Saturday, July 3, 2010

Recon Patrol

On my second deployment to Kosovo in 2000, I was the acting Team Sergeant of an ODA out of 1st Bn 10th SFG (A) in Boeblingen, Germany. I was “acting” Team Sergeant for the ODA due to the fact that I had just been made a promotable E7 or Sergeant First Class. Promotable meant I was on the list for promotion to Master Sergeant but it wouldn’t happen until my number came up. This was all new to me, I had never been a Team Sergeant before and I was taken off the Military Freefall ODA I had been on for the last two years and put on an ODA that had just lost a very good Team Sergeant to his own promotion. There was some initial suspicion among the other team members due to the fact that I was a “new” guy and also I was perceived as somewhat of a “HALO GOD” due to my long time spent on Military Freefall detachments. There is even professional jealousy among special operators but I had never felt any of it towards others. Eventually this suspicion went away and a few years later a few of these same guys asked to be on the Military Freefall ODA I was Team Sergeant of. It’s hard to live up to a legend though and I don’t think I ever did measure up to their previous Team Sergeant in their eyes. We were different people and they had been an extremely tight unit, but the mission got accomplished and that is all that mattered.
My second tour in Kosovo was very different from the first. The first time around we were all geared towards winning hearts and minds and stabilizing the country. We were staying out in the countryside and doing presence patrols trying to meet the people and showing the American Flag. This time, a year into U.S. operations in the region, we were deployed to conduct special reconnaissance missions against selected targets. This meant instead of trying to be seen we were trying to remain undiscovered. We ran all of our patrols out of a compound on the northern end of the main U.S. base Camp Bondsteel. Our compound was a base within a base, our headquarters building, isolation /planning area, barracks, and recreation area were all surrounded by a double thick wall of HESCO barriers that separated us from the “regular” Army guys. My team was attached to a company from 2nd Bn 10th SFG(A) who were running their own very different operations across the countryside. Also conducting reconnaissance with us was a platoon of Navy Seals, our two units would trade responsibilities during these missions. Part of one unit would conduct the actual recon while the rest of that unit and the other unit would team up and act as a quick reaction force in case there was any trouble. This QRF could also extract the recon team on short notice if needed. We spent our entire tour in this manner, flip flopping responsibilities. In between missions, as most Special Forces teams do, we conducted weapons and equipment maintenance and trained and trained some more.
A typical mission happened about half way through our tour. There was suspicion that a Kosavar Albanian terrorist group was conducting planning meetings for some future bad acts at a village located in a mountain valley in north eastern Kosovo. Our ODA was tasked to conduct surveillance on this village and report back to the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) any pertinent intelligence we may gather. Once we got the initial briefing from JSOTF we initiated the mission planning cycle in our isolation bay. Once in “isolation” for a mission SF teams do not interact with anyone but their own team mates and are totally focused on the mission and the planning for it. The 72 hour planning cycle included conducting METT-T analysis, developing courses of action, choosing the most feasible one, developing the plan of action and contingency upon contingency. Finally rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. One of the rehearsals developed by our Engineer Sergeant involved crawling through a pitch black bomb shelter with full gear and night vision goggles on. This bomb shelter was also fiendishly booby trapped as only an SF demolition man knows how. We went through it one after the other until we could move through without blowing ourselves up. Then we went through as buddy teams and finally as a entire team. As we were to infiltrate by Blackhawk helicopter we went out to the airstrip and practiced loading and unloading the aircraft until we could do it with our eyes closed and in the dark. Finally we conducted our brief back to the JSOTF commander and were given the green light for the mission.
The night we were to infiltrate we packed and inspected all our mission essential equipment and personal gear. Stripper clips, time fuze and det cord were laying every where as we loaded bullets into our magazines and primed our claymores with 10 second delays. These Claymore anti-personnel mines were to be used at the tail end of one of our immediate action drills. This particular drill involved breaking contact using the “Australian Peel.” If heavy contact was made our lead man would empty his magazine and then peel back down our “ranger” file while the next man emptied his magazine and then did the same. So on and so on until we had broken contact with the enemy. Then the claymores would be emplaced to discourage any further pursuit by hostiles. Once we were geared up and ready to go we loaded into our vehicles for the ride to the airstrip.
Upon arrival we loaded in to the helicopter and listened to the whine of the blades as they changed pitch and we lifted off. Our flight route followed a well known supply route for U.S. Forces. It was our hope that with this and several false insertions along the route our target would be tricked into thinking our helicopter was just another mail run up to the main Kosovo Force (KFOR) headquarters. We conducted several false insertions until the crew chief told me over my headset that we were one minute out from the mountain meadow we had chosen as our infiltration landing zone. The Blackhawk came to a hover a few feet off the ground and the static electricity coming off the blades swirled likes shooting stars as we piled out of the bird and set up a hasty 360 degree defensive perimeter. As soon as they were satisfied all of my team had un-assed the bird the helicopter took off suddenly leaving us in silence. As we moved into the tree line we could hear it moving off in the distance conducting one more of our planned false insertions before they made their way back to base.  Once we were in the cover of the trees we set up another perimeter and remained absolutely quiet and alert. We stayed there for almost 20 minutes satisfying ourselves we had not been compromised and adjusting our eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of the battle field. From that point on conversation, if at all, would be in very low whispers and an elaborate system of hand and arms signals. We would move in single file through the woods and darkness spaced out enough to react to an ambush. Our point man would be first, our compass man second, and as the Patrol leader I would be third in line. The rest of the patrol members would be trailing out behind us.
Combat Patrols at night are an elaborate ballet of movement, security, and navigation. Patrol members needs to remain alert for ambush while at the same time navigating through unfamiliar terrain using a map and compass in pitch darkness. All the while they need to avoid the dreaded “break in contact” where part of the team gets spread out and loses track of the rest of the team’s location. As per our standard operating procedure we had infiltrated our objective area at least one terrain feature away from our objective. And since this part of Kosovo was mountainous that terrain feature was a huge ridgeline. We picked up our rucksacks and started silently moving on azimuth towards the objective. Our movement would consist of five kilometers of up a mountain down a mountain, along with the occasional stream crossing and navigational readjustment. As dawn approached we were within 500 meters of our planned patrol base and myself and two of my other team members conducted a leaders recon to determine the best position to set up shop.
Unfortunately the best area for cover, concealment and observation was the side of another huge ridge that faced the valley in which the village was located. This location gave us great line of sight for our optics and digital cameras; it also allowed us a good satellite communication shot for our SATCOM radio. It was defensible and gave us several good escape routes. Bade news was the pitch on the slope was so steep that you could not sit or stand straight without tying yourself off to a tree. We had thought of that contingency however and we were each carrying a section of one inch tubular webbing and a snap link that we could fashion into a safety harness. We quickly moved in before the sun was up and set up our spotting scopes and communication equipment. We camouflaged our positions with some hide material (camo nets) we had packed in our rucksacks. We stayed at 50% security during the whole patrol; while half the team rested the other half conducted observation and pulled security. Every morning before dawn and just before dusk we would conduct stand to and stand down where the entire team was on 100% alert.
We conducted surveillance for three days and nights, taking dozens of digital pictures and transmitting them via SATCOM radio back to the JSOTF. We took pictures of vehicles, license plates and individuals entering and exiting houses in the village. The JSOTF would compare this information to a data base to see if any of the individuals were known terrorists. We also transmitted situation reports or SITREPS twice daily on any suspicious movement or activity. We discovered a few large gatherings conducted at a particular house and we forwarded this information on, the most suspicious thing we discovered was that whenever a KFOR helicopter flew down the valley on its way somewhere the residents of the valley would sound their vehicle horns in a crude early warning system. You could hear these horns long before the sound of the helicopter rotor blades.
After three days of sleeping tied to a tree we packed up our gear and prepared to exfiltrate. Exfiltration was essentially the reverse of the infiltration, we moved silently towards our link up point under cover of darkness. Just as dawn was breaking we linked up with our QRF at a road intersection. We exchanged bonafides and they gave us a ride back to Camp Bondsteel in the back of our Hummvees. Once we debriefed the JSOTF Commander on our findings we all headed off for a shower and some much needed sleep. I myself was looking forward to grabbing a macchiato at the cappuccino bar and seeing if the mess hall had any new flavors of ice cream. It is the little things that make life tolerable.

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