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|Sniper||Saturday, 14 January 1984|
It was Saturday, I should have been sitting on the couch and drinking a beer in my little one bedroom apartment with my loving wife, but instead I was pulling up to a run down shack in the middle of some old World War Two barracks area. It would be my home for the next 5 weeks. This is not an official U.S. Army course, the Army has been hot and cold on snipers its entire history. The legend is that the Army beat the British with long range shooting and we continued to win every war after that with the same superior marksmanship. Ok, we tied in Korea and quit in Vietnam. The Army pulled together sniper training after Korea in 1955 a few years before I was born. They did some field craft training for Vietnam and later some in-country sniper training. That didn't last, budgets cuts. When Jimmy Carter got into the White House we didn't have fuel to start up the engines on our tanks, so no money for goofy stuff like marksmanship or snipers. Plus Sniper doesn't sound very nice, not polite, not politically correct.
It was now a couple of months after "Operation Urgent Fury" and the Army is starting to get a bad reputation again. The press doesn't like the honeymoon to last too long and Grenada wasn't all that interesting. Medical students kissing the ground and thanking the "grunts" was old news. The new news making the rounds was a story of an Army Captain calling the Northfork Naval Base using his AT&T calling card to get Navy fire support, since none of the radios issued to the Army would allow you to reach the Navy. The Army was looking for ways to answer the critics. An ambitious full bird Colonel in "TTB" decided that now would be a good time to put his name behind an experimental sniper course. "TTB" I was surprised to find out even though I was a member of the unit stands for "The Training Battalion." I joked with one of my classmates that, "We are in TTB of TUSOAA. When he looked at me funny I explained, "The Training Battalion of The United States Of America Army." He didn't laugh which is a bad sign when you are going to spend the next five weeks with someone. Of course a sniper is suppose to be a loner and doesn't have to have a sense of humor.
This course was "Black" not hide it from the Congress "Black", more lets see if we can do this and make it work. The real course wouldn't be approved for another three years which proved this experiment was a great success. Hell the Army fought the entire Civil War (war for states rights for my southern friends) using single shot breach loading muskets even though Winchester made a pretty good repeating rifle before the war. The secretary of war assumed that the "grunts" would just waste ammunition if they could shoot it down range so fast.
The entire course was filled with U.S. Army Infantry instructors which has its pluses and minuses. The cadre included some of my fellow instructors who helped develop the course plus there was some guys from the 75th Rangers who taught field craft, reconnaissance, camouflage, observation exercises, and long range patrolling. The marksmanship training was from the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. The guys who shoot for the United States Olympic team. We had a few Rangers volunteer to take the course, but nobody from the Marksmanship Unit volunteered. I understood after the shooting portion was over why they took a pass on taking this course. Shooting is part of being a sniper but it isn't the biggest part.
Marksmanship is very important and a few of the guys did wash out due to poor shooting, but the tough part of the course was the field craft and reconnaissance, with the killer part being anti-sniper training, no pun intended, and the observation exercises. It is very hard to spot a good sniper especially when he is trying to spot you.
I showed up with my homemade ghillie suit. I was in the Air Cav before I came to Benning, so I started out with one of my old Nomex flight suits and gloves. I got some burlap cut it up into strips about 16" long and 1/2" wide dropping about half of them into my wife's washer with some olive drab Rite-dye. I dyed the other half brown in the same washer which when it came out not quite brown I realized I had made a mistake which my wife would make me pay for. The dye doesn't really wash out of a washer all that well. I was kind of glad that for the 5 weeks of the course we couldn't have any contact by phone and were not allowed any time off. I frayed the mixed the burlap, attaching it by sewing it to the flight suit. I then spray painted it a couple of times with model paint and while it was still wet I added a mixture of Georgia sand, ground asphalt, pine litter, and soil. It was a lot lighter then the suits the other guys made or bought. Since you spend a lot of time moving and laying in the mud and dirt it is better if it is lighter and doesn't have too much stuff hanging down the front.
Sniping is boring, I mean really freaking boring. Sometimes with the target in sight it is terrifyingly stressful and the cadre tried to make it as hard as possible, no sleep, yelling, mindless rules, sudden changes in command. This all added up but once you were in firing position and have to wait for hours and hours it all catches up with you and you lose the edge. I have to admit my spotter saved my butt a couple of times. If he didn't wake me I would have failed the course for falling asleep and missing the target.
We started out the course by getting issued a M24 bolt action sniper rifle. You don't go off and shoot it, you field strip it, carry it, sleep with it, clean it, baby it, and fall in love with it. It is a lovely rifle. When I have trouble falling asleep even today 20 years after the course, I don't count sheep, I imagine the bolt of an M24 sliding back extracting a spent round and then pushing it back forward with that solid metallic snap. I am sure this makes me a bad person and luckily before this story only Cheryl my wife knew I did it. I am not sure if it is the amazing number of times that I operated the bolt or that I got so little sleep during the course that the memory of that time makes me tired. I liked my M16 but it doesn't or at least in 1983 didn't look like a rifle. I remember doing funeral detail in some small town in Ohio. We were dropping off the squads M16's with the local sheriff. He had never seen an M16 up close and asked if it was some kind of, "Laser gun." He asked if he could dissemble it and we told him, "Fine, just put any extra parts in a box and we would put them back together in the morning." We left him and his deputy stripping our weapons as we hit the town to toss back a few for a fallen comrade.
The M24 was a rifle. The sheriff wouldn't have mistaken it for a laser gun and we wouldn't have let him play with it. It shoots a 7.62x51mm NATO round. A few of my buddies snuck in some civilian match grade ammo. The cadre didn't seem to care and even discussed what kind of ammo you should sneak in. Nobody agreed, even the Marksmanship Unit guys disagreed, the only thing everyone agreed on was if you were going to sneak in ammo you had better sneak in a lot of it. Some of the guys loved Winchester Supreme Match ammo with a 168 grain round. It was the fastest bullet anybody shot with but it had a 50 foot per second variance so some of the guys thought the heavier 185 grain LAPUA Match round was better. It was a couple of hundred feet per second slower but it only had a 11 foot per second variance so theoretically it should have been more accurate.
I figured if the Marksmanship boys still had not decided what the best round to shoot was, then I didn't care. I don't like breaking the rules especially if it means I would have to buy ammo and sneak it into a course and then sneak out good old U.S. Army ammo. I used Uncle Sam issued 7.62 NATO Match ammo. It was just as fast as the LUPUA match ammo with about the same FPS variance. The Army supplied it to us by the truck load.
If you don't know how cheap I am, then you haven't been reading my other stories. I am a "Grunt" and the Sniper motto is "One Shot, One Kill" I could pull it off with Army ammo and while missing was embarrassing, you only had to hit 9 out of 10 to pass the course. Some of the guys shooting their own ammo washed out by not getting 90% hits on the 600 meter range. I did help the guy who didn't laugh at my joke wash out. We swapped out one of his magazines with one we loaded with all kinds of different ammunition. Shooting different ammo will really mess up your shooting. Snipers might be loners but at least the guys in my course liked team players who could get along. It wasn't my idea but I was happy to go along. If the poor guy would have only laughed at my joke he might have passed the course.
I got through the shooting phase and was feeling pretty good. The guys in the course started to call me the "Professor" after the character on Gilligan's Island. I'm not sure why, but it stuck. In fact it followed me back to my unit since we were all from the training battalion. I certainly wasn't the guy who could tell you the bullet drop or mussel velocity of every round like some of the guys. I knew how much my bullet would drop and I could keep my groups around 1/2 MOA. I was a good shot but not the best and if I was required to get a hit with every shot I'd have gotten on the truck with the other guys who washed out.
On week three of the course I was wishing I had washed out. I am color-blind, something by the way that would disqualify me for sniper school today. I am guessing weighing 230 pounds, having bifocals, and having exercise induced asthma would also count against me. Being color-blind has actually helped me in the Army in the past, since I don't key off color, camouflage doesn't work as well against me. At night there is no color, so I ended up walking point a lot more than my buddies. I was feeling pretty cocky when we entered the observation exercises. The idea is the cadre puts objects; like a box of ammunition, a canteen, cleaning rod, helmet, candy bar wrapper, fourteen items in all. First time I did the observation exercise I sketched out a range card with only 9 of the 14 objects. The real problem came when I found out I only got three items and that I had seen six items that were not there, while missing 11 objects that were.
You do the observation phase over and over, repeating it until you master it. Nobody washed out because of poor observation skills. The cadre just wouldn't let us. They didn't try really hard to teach us to shoot they figured if you couldn't shoot, you should wash out. They would later wash out another four guys in the reconnaissance, and sniper on sniper section of the course. In the observation section of the course they really did teach us, or at least kept us at it until we improved. They figured they could teach us good observation skills and they did, every single last one of us.
Stalking was fun, kind of like playing Cowboys and Indians. The cadre would go out and make a trail which we would follow looking for signs. Our job was to determine how many guys we were following, if they were carrying equipment, if they were regular Army or irregular, if they were tired, how many breaks they took, types of weapons they carried. The kind of stuff that a commander would want to know when you came back. It also allowed us to pick out firing positions that would give us good fields of fire without exposing ourselves. Any sniper will tell you, it is not the shot, it is getting the hell out of Dodge after you make the shot. The guy who strapped himself up in a palm tree never went through a sniper course. It is a great firing position but it is hell to sneak back down with a battalion of really pissed off guys trying to return fire. The slogan is "One Shot, One Kill" because you only get one shot.
I was talking to a British sniper who told me in their course if you can get off two shots without getting spotted you pass. If I could get two shots off, I would have wanted to have been promoted. The guys trying to spot us were snipers. They knew the best spots to shoot from and were watching them before we squeezed off our first shot. If you stuck around for a follow up shot you would be shooting from the impact area of a one o-five howitzer. The American Army doesn't play fair. We don't do a lot of anti-sniper missions, in real life we shoot the freak'n hill with artillery. Thousands of dollars of artillery and then we follow it up with an air strike.
We finished the observation course and stalking section, then we went into hell week. Nine days and eight nights of walking through the swamps of Georgia, remember this is Georgia in January. I have trained in Alaska, and in Upstate New York but I have never been as cold as I was in Georgia. We didn't sleep or at least we didn't have any time in the lesson plan for sleep and the cadre always made sure that we understood we shouldn't be sleeping. We would do long range patrols and funny enough even though this was sniper training, we never shot. We would snoop and poop some enemy camp or position, take notes and then sneak back out. I couldn't believe that as a trained sniper I was suppose to sneak in draw a sketch and sneak out without every getting to shoot my rifle. Was I training to be an Artist or a trained killer?
Shoot and you were washed out of the course, even if they shot at you, you couldn't shoot back. They figured that the enemy commander might not believe one of his guys who said he saw a guy in a gillie suit, but if he could point to his dead friend with a 7.62 hole in him, then the evidence would be pretty compelling. We wanted to be the background, even if we made a mistake the guys we were snooping might chalk it up to wild deer. Of course deer don't shoot back. A week without sleep and you make mistakes. I got shot at a lot but I never got to return fire, I was a deer in the woods and deer don't shoot back.
The days blur together. We were tired, wet, cold, but we finally finished up the exercise. I think the cadre were as confused as we were since they were trying to build, develop, and deliver the course all at the same time. We finished up with some live fire exercises, I assume to prove that we could still shoot. We did some anti-sniper training against each other and against camouflage targets.
Graduation was a bit disappointing , none of us were going back into combat units to continue on as snipers. We were all going back to our old jobs. I was going back to be a tactic's instructor the other guys were going back to the weapons, maintenance and gunnery departments in the Infantry school. I picked up an additional Skill Qualification Identifier so my full Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) code was now 11B3HB4C2 11B= Grunt (Infantry) 3=Staff Sergeant, H=Instructor B4=Sniper, C2= DRAGON Gunner. I had to give them back my M24 Rifle, so it didn't seem like a fair trade.
I did end up with some cool sayings; from the cadre, "The important things are always simple; the simple things are always hard." from the Ranger instructors, "Never draw fire, it irritates everyone around you." and finally from the Marksmanship guys, "If you run, you'll only die tired."
By the end of the course I understood "One Shot, One Kill." I never really got the really important question answered, "If you have to lay in one position for 14 hours how do you take a leak?"
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