Stealth Warriors
The Washington Post
March 09, 1997

28 April 1999
By Jeff Stein


Stealth Warriors; In an era of smart bombs and Tomahawk missiles, the armed forces are still carefully training snipers. They've learned there's still a place for a lone soldier with a 50-cent bullet.


Jeff Stein


Last spring, the military eggheads who think up new weapons went down to the Marine sniper school at Quantico. They had a new gizmo to test, a sensor that could detect body heat from afar, a scopelike instrument they could point toward a battlefield and unmask enemy soldiers advancing through the brush.

Below in the Quantico meadow, heavily camouflaged sniper students practiced slithering through the bogs and brush. Instructors peered through binoculars looking for a quivering branch, a ripple of leaves, a glint of sunlight off a long-range rifle scope, any slight sign of a sniper advancing up the hill. The trainees' mission was to get close enough to put an instructor's head in their cross hairs and pull the trigger - firing a blank, of course.

Occasionally the new device would beep. The officials, headed by an undersecretary of defense, Walter Slocombe, were all marveling over it as "unbeatable." But then, off to the side, a senior Marine sergeant with a shaved head and tattoos all up and down his arms cleared his throat.

"I beg to differ," said Neil Morris, a gunnery sergeant with 17 years in the Corps, most of them as a sniper. His eyes had a faraway look, as if he could sense a Libyan terrorist lighting a cigarette 10,000 miles away.

Dr. Death. Queequeg in cammies.

The officials asked what the sergeant had on his mind. With all due respect, Morris said, he could beat that thing. He asked permission to demonstrate, and trotted off.

For the next hour or so the officials scanned the woods and brush, the device beeping each time it detected a student sniper in the meadow. Their confidence in the gizmo grew. But suddenly, a mound of dirt and weeds only 15 yards away rose up, with a rifle and an old brush-covered umbrella. From a rictus in a green and black face, Morris said simply: "You're dead."

Snipers love that story, of course -- a Marine newspaper ran a front page picture of Gunny Morris and his famous $1.25 umbrella, which he bought in a flea market when he heard about the new sniper-detector. He'd simply put it in front of him to deflect its beams. In an era of million-dollar smart bombs, over-the-horizon cruise missiles, billion-dollar Stealth jets and satellites, he'd shown that a man and a 50-cent bullet still have a place on the battlefield. A place where the individual soldier can still make a difference. And a job where a man has to put his soul on hold.

Snipers have long been the junkyard dogs of U.S. military forces - treated like an ugly necessity, kept outside in the cold and rain, not fit for indoor company. Even in Vietnam, infantry unit commanders had deeply ambivalent feelings about them. Marine officers commonly banished snipers to latrine duty, according to sniping histories. Of 95 Marine sniper rifles in all of Vietnam in 1969, only 24 were serviceable and in use. Only later, after a few, soon-to-be-legendary snipers showed extraordinary effectiveness against the Viet Cong, did they gain grudging acceptance.

It was ironic, really, considering the storied place Yankee "sharpshooters" hold for picking off British redcoats during the American Revolution. Snipers played important roles on both sides in the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Their effectiveness was unquestioned, yet after every war, sniper training programs were effectively disbanded. The problem always was that snipers didn't fit into the American ideal of "fair fighting," standing tall like Gary Cooper in "High Noon," letting the bad guy shoot first, slugging it out in the open. Snipers were sneaky, like the Japanese depicted so satanically in war movies; they didn't give the other guy a fair chance. It wasn't Our Way of Fighting. And questions have persisted about when sniper fire should be considered a military attack, and when an act of political murder. As recently as 1992, the Pentagon felt compelled to issue a memorandum spelling out the difference between political assassination (which has been illegal since a 1976 executive order by President Ford) and combat sniping.

"Soldiers lawfully may be attacked behind their lines," it said. The suggestion that "a sniper is less than legal ... is the unenlightened view of sniping; it is also incorrect."

The importance and usefulness of sniping became increasingly evident in Somalia, when Marine snipers targeted the heavily armed "technicals" careening around in their jeeps and spraying United Nations forces with gunfire. Then came Bosnia, and Sarajevo's "sniper alley." Our guys shot back. Now, with more Somalias and Bosnias on the horizon -- as the Pentagon is thrust into "operations other than war" -- snipers look very valuable indeed, Davy Crocketts in the Age of Terrorism.

So the Marines go about their business, preparing their shooters for the next conflict. Sniping is treated as just another job -- one that has to be done. And in many ways -- and for most instructors and trainees -- it is. But there is also something elemental, something powerful, at work. Perhaps it flows from facing the act of killing so directly. Whatever it is, whatever the reason, it can have profound effects on a man.

It's a sparkling October morning in the woods at Quantico. Dew glistens on the yellow-brown leaves. Gunnery Sgt. Jim Owens, the top NCO at the Marine sniper school, one of four schools the Marines run, is peering at a ravine of bushes and bogs. Somewhere in the underbrush, a dozen trainees are creeping and sliding through the mud, branches, tall grass and rocks. The air is clear and still, so quiet you can hear yourself breathe.

There are five main elements of the nine-week course that turns an ordinary soldier into a professional sniper. Basic to the trade, of course, is shooting. A sniper has to be able to put a bullet into the chest of a target at 1,000 yards. Or a moving target -- a man on top of a tank, say, or someone sitting in the back seat of a speeding car -- from a shorter distance. He'll be taught how to shoot up, to a window, or down, from a rooftop. And to compensate for glass. That means learning how to calculate speed, wind, distance and trajectory.

A sniper also has to master sophisticated communication procedures and radios, which can link him to a field headquarters, jet fighters or even AWACS planes and satellites high overhead. (Theoretically, President Clinton, sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, could directly order a crouching sniper to take out an enemy general behind the lines half a world away.)

In the beginning, trainees spend hours personalizing their own "ghillie suits," the heavy webs of brush, hay, mud, fur, string, hair and cloth that turn them into human wookies. (The word "ghillie" originated with Scottish hunting garb.) That, though, is merely preparation for sniping's main event: the stalk, the highly disciplined, undetected approach to the target. It's where snipers make their reputation. It's where students are most likely to wash out.

Today at Quantico the trainees have two hours to travel about 400 yards up a slightly rising, narrow meadow without being detected by spotters who are sweeping the area with binoculars from a truck bed at the top of the hill.

"They got to learn to love the shadows," Owens rasps, sounding like Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now." He lifts his binoculars and points to the brush only 20 yards away. A sniper is moving through there, he tells me, but I still can't see him. Owens points to a shadow line across a gully. The morning sun, rising rapidly over the trees, is shifting the border of light.

"He's kind of rushing through it," Owens whispers. "With all that gear on him, low crawling in the underbrush, you can get impatient sometimes. You start to rush it. What you gotta do is pretty much take your time, blend in, and just start moving. If the terrain goes down, you go down with it. If it goes up, you go up with it. It's what we call Zen and the ground: Get down in it and flow with it. Pretty much shaping it, moving with it, pushing it slowly aside and letting it come back on its own."

Finally, I see a branch vibrate. Just then, Owens's radio spits with a message from a spotter. They've seen the trainee. Owens, unhappy, walks over to the man and talks quietly to him. He comes back, frustration spelled out on his face. In a real combat situation, his sniper might be dead.

Few troops would choose to spend a morning like this, even in today's sunny, fairly dry conditions. They wouldn't have the patience. And it's often not nearly this pleasant. At the sniper school at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, a trainee may spend his days and some nights crawling through swamps, being chewed by chiggers, bitten by ticks, backing away from snakes. The snipers must learn to ignore all of them.

"I once saw a trainee so covered in ticks I thought his skin was moving," an instructor recalls.

"The ones that will make it are very disciplined," says instructor Paul Rogers, a 26-year-old staff sergeant. But "you never can really tell who's going to be a good one."

The trainees are sitting in classroom rows, 17 young men in plain green fatigues with "high and tight" haircuts and lean, hungry looks. It's Day One at the Scout/Sniper School at Camp Lejeune, orientation.

One of them is Cpl. William McLeod, a polite, soft-spoken 25-year-old from Fort Walton Beach, Fla. McLeod and two other enlisted men have been sent for sniper training by their unit, the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion of the 3rd Marine Division. All of them talk matter-of-factly about their assignment, like car mechanics sent to Detroit for an advanced course on electronic fuel injection. It's a good opportunity to "broaden their skills."

Demand is high for snipers these days, and not just in the military. The plague of standoffs with domestic militias, crazed husbands holding their families hostage, the embassy takeover in Peru, and the threat of terrorism in general have all created job opportunities for skilled shooters at the FBI, CIA, State Department, Secret Service and police departments.

"Sniping is just one more item in the recon bag of tricks," says McLeod. "I'm glad to have it," adds one of his buddies, Cpl. Trevor Stewart, 23, "so I can be ready for anything."

Unlike the Navy Seals, Green Berets, Army Rangers and other elite soldiers, Marine snipers aren't awarded special headgear or insignia. Nothing outward indicates a man possesses the special skills; there is only a notation in his personnel jacket. Which is fine with most, since snipers are sometimes razzed by regular soldiers as "assassins" and "killers." For some of the young men in the classroom, the idea of belonging to a brotherhood so elite that it's anonymous is satisfying.

"I think one of the neatest things is there's no badge in it," McLeod says. "There's nothing you put on your uniform that says, 'I'm a sniper.' They know how to do their job and don't have to put anything on their chest to show it."

As the classroom faces reflect, sniping draws a disproportionate number of white males. Indeed, of 419 active-duty Marine snipers, according to Pentagon figures, only 18, or 4 percent, are African American, and only 21, or 5 percent, are Hispanic. There are smaller numbers of American Indians and men of Asian-Pacific origin. (Army figures are roughly the same.) Most of the men -- and they are all men -- are from the rural South, "hunting families," says Gunny Morris, who grew up in Stuarts Draft, Va., a small town deep in the Shenandoah Valley. Growing up hunting "may help sometimes," says an instructor, "because they're familiar with the weapon. In other cases it doesn't, because they can bring bad habits with them."

Their equipment is piled at their feet: boxes of radio gear, night vision goggles, binoculars and special long-range scopes. Their main weapon -- the M40A1 7.62mm sniper rifle, descended from a Remington deer rifle that many grew up with -- lies across their desks.

Sniping is not for beginners. Every young man in the room has come from a combat unit -- regular infantry, underwater warfare teams or "Force Recon," the Marines' long-range commando units. Some already have their parachute wings, or plan to go to jump school later. They're all at home with the basic mission of a frontline unit -- to annihilate an enemy as quickly as possible. After completing the course, they'll be assigned to formal sniper platoons or scattered among commando or regular infantry units.

The door opens to the shout of "Attention on Deck," and in strides the school commander, Lt. Col. Randy Smith. Of course, as a Marine officer, he's nearly shouting at the recruits from some very deep place in his lungs.

"You are an absolutely special Marine, who happens to have particularly refined and honed skills," he tells the new students. He walks up and down the aisles, explaining what they'll be taught over the next nine weeks, and what's expected of them. He asks if they know what their commanders will be looking for when they summon a sniper. Smith supplies the answer: "a man who can go out there in enemy territory, by himself or in a two-man team, away from any supporting unit or agency, and be able to do his job."

But he gives a warning.

"If you go out there and establish yourself as some kind of Lone Ranger cowboy," he says, "with some kind of aura, some kind of super-warrior aura out there, just because you put some shots on target here and went snoopin' and poopin' around Camp Lejeune, I can assure you ... when the shit hits the fan, and when you are needed to do the job for real, you will not be the one selected to do it."

No Rambos Need Apply. It's a theme Smith and his officers proffer at every opportunity: Snipers must be under control, always under control. That lesson got some powerful reinforcement in 1992, when a graduate of the Marine sniping program, an FBI agent, shot Vicki Weaver in the head as she stood in the doorway of her cabin at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, her baby in her arms. The Justice Department subsequently criticized the FBI's rules of engagement, concluding its agent was not under proper control. And as the Ruby Ridge controversy continued to boil last summer, the Pentagon suspended sniper training for all civilian law enforcement officers. The FBI got an exemption in November but has not yet resumed training with the Marines.

So the issue of control is of particular interest to Smith, and he engages it eagerly over coffee in his office. Outside his window he can see a scrubby grass parade field that sometimes doubles as a training ground for sniper night maneuvers. "If we say to a Marine, we want you to crawl out there in enemy territory," he says, "and not be compromised and engage the enemy threat in such a manner, he's gonna do exactly that. If we say the rules of engagement are such that you are going to shoot this kind of target only, that's exactly what he's going to do. If a new commander has a sniper who he thinks is a rogue, who's going to take shots as he sees fit, he's not the kind of guy you want." The program, he adds, "is designed to screen for the kind of individual we're looking for, who we can give the rifle to."

Surprisingly, there are no formal written tests -- no psychological or IQ workups, for example -- but there are clear areas of emphasis: marksmanship, physical endurance, leadership, maturity and judgment. Candidates are chosen mostly through direct evaluation by an infantry battalion commander or NCO, who "sees them at duty, on liberty -- he knows if they're having problems in the field or with their girlfriends," Smith says. "A commander's not going to recommend a Marine to us who's not mature."

Stalking a man, though, is a very special calling, isn't it? It calls for a different mind-set.

"It's very personal," Smith readily concedes. "There's a very real difference between a soldier carrying a rifle in a platoon or company and a sniper with a scope at 10 power who's going to very selectively pick out his target ... At 300 yards a regular infantryman with an M-16 is just going to see a blob. At a thousand yards a sniper is actually going to see the face and body of the person he's going to shoot ...

"The thing I'm trying to get across to you," he adds, "is sniping is so much more personal. The enemy is not just a gray uniform running across the road. He's a guy you watch lighting a cigarette, cross his legs. You may sit there and watch him for an hour before you take him out ... You may even have a profile of him: He smokes with his left hand, he's got blue eyes."

Sometimes, Smith says, a sniper's orders may be to creep up on an enemy force and start picking off the lowliest men in a unit, the hapless privates, "somebody who's taking a break like any GI in the world, sitting on his butt, smoking a cigarette, eating his chow. He just happens to be wearing a different uniform. He just happens to be on the enemy side. You're looking at him right in the eye."

It takes some getting used to, Smith concedes. But "in the dynamics of the course," he says, "a Marine comes to realize what he's going to do."

It's a mid-November day at Camp Lejeune, four weeks into training. No one has dropped out yet. The 17 sniper trainees are somewhere in the brush, inching their way through a field ruffled with tall goldenrod. The sun is high overhead. At the top of the meadow, 800 yards away, instructors scan the field with their binoculars, looking for the fatal quiver of grass.

Deep in the high grass, Cpl. McLeod is struggling. Chigger bites have welted his face, arms and legs. His sweat makes them sting. He can't scratch -- too dangerous, and he doesn't have time. The ghillie suit is weighing him down. And after 2 1/2 hours, he's only made it across a shallow creek and halfway up the hill. Other students are way ahead of him. He inches forward on his side, his belly, his side again, dragging his rifle behind him. He's carefully planting a hand in the grass, careful not to make an abrupt movement. At the top of the hill, he sees the binoculars sweeping toward him, like a searchlight on a prison yard.

Finally, he slips behind a bush, and sets up a final firing position. Something goes wrong. A flash off his scope, maybe. A nudge of a branch. An instructor is standing over him.

"At first you're mad. You say there's no way you saw me," McLeod tells me later. It's the third or fourth time he's been flushed out in a stalking exercise. He's dejected. He knows time is running out.

"I got popped one time for movement -- they caught me moving across an open area. But all the other times I was in my final fire position or looking for it and I made a mistake. I moved a tree, or they saw my veil or something on my ghillie suit, some sort of indication I was there."

He's mastered everything but the stalking, he says. "It's really taking a toll on me. I'm not a very good stalker, I'm not getting it. I can get within 200 yards, but I just have trouble finding position. I don't understand what I'm doing wrong . . ."

Will he make it? "I'm not sure, not today I'm not. It's eating me up."

His buddy Trevor Stewart, however, is doing well. For the first time, he's put a man's face in his cross hairs and pulled the trigger. Bang! His target happened to be Gunny Morris, sitting in a truck at the top of the hill. Morris was talking on the radio, joking with another instructor. Studying him through a telescopic sight, Stewart had the sensation of watching a silent movie.

Stewart had crossed a threshold of sorts. "You shoot a cardboard target a million times a day," he says, "but it's not moving, not looking back at you."

"It's really exhilarating, it really is," he says. "You know if it was a real situation, you've accomplished your mission."

For his part, Cpl. McLeod says he doesn't really think about the killing moment that much. "They got lots of things hangin' on the wall, talking about saving other lives, that sorta get your mind off of it," he says. "You know, like you're not out there murdering people, you're out there trying to save other Marines' lives, which is about the only way we can look at it, and it's about the only way I've thought about it."

Do the sniper trainees ever talk about the act of killing among themselves? "Not really. It never really came up," he says.

What does come up is the melding of a man and his historic moment, the belief that a single shot might determine the fate of a battle, or even a war. As one instructor puts it with intense satisfaction, "You're the man."

There's no way to be certain a sniper will take a shot when the real thing comes along, instructors say. But as with any military training, the mind-set is introduced, then drummed in.

"You know what?" says Sgt. Darren Carey, a 13-year Marine from Sayville, N.Y., a sniper trainee at Quantico. "The guys who graduate are so concerned with getting there, stalking safely, keeping positive commo [communications], creating a proper window, making sure the weapon is working properly, that when it comes to pulling the trigger . . ." He opens his palms, a gesture of inevitability.

"You gotta know yourself well," Carey says, "and if it weren't something for me . . . I'd think I'd have enough G-2 [intelligence] to say to myself, 'Step down.' "

The real thing was much more than one sniper bargained for when he pulled the trigger the first time in Somalia. Highly armed militiamen in Mogadishu were taking potshots at troops under the U.N. command. At one minute before noon on February 11, 1993, U.N. trucks were jammed up under a searing sun at the entrance to the port where supplies were being unloaded, when the Marine sniper, now an instructor at Camp Lejeune, spied an armed man darting behind a truck. A few minutes later he saw the Somali climb onto a grain truck and raise a rifle to his shoulder, aiming in the direction of the troops.

The Marine instantly made his decision. He centered the man's chest in his cross hairs.

The rest unfolded like a slow-motion, silent movie. He knows there was the crack of a rifle shot, because people scattered and flung themselves to the ground. But he can't remember any sounds.

"The one thing I remember -- I remember seeing his shirt go 'poof' when I hit him," the Marine says now. "He was just looking up in the air with his mouth open, gasping for air, and I just sat there, I just sat there. And then I thought, 'He's going to get back up,' and then I racked that bolt really hard; I almost ripped the bolt out of the back."

Instead, the Somali slumped onto the pile of grain on the truck. The sniper was surprised. "There's no blood, there's no nothing," he says, recalling the moment. "You just -- he just spun a little and lay down on the grain."

The Marine later learned that his first sniping kill was about 40 years old, with a wife and several children. "That wasn't really something I needed to know," he says thickly.

When he got back home, he and his wife talked about it together. She wept. Today, the experience still triggers difficult emotions. "I do think about it," he says. "The only bad part of being an instructor is that I have to relive it every time I retell it. Just like now. I mean, I'm not shaking or anything, but I'm back there. I'm thinking about it. There's always . . ." His voice trails off. "Sometimes you just wish it would go away or whatever."

Now, he prepares sniper students about the emotional side of killing a human being. But within limits. "You try not to give them too much information," he says. "That would make them hesitate."

On December 12, Cpl. McLeod washed out. The stalking got him.

"I got overanxious and clipped a tree in front of me instead of raising my tripod up a bit," he is saying shortly thereafter. The instructor saw powder burns on the three-inch branch and said, "That round would've never gotten there." In effect, his intended victim would have been able to shoot back.

He's feeling "about as low as I've ever felt about anything -- I've never failed anything in the Marine Corps before. And this is a first time for me."

But with the failure comes a sense of relief -- "The pressure was all off," he says, "the threat of failing wasn't there anymore" -- followed by reflection and a new decision. In February he will reenroll in the program, explaining, "My unit needs me with that skill.

Three hundred miles north at Quantico, Darren Carey's sniper class is entering its final week. It's a sunny, warm day on the rifle range. Morale is high, because everyone has survived the stalking exercises. He and his fellow trainees are firing an array of Warsaw Pact and NATO automatic weapons.

"Everybody here realizes it's a very serious game. A very deadly game, a very serious situation they're putting themselves into," says Carey, who has spent most of his time in the Corps as a demolition specialist with a tough, door-kicking Force Recon unit. Among other dangerous spots, he's been deployed to Haiti and Colombia, where he was on a team that monitored the movements of suspected narco-terrorists during a drug summit attended by President Bush.

He's not, in other words, soft. But the sniping course has caused him to look deeper into himself.

"For a true professional, it's a faceless target," he says. "You're not looking at the crease in his face or the type of eyebrows, the type of nose he has. You're seeing a silhouette, maybe eyes and lips. Basically you're seeing a threat, a personal threat; it's you or him."

But he's decided he won't invest himself completely in the mind-set of a professional sniper. He is going to tuck away a little piece of himself for later, when he isn't a sniper anymore.

"I've got to hold some back for me," he explains, sun washing his face. "Not me Sergeant Carey, but me -- Darren. I mean, I'm going to be a civilian sometime, I want to get married and have a family.

"I'll need to preserve part of me that is Darren, the person, not Darren, the sniper."

Jeff Stein was a military intelligence case officer in Vietnam and is the author of Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War.


Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps; Photo, courtesy Public Affairs Office/Quantico and Camp Lejeune, A Marine sniper in camouflage and armed with an M40A1 rifle.

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