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Air Force Snipers in Iraq


Air Force Sniper

Knoll (left) and Jones know that practice makes perfect, so they apply camouflage paint to their faces even before training missions.

Official USAF Photo

The sniper team hoped to put their training to the test. So, they kept their long-range rifles and Ghillie camouflage suits ready. In minutes, they could gather their gear and silently skulk off into the mountains in search of a target.

But in the close-knit rural communities around the airfield, the Kurdish people knew their friends and neighbors well. New faces are easy to spot. So news of a stranger travels fast, easily reaching friendly intelligence operatives in the area.

It’s the intelligence people who give snipers their targets.

But the local eyes and ears helped deter Iraqi troops and terrorists from sneaking in and taking shots at Bashur.

But the war on terrorism isn’t a precise operation. Terrorists are unpredictable and strike quickly, making attacks hard to stop, Jones said. And Bashur’s key mission ensured it would be under constant threat as long as the war with Iraq continued.

“We’ll continue doing our regular jobs,” said Jones, an 11-year vet from Wake Forrest, N.C. “But we’ve got to be ready to switch to sniper mode, to eliminate any threat before one of our people gets hurt.”

Knoll and Jones have been a team for more than two years. They’ve honed their craft through extensive training. They stay ready and can gather their snipers kits and be on the prowl in minutes. They knew their main target would be a bad guy carrying a shoulder-fired missile.

It’s why they kept an eye on the mountains. Because just one rocket fired from any of the surrounding peaks at their tent city could cause massive injuries. And if a missile hit a cargo plane, it could stop all air operations into the strategic 7,000-foot runway.

That wouldn’t have been good, to say the least. Because during the height of the operation to liberate Iraq, more than 366 C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules transports dropped off more than 23 million pounds of cargo at the airfield. Most planes arrived at night, loaded to the gills with supplies and equipment. Airmen ran to unload them by the dim green light of their night vision goggles.

The nearby mountains echoed with the noise of plane engines. And the group ran blacked out operations to add another layer of security to the Bashur night. Knoll and Jones knew they might have to do their job in the dark. No matter, they said.

“Day or night, our job is to take out a target before he can fire at one of our multimillion dollar aircraft — or kill someone,” Knoll said.

So missing a shot isn’t an option. Anything less than a confirmed hit does little to diminish the threat to the airmen on the ground. But if the exacting code of their work put extra pressure on the snipers, it didn’t show in their faces.

“You just make sure you don’t mess up,” Knoll said.

Trained to snipe

But “mess up” isn’t in their vocabulary. They know their talents are in high demand. That the mere rumor they’re on the battlefield can send shivers through the enemy ranks.

“Snipers are the biggest psychological deterrent on the battlefield,” Knoll said.

They’re also the most hated troops in a combat zone. So snipers must stay focused on the mission and what they’re doing to survive, he said.

“We can’t make a mistake,” he said. “Too much is at stake. Besides, how many snipers have you heard of who have come back from a prisoner of war camp?”

Knoll and Jones accept the responsibilities of their job, and the risks. They knew what they were getting into when they joined the contingency response group, with its headquarters at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

Their squadron is at nearby Sembach Air Base. When they arrived, there were six snipers. But for the past two-and-a-half years, Knoll and Jones have been the only two. Their desks are across from each other, and they train together. They’re pals off the job, too, so they know each other well.

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