View Full Version : Well-trained snipers refine the act of killing

01-04-04, 11:41 AM
Friday, January 2, 2004

Well-trained snipers refine the act of killing
Iraq war, begun with bombs, is relying more on Army sharpshooters


SAMARRA, Iraq -- The intimate horror of the guerrilla war here in Iraq seems most vivid when seen through the sights of a sniper's rifle.

In an age of satellite-guided bombs dropped at featureless targets from 30,000 feet, Army snipers can see the expression on a man's face when the bullet hits.

"I shot one guy in the head, and his head exploded," said Sgt. Randy Davis, one of about 40 snipers in the Army's new 3,600-soldier Stryker Brigade, from Fort Lewis. "Usually, though, you just see a dust cloud pop up off their clothes and see a little blood splatter come out the front."

Working in teams of two or three, Army snipers in Iraq cloak themselves in the shadows of empty city buildings or burrow into desert sands with camouflage suits, waiting to fell guerrilla gunmen and their leaders with a single shot from as far as a half-mile away.

As the counterinsurgency grinds into its ninth month, the Army is increasingly relying on snipers to protect infantry patrols sweeping through urban streets and alleyways, and to kill guerrilla leaders and disrupt their attacks.

"Properly employed, we can break the enemy's back," said Davis, 25, of Murfreesboro, Tenn. "Our main targets are their main command and control elements and other high-value targets."

Soldiering is a violent business, and emotions in combat run high. But commanders say snipers are a different breed of warrior -- quiet, unflappable marksmen who bring a dispassionate intensity to their deadly task.

"The good ones have to be calm, methodical and disciplined," said Lt. Col. Karl Reed, who commands the Stryker Brigade's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, Davis' parent unit.

In the month since he arrived here on his first combat tour, Davis already has eight confirmed kills -- including seven in a single day -- and two "probables."

He and his partner, Spc. Chris Wilson, who has one confirmed kill, do not brag about their feats. Their words reflect a certain icy professionalism instilled in men who say they take no pleasure in killing, and try not to see their Iraqi foes as men with families and children.

"You don't think about it," said Wilson, 24, of Muncie, Ind. "You just think about the lives of the guys to your left and right."

Davis nodded in agreement: "As soon as they picked up a weapon and tried to engage U.S. soldiers, they forfeited all their rights to life, is how I look at it."

All soldiers are trained to destroy an opponent, but snipers have honed the art of killing to a fine edge. At a five-week training course at Fort Benning, Ga., they learn to stalk their prey, conceal their own movements, spot telltale signs of an enemy shooter and take down a target with a lone shot.

To qualify for the school, a soldier must already be an expert marksman, pass a physical examination and undergo a psychological screening ("to make sure they're not training a nut," Davis said). The rigorous course fails more than half of its students.

The demand for snipers is great enough that the Army has sent a team of trainers to Iraq to keep churning out new ones for the war effort here and in other hot spots.

As the Army faces more conflicts in which terrorists use the tight confines of city blocks and rooftops to stage hit-and-run strikes, the sniper school has placed increasing emphasis on urban tactics. That makes sense in places such as this city of 250,000 people, a hotbed of Saddam Hussein supporters 65 miles northwest of Baghdad.

The training paid off Dec. 18. Dusk was setting in, and Davis was wrapping up a countersniper mission when he spotted an armed Iraqi on a rooftop about 300 yards away. He said he knew the gunman was a sniper by the way he sneaked along the roofline to track a squad below from Davis' unit -- Company B, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.

"The guy made a mistake when he silhouetted himself against the rooftop," said Davis, who has 20/10 vision. "He was trying to look over to see where the guys were in the courtyard."

As the gunman rose from the shadows to fire, Davis said he saw his head and then the distinctive shape of a Dragonov SVD Russian-made sniper rifle. The sergeant drew a bead on the shooter with his weapon of choice, an M-14 rifle equipped with a special optic sight that has cross hairs and a red aiming dot.

"I went ahead and engaged him and shot him one time to the chest," he said, matter-of-factly. "I watched him kick back, his rifle flew back, and I saw a little blood come out of his chest. It was a good hit."

Three days earlier, Company B had walked into an ambush in downtown Samarra in which gunmen on motorcycles used children leaving school as cover to attack. Davis, armed this time with an M-4 rifle, shot seven of the 11 attackers that U.S. commanders say were killed in the 45-minute skirmish.

"We don't have civilian casualties," Davis said of how he avoided the schoolchildren. "You know where every round is going."

In city or desert, Army snipers spend hours planning and setting up their positions, often under cover of darkness.

Army snipers generally choose from four different weapons, depending on the mission. Davis' standard M-24 sniper rifle, painted sand color to blend in with the desert, is simple in design. It has an adjustable Kevlar stock, a thick stainless-steel barrel, a mounted telescopic, day/night scope and is bolt action, rather than semiautomatic, like other sniper rifles. It sets up on a bipod and fires 7.62 mm ammunition, hitting targets up to 1,000 yards away.

In the desert, snipers wrap plastic bags or condoms over the gun muzzle to keep out the sand. They carry their weapons in padded green canvas bags. "We baby the hell out of them," Davis said. They also carry spotting scopes, laser range finders and barometers (humidity can alter a bullet's course). In Iraq, the hot, dry air can cause a shot to run high.

Most snipers are familiar with firearms even before joining the armed forces. Davis and Wilson grew up on farms, and both owned their first rifles before they were 10.

There are not many targets these men dread, but in the shifting battlefield of Iraq, where seemingly everyone is armed, one candidate emerges. Would they ever shoot a child aiming at them?

"I couldn't imagine that," said Wilson, a father of five.

Davis said: "I'd shoot him; otherwise, he'd shoot me. But I wouldn't feel good about it."