally we thought this would be a quick 4 day in-and-out. So we gotta stretch it as far as we can. Good thing is, we won’t be burning a lot of calories lying around in the hole.”

“Hygiene. Not much chance of bathing in the spring, it’s too small plus you’d contaminate the water supply. About all we have is the bottle of hand sanitizer Kathy gave us. She had squirreled it away in the medical supplies but felt like we would need it. Use it to keep your hands as clean as possible. We don’t need someone with the squirts while we are in this hole.”

“Too bad we can’t get wet-wipes anymore. I sure miss them.” sighs Andy.

“They were a crutch” replies Jim.

Andy rolls his eyes.

I ignore them and continue.

“Lights only in the admin area and try to hold it down to red-light if possible.”

“Hey Dan, can we get a flap that we can cover the aperture with so we can fill out the observation log at night?” asks Andy.

After thinking about it for a few seconds I reply, “No, I don’t want to take the chance of any light getting out through the only opening we have facing the target area. On a moonless night, even red light can be seen a long ways off. If you have to record anything in the log at night, pass it over to the man in the admin area and dictate to him.”

“I agree.” Jim replies.

“30 minutes before BMNT and EENT we will have stand-to. Everyone will be up with their gear on, weapons ready. 30 minute listening, then first light walk around to check camo by the man on security and re-cut the antenna and check the coax by the man on admin. Last light checks after EENT will be security’s job.”

“Water resupply.” Jim says.

“Oh yeah” I continue, “we got real lucky there. While we were out dumping the spoil earlier, Al spotted an old game trail which we followed back this way. It led to a small spring in a rocky area with lots of tree cover. So we don’t have to make the daily trip down the mountain. Whoever is cutting the antenna will take the man on security in the morning to refill canteens. Standard IFF per the daily SOI applies when returning. Remember, it changes daily so make sure you check it before you leave. Same goes for the man pulling security. Water detail gets compromised, we go into E&E plan back to the rally point over the mountain. Jim, I’m thinking iodine tabs instead of the filters.”

“I’m with you, lots faster, less time at the water source and less to carry. The morning Joe will taste a little funky though.” Jim replies wrinkling his forehead, then he adds, “I guess if we get bored we could filter the iodine out once we get back inside the hide. What about latrines?”

“Thanks, getting to that.” I reply. “Each of us should have a 2 quart collapsible canteen with a big “P” in black permanent marker on each side. That’s your personal urinal. Keep it with you, if it leaks we’ll be smelling your piss on everything. Don’t be that guy. Make sure you keep the caps tight. Enough said. It gets dumped in a hole and covered during the morning check by the guy re-cutting the antenna. When you have to take a dump, do it in one of the MRE outer bags, roll the top over and seal it with duct tape, then put it in a large zip lock bag. We’ll keep them stored in the admin area in one of the black garbage bags we used to haul the dirt out. When we pull out of here, we’ll bury them.”

“Looks like we’re gonna get to know each other real well over the next few days.” blurts out Andy.

Everyone laughs quietly.

“Yeah, now I wish I hadn’t ate that meatball marinara MRE yesterday.” Jim added.

“Us more so.” Al replied quietly, giving Jim a sideways look.

We all laughed again as Jim reaches out smiling and rubbed the top of Al’s head vigorously.

“Last area to cover is actions in the hide if we are compromised.” I said looking toward Jim. “Go over it for us Jim.”

“Sure thing. First, anyone can call a compromise but most likely it will be the guy on security who will know it first. When Dan makes the decision to pop smoke, whoever is the radio man sends the “compromised” message back to the retreat. It’s already loaded in the radio, right Al?”

Al nods, “Yes”.

Jim continues. “Good, then the radio man stores the comms equipment in the dry bag and pulls it out with him. The observer does the same with his equipment and logs. Security man exits, goes right and establishes a position facing the threat. His team member does the same. Other two go to the left of the hide and set up same facing the same direction. From that point Dan will decide which direction we move out. We run a standard break contact drill, bounding in pairs until we break contact with the threat. Then we go into standard formation and move out of the area. Just like we rehearsed at home. Any questions?”

“None? O.K., if we make contact while we’re in the hide, security calls contact front, right, left, whatever. When the break contact command is given, security man lays down a base of fire until he empties a mag, he reloads, exits to his right and lays down suppressive fire. The radio man assumes his old position at the exit and lays down the hate until his mag is empty. He does this based on what he sees or by command from the man that is outside the hide. He will reload, exit to the opposite side and begin suppressing the bad guys. The observer will follow suit to the right and the last man will go left. At that point we have two bad-ass fire teams that will then perform a flawless break contact drill, where we kill all the bad guys that haven’t shit their pants and ran, ’cause all they know is they’ve come up on a humongous ground hornet’s nest and a bunch of stone cold killers are pouring out of a hole in the ground. Then we scalp th’ dead as a lesson to the rest and un-ass this pop stand. Just like we drilled.”

“Thanks Jim, I think.” I replied.

“Welcome” Jim replies with a broad smile on his face.

“Just one thing guys, no scalping” I add as an afterthought.

“Party Poop” Jim interjects.

“Any questions?” I ask, ignoring Jim. I search the faces of the team. No response.

“I’ve got to say this” I continue, “you men have really accomplished something today. We’ve moved a fair distance over some fairly rough terrain, gathered a ton of information, got it back to the folks back home, then found and managed to build a pretty substantial hide site. I’m proud to be with you”

Looking at one another, they all nod in agreement.

“Then let’s get this show on the road. Looks like the sun’s going behind the ridge across the valley. Jim you got ob, Andy on radio, I got security, and Al, you get to sack out. Andy, do one more look around the site before you come in. I’ll turn on a red light inside”

“Got it.” replies Andy.

“Once everyone is inside, I’ll take security while you men take a few minutes to grab something to eat. Then one of you relieve me, I’ll eat. When I finish, we start the work plan.”

While waiting my turn to crawl into the hide, I notice the sky is clear, the wind has died down and it is getting colder. I walk along the left hand side of the hide, through the dense cedars, close to the edge of the cliff. The sun has descended below the mountains to the west highlighting their massive silhouettes. Looking down between the boughs into the darkening valley below, I can see the vague outline of a large house about 500 meters away along the paved road.

Several of the windows are lighted.


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