STEALTHY ... IMPERTURBABLE ... DISCIPLINED ... LETHAL
Marine Snipers Know They'll Always Be Needed in War
Sgt. Justin Olson, wearing his ghillie suit, passes the reminder
By Steve Vogel,
|The two Marine Corps snipers were hidden in a bramble in the Virginia countryside, all but invisible. Their ghillie suits -- eerie, shaggy smocks that absorb light and disguise the human form -- were woven with foliage matching their surroundings. All their exposed skin was painted in camouflage, although Cpl. Shawn McDaniel, with his big grin, had ignored his partner's sarcastic suggestion to put cammy paint on his teeth.
They called themselves Team Hoosier. Sgt. Geoff Schenher, 26, and McDaniel, 24, both from Indiana and attending the scout sniper school at Quantico Marine Corps Base, had already taken out one of the half-dozen enemy sniper teams moving through the woods, hunting for them. Now, they were lying in wait for more.
Schenher was covering the tree line with the long barrel of his M-40 sniper rifle. McDaniel, lying on his hip, was covering Schenher's rear with an assault rifle. They never spoke, instead using the tap-squeeze method to communicate if they heard anything. In modern warfare, where super-sophisticated, high-tech weapons are able to destroy targets from long distances with increasing precision, snipers seem anachronistic. But the snipers at Quantico are not worried about that. In Afghanistan, or wherever the war on terrorism goes, or the war after that, they know they will always get the call. "Those kinds of skills -- stealth, patience, discipline and lethality -- will never go out of style on a battlefield, I don't care how high-tech it gets," said Lt. Col. George H. Bristol, who commanded sniper teams during the U.S. intervention in Somalia in 1993.
The woods had been very dark and shadowy when Team Hoosier took its position in the earlymorning. But as the day wore on and the sun intensified, it had grown brighter in the bramble. The team's position was slowly worsening, Schenher realized. He wished they were covered with more vegetation, but they'd had little time. Now, Sgt. Robert Bowen and Cpl. Tim Scott were inching toward them. They were trained snipers, too, but they were at a distinct disadvantage: They were moving.
Schenher and McDaniel heard them coming a full minute before seeing them. They waited for Bowen and Scott to get close enough -- maybe 25 yards to make a positive ID. Crack. It was a blank, but at that range, the shot couldn't help but startle.
Scott froze. He stared into the bramble where the shot had come from. All he could see were McDaniel's big white teeth, grinning at him 'Precision Capability' Their credo is one shot, one kill. Marine snipers, firing M-40 sniper rifles only somewhat modified from the ones used in Vietnam more than three decades ago, can make a clean kill from 1,000 yards in a way that a laser-guided bomb, an armored column or a missile fired by an unmanned aerial vehicle cannot.
"There's always that need to limit collateral damage," said Capt. Jonathan Bradley, the officer in charge of the school. "We don't want CNN reporting that we leveled villages. That's not advantageous. Snipers do provide a precision capability." Still, even in some military circles, snipers are outcasts. Though attached to units, Marine snipers are highly independent and in combat will operate in small teams, far in front of the regular infantry. "A lot of people say: 'Oh, that's dirty warfare. Come out and fight like a man,' " Bristol said. "In my opinion, it's about being the ultimate man.
"It taps into something that's very old and very deep in all of us, males in particular, and that's the ability to sneak up on something unseen and deliver a life-taking blow. That's just about as old as time, with the hunter-gatherers." There is no shortage of Marines who want to attend one of the seven classes the sniper school holds each year: About 100 a year are selected by their commanders to attend. Apart from marksmanship, candidates are screened for maturity and good conduct. And there are certain intangibles.
"While every Marine is a marksman, only a select few can be a sniper, because it's a lot different mental makeup," Bristol said. "You certainly have more of the mind of the hunter than the bar brawler." That is evident within the cinder-block walls of the school, a single-story building near rifle ranges deep within the 60,000-acre Quantico reservation. One wall of the classroom is decorated with a painting showing a cigar-chomping boar Marine, armed with a rifle and sword, holding up a skull dripping blood. It is titled, "Scout Sniper -- Hunters of Gunmen." Animal skulls line the shelves. A poster carries a sniper slogan: "Death from afar."
One wall features autographed pictures of Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock, the most famous Marine sniper of them all. He killed 93 enemy soldiers in Vietnam, more than anyone else and often in staggeringly difficult conditions. After the war, he helped create the sniper school, and Gunny Hathcock, as he is called, is discussed in reverential terms. Schenher and McDaniel were attending the Scout Sniper Advanced Course, an eight-week course in advanced marksmanship, ballistics and mission planning, culminating with field exercises. Only the best snipers are admitted -- 19 this year.
In the course, as in sniping itself, much depends on the art of camouflage. "We teach the snipers to literally disappear," Bradley said. "They learn to become one with the environment, to look like nothing." The curriculum is filled with history: Leonardo da Vinci firing a rifle he designed to pick of enemy soldiers from the besieged walls of Florence, the shot that felled Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar, the role of snipers at Gettysburg, the birth of modern sniper tactics in the trenches of World War I, and the legendary World War II sniper duel between Lt. Zaitsev and Maj. Konig at Stalingrad.
The duel, subject of the movie "Enemy at the Gates," holds a particular fascination with the Quantico snipers. Said Bradley, "To think that one sniper could change the fate of the war . . . The school does not rely on books and celluloid alone to inspire the snipers. Most classes have a session with one of the sniper legends who fought in conflicts such as Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and Somalia. Gunny Hathcock himself used to visit regularly until he died in 1999. "They want to measure themselves against those people in the past," said Bristol, who is well known in sniping circles and was the graduation speaker for a class this year. "He's a cold-blooded assassin," a student said admiringly of Bristol.
Washington Post Staff Writer 6 August 2002