At the same time that we started working with scopes on the .308, we also started working in pairs, taking turns as shooter and as spotter. The shooter’s job is to put everything else out of his mind, take the information the spotter feeds him, and make a perfect shot, period. As we soon learned, the spotters’ job is in many ways more complex and more difficult.
As spotter, you are on the spotting scope, identifying and monitoring the target. Your job is to calculate windage and give target lead if necessary (that is, how much to compensate for the target’s movement). As spotter you also watch the shot trace, which tells its own story and either proves the call dead-on accurate or, if not, gives important clues for correcting the next shot. Yes, even though it is traveling at speeds of 2,000 feet per second and upwards, you actually watch the damn thing: in most cases you can literally see those vapor trails all the way in to the target.
The spotter has to take all these considerations into account—and we had to learn it all in a hell of a hurry, or we would be going home.
Even aside from the fact that we were friends, Glen and I soon found that we made an excellent sniper pair. Glen is a naturally gifted marksman. I don’t remember him ever missing a single shot, and most of his shots were perfect tens. For my part, I seemed to have a natural gift for reading the wind and being able to calculate all the conditions and circumstances. Again, I think this had to do with my experience with navigation and having grown up in the water. Water currents and wind currents may be two very different things, but it is really the same basic concept, albeit in different media and moving at much different speeds. When you’re sailing or boating, you’re always thinking, “What’s the weather doing, how is this affecting my point A to point B.” It’s the same dynamic when you’re preparing to fire a bullet: “I’m here, my target’s there—what factors are affecting my getting from here to there?”
Reach your hand down into a stream or lake, and you might notice that it looks like it juts off as if your arm were suddenly bent at a sharp angle. Likewise, when you see a trout in a stream, it isn’t located exactly where it looks like it’s located. This is because the light is refracted by the body of water, creating an optical illusion. The same thing happens in the atmosphere. When the sun is low in the horizon it creates the same kind of refractory optical illusion, and you have to compensate for that in your aim, maybe dial it down a minute of angle.
With my knack for spotting and Glen’s natural gifts as a shooter, we made a deadly pair. Plus, we were both new guys, and we felt the same pressure to get this right. We’d have a few beers at night, but we didn’t drink or carouse much. We were focused on staying locked on tight and getting through this thing.
Not that there was much going on in the way of nightlife anyway. Coalinga is a small town, with a prison, some farming, and not a whole lot more going on. On rare occasions we went out for a drink or got a bite to eat in town. Most often, though, we’d make a big bonfire right there where we were camping, drink a few beers, and tell each other crazy stories.
One guy, Ken, had a Penthouse magazine and would lie there at night in his sleeping bag jerking off, thinking he had all the privacy in the world. Unfortunately, he had this head lamp switched so he could see his damn magazine, and as a result he would unintentionally be giving the whole camp a shadow-puppet show on the wall of his tent. “Goddamit, Ken, quit jerking off!” we’d yell out. “Or at least turn off the damn light!”
The range had a nice little grass campground complete with a kitchen and a restrooms/shower area. All the students were instructed to bring a tent and kit. Most of the guys traveled pretty light. I take just what I need, and it all fits in my pack. Guys in the teams had a saying, “Pack light and mooch.” My saying was, “Don’t pack light—pack right.” Not Glen, though. As I soon learned, Glen liked to travel in comfort, which meant plenty of extras. He was like a one-man gypsy camp. He must have gone out and bought the biggest tent he could find at the local K-mart; that thing could have slept a family of ten. He had three fuel-burning lanterns, a radio, a coffee-maker, a generator … it was out of control.
We were partners, so my tent was right next to his. I love Glen like a brother, but this was torture. That son of a bitch would be up and about for a solid hour before anyone else in camp even started thinking about opening our eyes, and once he was up it was nearly impossible to stay asleep because his gypsy encampment lit up the whole side of my tent. First I was awakened by the blinding white glow and steady hum of his Coleman exploration power lanterns. Then the sounds would start: his percolating coffee pot, then some sort of eighties rock music blaring through his earphones, which he thought we couldn’t hear but in fact only made him even more oblivious to the extent of the racket he was making, messing around with all his stuff, clattering around and getting his coffee ready, burping and farting but not hearing himself because he had those earphones in, then followed by his electric toothbrush, endless loud gargle, and the invariable lengthy punctuating spit that made us all groan. After a week or so of this daily routine, the guys began referring to Glen’s morning ablutions as “Chernobyl.”
If I had my choice, I would pull myself out of sleep maybe twenty minutes before we had to muster up, giving myself just enough time to brush my teeth, throw some water on my face, and grab my gear. But no. I tried for days, but it was not possible. Finally I succumbed and started letting Glen be my alarm clock.
Soon we had our first graded test on the .308.
As pairs we shared a combined grade, so we knew we would sink or swim together as a shooter/spotter pair. Glen and I scored in the nineties on that first test, but by that time we were both feeling completely frazzled and harried.
Still, we knew we had developed into a solid shooting pair, and we seemed to handle the stress better than many of the other guys. During that first paired shooting evolution, we could see the tension level in some of the other pairs simmering to the point where, by the time of that test, a few of them went through complete meltdowns.
Typically what happened was that the spotter would make a bad call, or even worse, not make a call at all and leave his shooter partner hanging. One or two of these bad call scenarios and the honeymoon would be way beyond over. We saw guys actually throw down and get into a knock-down-drag-out fist fight because a buddy had fucked up multiple calls. Needless to say, this constituted a guaranteed ticket home.
Pretty soon it dawned on us that the steadily escalating stress we were seeing was no accident. Not only was it intentional, it was being carefully orchestrated. Our instructors were constantly watching, pushing, and testing us to see who could handle the stress and who could not.
One day, while I was spotting, Glen took a shot that I could clearly see had struck the target—but our instructor marked it as a miss.
“What?!” Glen exclaimed—and I knew what he was about to say next: That’s total bullshit!
“Don’t worry,” I told him, “you’re fine. It was a hit.”
We continued on with the evolution unfazed. Later we learned that the instructor had called down to the butts over the radio and told the students who were working our lane to mark his hit as a miss. Why? Just to fuck with us and see how we would handle it.
We were fortunate. By this time Glen had developed total faith in my spotting, making us killing machines on the range—and we had already realized that the instructors were playing games with us to see how well we handled adverse situations. Some guys didn’t get this and they would self-destruct, carrying the falsified missed shots into a testable evolution and failing miserably.
They gave us two kinds of tests on the .308, starting with a snaps and movers test.
Snaps and movers involves targets that suddenly appear out of nowhere, snapping upright in a variety of locations and at different, unpredictable time intervals, and targets that move continuously, left and right, in random and unpredictable order. These are full-size E-silhouette targets, a flat panel with a sort of bottle-shaped silhouette on it that represents a human torso and head. Typically we had three head snaps and three moving targets on each yard line, positioned at the 200-yard, 400-yard, 600-yard, and 800-yard lines.
Working with snaps and movers was where we learned how to lead a moving target. This is tricky, because you have to take into account what the wind is doing and calculate for the distance that you have to lead ahead of the target as it moves. It can feel counterintuitive at first, because often you don’t want to aim where common sense tells you that you ought be aiming.
I remember the first time I put my crosshairs directly on the target, even though it was obviously not stationary and everything in me was screaming at me to move the crosshairs a few degrees off in the direction the target was moving—in other words, to lead the target. But according to what we were learning, the wind would push my bullet out of its attempted straight path and, over the course of its arc toward the target, actually blow it into the target and cancel out those few degrees of lead. If this sounds like some kind of bizarre funhouse-mirror maze of calculations and competing factors, that’s exactly what it felt like—and it all had to happen on a time scale of thousandths of a second. It felt completely wrong, but the logic of external ballistics told me it was right on the money.
I squeezed the trigger and ping! the target went down.
Next was an unknown distance test. For this, they laid out a series of steel targets in each lane at various elevations and distances, all the way from 50 yards to 900 yards, which was right at the outer limit of effective range for the .308—only we didn’t know exactly what any of these elevations and distances were. This was where we started really learning how to use our scopes, and in particular, learning range estimation using the mil dot scope reticle.
The reticle, or crosshairs, in a sniper rifle scope is outfitted with two series of tiny dots, called mil dots, that run horizontally and vertically through the field of vision and allow us to measure the approximate height and width of sighted objects by making some simple visual calculations.
If we saw that our target measured, say, 1.5 mil in height in the scope, and we knew the target’s actual height in inches, then we could plug that into a formula that would then give us the target’s distance. As long as we had a known measurement to work with, we could work out the exact range. Practically any kind of known measurement would do. We learned to ask questions like, “What’s the standard dimension of a middle-Eastern license plate? What’s the height and dimension of a standard stop sign in the middle East? What’s the standard window height?” We learned to record this information carefully, knowing that sooner or later, we would be in a situation in some middle Eastern country and need to know how to calculate the range of a target so we could dial in the correct elevation before taking the shot—and do it fast.
We also have laser rangefinders, of course, which give us these measurements directly, but in the sniper course we had to learn how to make these calculations the hard way. To tell the truth, even with all the new technology, it’s still smart to know how to do this by hand. You don’t want to count on always having a laser rangefinder handy—as I would find out first-hand in the midst of split-second, life-or-death circumstances in the mountains of northern Afghanistan.
We practiced ranging these targets, and once we ranged them we shot to verify that we had ranged correctly. Then we make slight modifications, if necessary, and shot again. We had ample opportunity to perfect the process in practice tests. But when the final test day came, our shit had to be seriously dialed in, because then it was game on and no second chances.
After spending weeks practicing and testing with the .308, they put us on the .300 Win Mag, which packs more power than the .308 and can therefore shoot to ranges up to a thousand yards and beyond. Each of these has its own character and idiosyncrasies, and by the time the shooting phase was over we had come to know them both like old friends.
We also started doing some longer-distance shooting with the .50 cal sniper rifle. The .50 cal bullet is a monster, about twice the size of the .308, and it can shoot way out past 1,000 yards to 1,500, even 1,800 yards. It’s also a more stable bullet with a little more powder and oomph behind it, and serves more as what we call an area weapon, meaning that we would typically use it for things like shooting out an engine block in a vehicle or the propeller system in a Scud missile.
And here something strange happened. When we started getting out to a certain distances with the .50 cal, we started seeing effects we just didn’t understand. We were shooting out to 1,500 yards, shooting at tanks and other big targets, and I wondered, “How come I’m holding for a ten-mile-an-hour wind that’s coming in from the right, but the bullet’s still not on target—and I can see the trace doing something weird. What the hell is going on?”
What was going on, I eventually learned, was the Coriolis effect, which refers to the influence of the earth’s rotation on bodies in motion. Yes, incredibly enough, on top of all the other environmental and ballistic information a sniper keeps in his head, the earth’s frigging rotation is yet one more factor to bear in mind. Here’s why:
While my .50 cal bullet was in the air, the earth’s rotation would cause the planet’s surface and everything on it—including my target—to slip slightly eastward, so that by the time the bullet landed, nothing was exactly where it had been when that bullet’s flight began. Because the earth is so large and the local impact of its rotation so subtle, it’s practically impossible to detect this without scientific instruments, until you start looking at motion over large distances—like 1,500 yards.
Shooting out to 200 yards, 500 yards, even 800 or 1,000 yards, the impact of the Coriolis effect is so negligible that you can get away with ignoring it. But once you’re shooting out to some serious distances, it can move your bullet’s trajectory by as much as several inches, enough to cause you to completely miss your target.
It was all such a massive amount of information to synthesize, and I soon learned to use my brain as a lens to bring that entire universe of variables to bear on the tiny circle of focus inside my scope. This also meant blocking out any distractions, such as when the instructors intentionally messed with us to get us flustered and throw us off our game, or our own fears about not passing the course, and pouring every atom of concentration into that focal point.
We had learned to use the PEQ laser sight that projects a visible red dot on the target. (Another version of this scope projected an infrared red dot visible only through night vision, allowing us to sight targets without giving our position away. Today these two functions are combined into one model.) That red dot came to represent everything I was learning, compressed into a pinpoint of brilliant light.
It was as if I were standing inside a minuscule red circle, hurling the bullet to its destination by an act of sheer mental concentration. In those moments on the range everything else disappeared and my world shrank, like the near-infinite compression of matter in a black hole, into that red circle.
At the same time we were learning the various weapons and going through snaps and movers and unknown distances testing, we continued with those cold bore tests—which our instructors somehow managed to make more stressful every day. They had a truly devious genius at doing this, as they ably demonstrated on one of our classmates, Bill.
Bill had a brother going through BUD/S training at the time that we were in sniper school. Although none of us knew this at the time, it turned out that Bill’s brother had thrown in the towel and rung that brass bell, which meant his class helmet had been put out there on the ground along with all the other quitters’ helmets, their names facing out for all to see.
One of our instructors managed to get this guy’s helmet and affixed it to Bill’s cold bore target. The poor guy had no idea his brother had quit BUD/S until the moment when, out of breath and under the extreme pressure of the morning’s cold bore shot, he zeroed in on his target as it popped up—and saw his brother’s name on that helmet. To his credit, he scored a clean head shot, dead center. I heard later that his brother wasn’t too happy about it, but we were all quite impressed with the shot, and we proceeded to give Bill plenty of credit for it, along with an equal amount of shit about his brother quitting BUD/S.
As tense as our tests were, our instructors did not leave it to circumstances to apply the pressure. They found all kinds of creative and diabolical ways to tighten the screws. For example: You think you’re going to take your test eight hours from now, in the cool of the evening—and suddenly the instructors inform you that you’re taking it in fifteen minutes, right here at the blindingly hottest point of midday. Or: You’re on the range, testing on movers and snaps—and you suddenly realize your moving target is tilted because it wasn’t put up all the way.
Tough: deal with it. Adapt and overcome.
The more we learned, the more we practiced, the more we tested, the more grueling it got. All the while, our class size shrank as our classmates dropped away, one by one. Finally six weeks had gone by and it was time for our final test.
Before the test itself, the instructors sat each of us down for a brief conference, telling us what our grade was so far, where we were strong and where we needed to focus to improve. I appreciated the fact that they did this. Unfortunately, that moral support stopped there: once we got to the test itself, we found we had Phil Slattery as the test instructor. Slattery was a genuine asshole. Some of our instructors were harsh and strict, but we always knew they really wanted us to do well. For example, Crampton, the outgoing Master Chief: when Crampton was hard on us, it was clear that he was being hard on us for our benefit. Not Slattery. He treated us like dirt—especially the new guys, which included Glen and me. With Slattery, we never got the sense that he was tough on us for our sake. He just didn’t give a shit.
The test was again a combination of snaps and movers and unknown distance. And again, as a sniper team, we not only took every test together, we also combined our individual grades so that we were graded as a team, not as individuals. And it’s a good thing: if not for that, one of us would have left the range and gone back home.
On the .300 Win Mag snaps and movers, we did well, both shooting into the nineties. Then we moved to the unknown distance.
I went first. We ranged the targets, then it was time for me to shoot. We had a time limit of twenty minutes for this part of the test, so we had to keep it moving along—but we started having some trouble. Glen was experiencing a little bit of difficulty reading the wind and putting me on the target. As the shooter, my job was to focus on making a good shot. As the spotter, it was up to Glen to control me with his instructions. “Okay, dial in X for your elevation,” he would say, “and hold X for wind,” and then I would take the shot while Glen watched closely to see the bullet’s vapor trail so he could make any necessary adjustments for the next shot. In this case, the spotter was also responsible for keeping track of time, since we were on the clock.
We were on our third lane, with two more lanes to go, when I started having an uneasy sense that we were running out of time. “Hey,” I said to Glen, “how much time do we have?”
“We’re okay,” he assured me. “Plenty of time.”
I let it go and put all my focus on the next target. Glen continued on, methodically evaluating the conditions so he could put me on the next shot—and suddenly Slattery called out, “Time!”
I stared at Glen. “What the hell?!” I had eight bullets and two lanes worth of targets left. We were out of time.
Glen stared at his watch, devastated. “Dude, I don’t know what happened.”
And Slattery just stood there grinning and laughing at us.
I was furious—not at Glen, because I knew there was no way he would have intentionally messed this up. But I was stunned. What the hell happened here? To this day, I don’t know what went wrong. Glen was keeping track on a bezel watch rather than a stopwatch, and maybe put his bezel to the wrong number. Whatever it was, it had happened, and we were screwed. I had scored something like a 60.
Fortunately for us, we had hit every target we’d shot at, so we hadn’t dropped any rounds. And because we were combining our grades, we still had a chance. Now it was Glen’s turn to shoot and my turn to spot, which meant we were both about to play to our strengths.
“Okay, listen,” I said, “we have to get you a score of 95 or higher.”
If he shot a 95 or higher, we could still come out with a combined score that would squeak us by this test. That meant Glen could miss one shot, and only one shot: the rest would have to be perfect 100s. This was our last test before leaving the range and moving on to the stalking phase—if we did move on. But if we didn’t score a 95 or higher on Glen’s shoot, then at least one of us would not be going on to the stalking phase. Glen might or might not be out, but I definitely would be history.
Meanwhile Glen was still beating himself up.
“Dude,” I said, “we need to let this go. We need to clean this test. Let’s just do this thing.”
So we did. Ignoring Slattery’s jackass chuckling, we switched places and slid over to the next lane. I was like a machine, calling that wind. I put him on every shot, and he took every shot. We both put everything else out of our minds and put ourselves on the top of our game. Glen shot a 95. When they did the scoring, Glen had tied another guy, Mike Bearden, for the highest score of the day.
Just before we left Coalinga to move on to the stalking phase, we held a shoot-off to see who would win a brand new shotgun that a manufacturer had donated. It came down to Glen and Mike Bearden, the same student who’d tied Glen for the top spot on the day of that last test.
Mike, whom we called “the Bear,” was not only a crack shot, he was also a great guy, someone that everyone just naturally loved to be around. The Bear was paired up with a guy named Sean who had been in my BUD/S class, and who earned the nickname Happy. (Sean and I are good friends to this day, like two of Snow White’s seven dwarves: Happy and Dirty.)
It was a great contest. They used the .300 Win Mag, which shoots almost a thousand feet per second faster than the .308 and has a much flatter trajectory. Glen Bud and the Bear matched each other, shot for shot, right out to a thousand yards. Finally, at the thousand-yard mark, Glen missed the shot—and Mike hit it, edging out my partner by a hair and winning the shotgun. The Bear had triumphed. Of course I was rooting for Glen, but I didn’t begrudge the Bear his win; he was just too damn likable not to feel good about it.
The way things turned out, I would always be especially glad that the Bear left Coalinga with that victory under his belt. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Having cleared the hurdles of the shooting phase, we headed off to the Niland desert for the second half of the sniper course: the stalking phase. Now that we had all these skills on the gun, it was time to train us in the arts of camouflage and stealth so that we could with 100 percent consistency and reliability place ourselves in the necessary position to use those skills. It doesn’t matter how good a shot you are if you can’t get close enough to take the shot in the first place.
Once we got camped out and settled in the instruction began, starting with classes on stealth and movement. We learned how to use natural vegetation to our advantage, especially in outfitting our ghillie suits.
The ghillie suit traces back to the Scottish Highlanders who served in the British Army in World War I as Lovat Scouts, forerunners of the modern sniper. Many of these men had been gamekeepers in civilian life, often called ghillies (from the Gaelic term for servant, as they served as hunt guides for the wealthy), where they had cultivated the art of weaving bits and pieces of local flora into their loose-fitting robes to help them blend into their surroundings. Their unique skills were later taught at the British Army sniper schools, which were attended by Americans once the United States entered the war.
For our ghillie suits we started out with a base outfit with a neutral desert pattern, then took scraps of vegetation growing in our immediate environment and clipped these onto our suits. We also used scraps of burlap in different shades, which we learned to vary depending on the specific environment in which we’d be stalking. This sounds simple, but it is amazing to see the degree to which this art can be perfected. When you look at a photo of a Navy SEAL sniper in a ghillie suit out in his environment, it’s almost like those “hidden pictures” you may have pored over as a child: you look and look, and all you can see are trees and bushes. The sniper completely disappears.
They taught us how to make a veg fan, clipping branches from Manzanita bushes or whatever happened to be around and zip tying them together. We learned to hide behind this ad hoc camouflage as we would slowly rise up in the middle of the bushes, eyes just peeking over the top of the fan, using either our binos or the naked eye to peer through the veg clippings and get an idea of where our target was, then slowly melting back down again.
They taught us how to use what they called dead space, which proved to be one of our most important lessons. Imagine standing on the street, next to a car at the curb. If someone is looking in your direction from the sidewalk and you crouch down below the back of the car, suddenly you disappear. You’re using the dead space of the car to cover your signature. You can do the same thing with bushes, boulders, even a few feet of rising or sinking elevation, like a dirt mound or shallow ditch—anything you can put between you and your target.
The terrain in Niland didn’t provide much in the way of natural cover. It’s pretty flat, desolate scenery. But even there in that cracked-earth desert, you can find dead space if you look for it. There are tumbleweeds and other desert bushes, slight dips and rises in elevation, rocks here and there, even an occasional scraggly tree. Find even a little gully, and if you can slip down in there, you’ve got dead space.
They also taught us how to camouflage our rifles when setting up in our final firing position (FFP), and how to make sure we had cleared the muzzle by tamping down the firing area or using veg clippers to clip away vegetation surrounding the muzzle, so that when we took that shot, the pressure wave wouldn’t cause any movement in nearby trees or grass. The last thing you want to do is take a shot and have it create a big signature. Even if you are completely hidden and unseen when you take the shot, if someone whips around and looks to see where that sound came from and they see some grasses swaying or branches moving, they might make your position and nail you.
We also practiced building hide sites. We would dig into the ground, sometimes using mesh or chicken wire we’d brought with us, but mostly using whatever natural terrain we might find on-site. It was almost like becoming a burrowing animal. In the desert, especially, it provides not only cover but also a bit of relief from the intense heat. If you build it right, someone can be standing right next to you and never even realize you’re there. And you might have four guys living in this thing for days on end, watching the target, radioing back to base until they give you authority to take the shot.
This skill would prove extremely useful in the mountains of Afghanistan, as I would discover before long.
Then we started practicing in stalking drills. To give you a sense of the experience, I’ll describe a stalking drill:
They take you out to some location out in the desert and say, “Okay, your target is roughly two to four kilometers in that direction. You’ve got two hours to get to within 180 to 220 yards of the target, set up, and take your shot.”
Off you go, crawling on your belly, you and your gun and your drag bag, which you’ve hooked to your belt at your crotch and now drag along behind you, inching along in the sweltering heat. A half hour goes by, then an hour. Some guys around you go to the bathroom in their ghillie suits. What else are they going to do? You can’t stand up, that’s for damn sure. You have to get within that range—and you aren’t allowed to use laser rangefinders, so you have to use your scope to measure your target and then figure out exactly what point you have to reach in order to be within about two hundred yards.
Two instructors are waiting for you in the command tower, scouring the area with their high-powered binos, looking for you and communicating by radio with three or four walkers on the ground. The walkers are instructors who walk the field; they are not there to hunt you but to act essentially like robots, carrying out commands from the tower. If an instructor detects movement, he’ll radio the walker who is nearest to that spot and say, “Hey Eric, I’ve got movement, I need you to run twenty meters to the right … okay, stop, left face, now take three steps forward, stop. Stalker at your feet.” If that walker is standing right next to you, he says, “Roger that,” and you’re busted. You’ve failed the stalk.
The whole idea is to make this as difficult as possible. By the time you are in firing position, you’re only about 200 yards from the tower. You’re up against two trained sniper instructors who know exactly what direction you’re coming from, know exactly what area you have to set up in, and have not only high-powered binos but also a laser rangefinder. They know you’re coming and would love nothing more than to bust you.
If you’ve made it this far, now comes the moment of painstaking patience, as you slowly pull out your gun, then pull out your scope, and get everything into place. You can’t let your scope give off any kind of reflection or glint of sunlight, so you might cover it with fine mesh, then slowly move into position, get your sight positioned on the target, and squeeze off your shot.
For that first shot, you shoot a blank, which essentially announces that you have made it to your FFP. The walker approaches to within three feet of you, then signals the two instructors in the tower that he is in your vicinity. The instructors take a look, peering in your direction with their high-powered binos. If they see you, you fail. If they aren’t able to see you, then they get on the radio to the walker and say, “Okay, give him his bullet.”
Now they turn away for a moment, so they can’t see the walker come up and hand you your live cartridge. They set up a target right where they had been sitting moments earlier, and clear out. Now you take your shot and hit the target … you hope.
There’s a lot that can go wrong. If your bullet path isn’t completely clear and your bullet even lightly grazes a small twig or branch as it hurtles through the air, that can easily be enough to throw its trajectory off and result in a complete miss. And you’re lying down, remember: there might be a small mound of dirt in the way that you hadn’t noticed.
If you do everything right and hit that target on the chest or the head, you score a ten. Hit just anywhere else inside the silhouette, and you score a nine; just hitting the target scores you an eight. Miss, and you’ve earned a zero.
Then you get up, walk back to the truck, and wait for everyone else. And by the way, after you take that shot you better not leave a trace. We had guys who stalked all the way into position and got off a very decent shot, but then left behind a piece of brass, a zip tie, or a veg clipper—and failed the stalk. You can’t get cocky.
We started doing several stalks a day, a long one (two to four kilometers, which might take four hours or more) in the morning, and then a shorter one-kilometer stalk (about two hours) in the evening. The heat of the day, thank God, was set aside for classes. As with our shooting work up in Coalinga, we would practice for a few days and then be tested.
My first stalk, I ran out of time before I even got to my FFP. It was humiliating. Missing the shot would have been bad enough. I didn’t even get to take the shot. I made up my mind right then and there, that was notgoing to happen again.
I quickly learned that the first priority was to get eyes on the target. Once you have eyes on the target, then you own it: you know exactly where the enemy is, but he doesn’t know where you are. From that vantage point, you can set about planning your exact route to your FFP.
Jack Niklaus, the legendary championship golfer, used to say that when you’re making a difficult shot, 50 percent of it is the mental picture you create, 40 percent is how you set it up, and 10 percent is the swing itself. In that respect, sniping is a lot like golf: 90 percent of it is how you see the picture and get your shot lined up.
I realized that a lot of the other guys were getting down on the ground and just taking off, crawling in the general direction of the tower without first having gotten eyes on the target. As a consequence, they wouldn’t really know exactly where it was they were going, and they would run out of time … just like I did.
For my second stalk I figured, “Hey, this is practice—let’s push the limits and see what happens.”
Instead of getting down on the ground, I set off in a bold stride in the direction the instructors had told us the target was located. I passed guys who were crawling on their bellies on the hot Niland ground, slowly and painfully, and they looked up at me bug-eyed, with expressions that said, My God, what the hell are you doing?! I figured there was no way the instructors would see me; I was still almost half a mile away, and besides, they wouldn’t be really looking yet, because they wouldn’t be expecting any of us to start getting close nearly that soon.
I kept going until I had eyes on the target—and then immediately got down into a low crouch and started checking out every detail about the terrain between me and the target. Once I had my route planned, I got down on my belly and started crawling the 300 yards or so I still needed to cover in order to get to my FFP. Moving as quickly and as stealthily as I could, it took me maybe thirty minutes to low-crawl into position, set up my firing point, get everything dialed in, and go.
From that point on, it started to click for me. I would find a little high ground, make sure I had eyes on the target, and as soon as I knew exactly where it was, I would map out my approach, put a big terrain feature between me and them, and then I’d just walk right up on them. I started taking down tens, perfect stalks every time.
It drove some of the guys nuts that I caught on so fast, especially those who had come from the country and grown up hunting. There was one guy from Alabama who had spent his whole life hunting in the woods and who was beside himself that I was cleaning his clock. How the hell was this California surfer kid who’d never hunted a day in his life out-stalking them?!
Again, I think it was all the time I spent spear-fishing. The thing that clicked for me was the concept of dead space. That was the key to these stalking exercises. Put that dead space between you and your target, and you can literally run up to them without them ever knowing you’re there. Although you could hardly come up with a greater contrast in environments than underwater versus the Niland desert, that didn’t matter. The concept was exactly the same: find the dead space and use it.
People often assume that sniper stalking is all about getting down on your belly and crawling along incredibly slowly. Yes, that’s part of it—but the greater part of it is strategic. It’s a very mental process.
One day Glen approached me and said, “Dude, I’m not doing well on my stalks. Can you help me out?” By this point I had a reputation for my bold, crazy stalks—and Glen was worried that he was going to fail. I told him, of course I’d help him.
The following day, on our late afternoon stalk, we set out together. I described how I saw our stalk path laying out, and how if we went this way and then that way, we could basically walk in and set ourselves up over there in this little tree we could just see in the distance, and from there, we’d be all set to take our shots.
Glen peered into the distance and then looked at me like I was nuts.
“That tree?! I don’t know … I’m not so sure that can really work.”
I didn’t blame him. It must have looked like a pretty crazy idea. He wasn’t used to my version of a stalk, which was to do it like a blitzkrieg—sneak up fast and be the first one there, take them by surprise. And this was no big oak tree or anything: we were talking about a pretty scrubby, miserable little thing. I thought it would be perfect.
I’d also learned that there was another strong tactical advantage to getting to your FFP fast. There was already so little terrain to work with in the bleak Niland landscape that whatever did exist was automatically prime real estate. If you were one of the last guys showing up in the set-up zone, all the best spots would be already taken. It’s no fun showing up at 200 yards and finding there’s nothing left for you but flat, featureless desert.
But Glen was not ready for a Webb blitzkrieg and an FFP up in a tree. “You go ahead,” he said. “I’ll be okay.”
I said, “Glen, you sure?”
He nodded. So I took off, scurried up there along the path I’d sketched out in my mind, hopped up into that tree and got myself set up in a nice standing position, with my stock resting on a branch. I clipped out a little circle of small branches so I had a clean hole to shoot through, and Blam! I took my shot. We were about fifteen minutes into the stalk.
The instructors freaked out. “Goddam it, who AD’ed?!” I heard one of them yell. Shooting off your weapon by mistake—an accidental discharge, or AD—is about as serious a sin as you can commit, and they wanted to know immediately who had done it so they could boot that guy’s ass off the range right then and there. It didn’t occur to them that someone could have actually taken a legitimate shot. Not within fifteen minutes of start time.
The walker closest to me got on his radio. “It wasn’t an AD, sir. It was Webb. He’s in position.”
In other words, I had taken my blank shot, and now I was coming for them.
When the instructors heard that, I could tell they wanted my ass. By that point in the course I had taken down some pretty good scores, and that alpha-male, head-butting energy was in the air: they really wanted to nail me. I started hearing all this chatter over the walker’s radio. Neither of the instructors could see me, but they didn’t want to give up. They started scouring my vicinity, searching for me like crazy.
“Hey, man,” I said to the walker, “what the hell? Can I take the shot, or what?”
Finally he told the instructors he was giving me my bullet. He handed it over, and I took the shot. As bad as they wanted me, they didn’t get me. I scored a ten.
I started walking back, and as I neared the start point there was Glen, crawling on his stomach. “I’m an idiot,” I heard him mumble.
After that I helped a few other classmates who were having a hard time getting the hang of it. We were coming down to the very last stalk, and there were three guys who had racked enough poor scores that they now needed to get a perfect score, or else they wouldn’t pass. All this time and effort, and it was coming down this one last stalk that would decide whether or not they would become SEAL snipers. The level of tension was inhuman.
These were really good guys, and I badly wanted all three of them to make it. On our last stalk before the final test, I went with them, doing everything I could to help them get themselves a clean, fast pathway into the zone for a solid FFP. In the process, I didn’t pay enough attention to what I was doing myself, and hung myself out a little too far. I got busted—and failed the stalk. I didn’t mind, though. I had enough margin in my accumulated scores to make it through even with a zero on that one. When the final stalk came, two of them made it. The third went home.
Here was the funny thing: when they read out those final scores, another guy and I had tied for first place—and after that came Glen, right behind us in second place.
I looked over at him and said, “You bastard! What do you mean, you were in jeopardy of failing? You were doing fine—you almost passed me up in points, you bastard!”
But that’s Glen: he’s an absolute perfectionist. He always wants to do better. It’s one of the traits that makes him great.
We left Niland and headed back to Coronado to take some brief instruction in how to waterproof our weapons and how to take care of them when going in and out of the water. After graduation we would go on to spend another week doing some two-man contact drills and over-the-beach training. But for all practical purposes, we were done. We’d made it.
The graduation ceremony took place in the Team 5 compound on June 12, 2000, my twenty-sixth birthday. All the COs from all the different teams showed up. It was a proud moment for everyone in GOLF platoon. Our personal triumph also translated into bragging rights for them and enhanced the reputation of the whole team. Glen and I were on cloud nine.
My SEAL sniper certificate carries the signature of Captain William McRaven, who at the time was serving as commander of Naval Special Warfare Group 1. More than a decade later, now a four-star admiral, McRaven would be credited with organizing and executing Operation Neptune’s Spear, the special ops mission that took out Osama bin Laden in May of 2011. The following month he became the ninth commander of SOCOM, the entire U.S. special Operations Command, taking the reins from Adm. Eric T. Olson, another Navy SEAL.
It was ten years almost to the day since my dad threw me off our family’s boat in the South Pacific. Then, I’d been a scared sixteen-year-old kid. Today, I was a Navy SEAL sniper.
Our platoon would deploy soon, but first I had some leave coming, which I took with pleasure. It was good to decompress a little, to surf for hours and spend time with Gabriele.
A little more than a month after graduation, I decide to go look up the Bear.
Right after graduation, Mike and I had made a horse trade. While I was part of Team 3, he had been assigned to a cold-weather platoon in Team 5, and we both had extra pieces of equipment that the other coveted. He had an extra cold-weather sleeping bag I thought might come in handy, and he agreed to trade it for a desert tan assault vest of mine. I had already given Mike the vest but he still owed me the bag, and I wanted to collect before heading out to wherever I was going next.
I showed up at Team 3, expecting the bag to be sitting there waiting for me, as Mike had promised it would be. It wasn’t there, and frankly, I was a little pissed off about it, but I figured I ought to give Mike the benefit of the doubt. I knew he must have a good reason.
I called up his platoon hut at Team 5 to give him shit. One of his platoon mates answered the phone.
“Hey,” I said, “is the Bear around? And can you tell him to come to the phone so Brandon can kick his ass over the wire, just for now, until I have a chance to come over there and kick it in person?”
There was silence on the other end. It lasted only a second or two, but in that short gap I felt my stomach drop out from under me. Something was wrong.
“Yeah…” the voice said. “Actually, no. Mike was in an accident.”
That didn’t sound good. I instantly felt like a complete ass. “What the hell? What happened? Is he okay?”
He was not okay. On July 12, just a few days earlier, the Bear had been in a freak accident while in parachute training. During a free-fall exercise, his main chute got tangled with a secondary chute and failed to open. He didn’t make it.
The Bear left behind a gorgeous wife, Derinda, and a beautiful little two-year-old boy, Holden.
I couldn’t attend his funeral because by that time I was already deployed and on my way toward the Persian Gulf. A few of my friends did, though. They told me later about that day, and about Mike’s son Holden walking up to them because he recognized the gold SEAL tridents on their uniforms, just like his dad’s, and asking them if they knew where his daddy was. One friend said there were at least a few guys who could barely keep it together at that point. Most had to go off for a solid cry.
Mike’s death shook everyone who knew him, and it hit me pretty hard. He was the first of many friends I would lose over the years.
Brandon is a former Navy SEAL and author of the New York Times best seller, The Red Circle.