JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Washington --
Reconnaissance and surveillance patrols are one of a few crucial missions reconnaissance Marines are assigned. They typically involve a clandestine insertion, movement under darkness, surveillance from concealed positions, and an expeditious extraction from the area.
Marines with Company C, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, conducted a 48-hour R&S patrol within an Evergreen forest surrounding the base to kick off a 10-day combat readiness evaluation aboard Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, April 9, 2015.
It began at a nearby airfield where Marines strapped with more than 100 pounds of equipment per person loaded onto a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. As the rotors whirred and the helicopter gained altitude, the sun vanished over the horizon and darkness blanketed the earth below. The aircraft climbed to an altitude of 10,000 feet and the temperature dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit. The bitter cold air gushed through the helicopter, but the reconnaissance men were unbothered and remained fixated on the mission at hand as they were moments away from freefalling into the abyss below.
A jump master aboard communicated with the men using only hand and arm signals, and one-by-one they rose from their seats and filed out the rear of the aircraft. As the last Marine began a freefall descent, the pilot turned the Chinook around to return to the flightline.
Once the helicopter landed, the final batch of Marines loaded and they were soon on their way to their drop zone. To utilize a variety of insertion methods, the Chinook landed in a cleared area of the forest and the men sprinted out to assume security positions. The aircraft departed the area and the recon Marines began moving to their pre-plotted surveillance positions.
“The Marines haven’t operated in this kind of environment before,” said 1st Lt. Patrick O’Mara, a platoon commander with Company C. “They are used to training in southern California, so their movement times were extended significantly due to trees and downed foliage.”
Although it was new terrain to many of the Marines, they adapted and reached their objectives after several hours of navigating. After the long night of hiking, each reconnaissance team established hide sites before sunrise to remain unseen and keep eyes on each area of interest during the day. Each team successfully remained hidden and relayed information back to the area commander.
“The sole purpose of recon going out there is because we have an area we need intelligence on,” O’Mara said. “The best way to get intelligence is to get eyes on the ground. So recon teams go out and their job is to build a situational awareness for the commander that owns the battlespace. They focus on the weather, enemy and terrain.”
During the second day of the patrol, what was a silent and concealed hide site came under simulated indirect fire. Artillery simulators exploded and echoed across the area and a Marine suffered simulated shrapnel wounds. The designated team medic immediately began treating the wounds while a fellow team member called in a casualty evacuation request over a handheld radio.
Within a couple minutes the reconnaissance Marines abandoned their hide site with their gear packed and moved to a landing zone for an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter to receive the wounded Marine. The team established a security perimeter around a dirt road where the helicopter would arrive and the medic continued to provide medical aid until the helicopter arrived.
After a few minutes the helicopter was in the area and hovered over the landing zone. An aircrew member along with a special amphibious reconnaissance corpsman repelled from the hovering aircraft and after a brief moment, hoisted back up with the wounded Marine and returned to the airfield.
Although the team members evacuated the casualty without harassment, the initial indirect fire indicated an opposing force knew of their presence and location. The reconnaissance men began movement down a nearby dirt road to leave the area, but soon came under fire from a group of enemy role players armed with AK-47s and inert rocket propelled grenades. In an instant the Marines raised their weapons and engaged the role players, eliminating the group in less than 60 seconds.
The team hastily searched the surrounding area for other potential threats before speeding to a new position to avoid further detection. Each Marine was sleep deprived and exhausted from the past 24 hours of the patrol, but they had no other choice than to evacuate the area. Perseverance, a trait common in the Marine reconnaissance community, enabled the team to maneuver to their new position as they trotted with rucksacks weighing more than 100 pounds. Ultimately the Marines established a new hide site and resumed surveillance of the area.
Though the reconnaissance team had less than 24 hours left before its planned extraction on April 11, they remained in a constant battle with the elements. Shivering temperatures along with frequent showers visited the training area. Their discipline never waivered, however, and they continued constant surveillance before extracting from the training area via CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
Once they arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the patrol concluded. Each team came away from the arduous patrol having learned valuable lessons. Evaluators who traveled with the reconnaissance teams also provided important insight and advice during follow-on debriefs. The exhausted Marines finally earned themselves a brief period of rest before planning for their next R&S patrol.