Sometime during an operation to rescue downed Kiowa pilots in Tal Afar, Iraq, the enemy decided that the prospect of facing Stryker-mounted .50-caliber machine guns was better than taking chances with the snipers of the Fort Lewis, Wash.,-based 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry.
“All in all, we shot about 300 rounds with all the long guns. After the first 15 minutes of covering the street, the enemy started running towards where the machine guns were firing. They wouldn’t even come towards us,” said SGT James Brown, a senior sniper from the unit, who was on a rooftop that day.
Brown passed on his knowledge recently as one of seven Soldiers from 3rd Brigade and the 2nd Cavalry Regiment who assisted cadre from Fort Benning, Ga., with the instruction of a new class of Army snipers. The team came to Fort Lewis, Wash., after being sponsored by Brown’s unit.
Class 702-06 started with 24 Soldiers, but after 377 hours of instruction 17 stood tall during their graduation ceremony on February 5. The graduates qualified with the M-24 and M-107, learned sniper marksmanship, stalking techniques, range estimation, target detection, identification and construction of hide positions, and other field craft that keeps the sniper ahead of the enemy.
“This training was extremely important to the brigade’s combat readiness and has significantly increased our capabilities,” said MAJ Adam L. Rocke, 3rd Bde. S-3. “Being a sniper takes a special kind of Soldier with unique qualities, and each of the brigade’s units will greatly benefit from the precision-marksmanship skills that these men now bring to the fight.”
Snipers, however, haven’t always been appreciated. A look back at their history shows an ebb and flow that matches this country’s conflicts. Their number and training are always a low priority during peacetime, but during war their demand and use increases.
SSG Jason Smith, NCO in charge of the cadre team from Fort Benning, said that five years ago not every class at the resident course was full; now they turn people away.
“Faced with the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials are starting to appreciate the skilled marksmen coming out of the sniper school, and they are in demand more than ever,” added Blaine Souerwine, a contract instructor from Fort Benning. “The precision fires of snipers are an added bonus that can tremendously affect the enemy’s psyche.“
“Seeing a guy get dropped every time a shot is fired has a major psychological effect on the enemy,” said Brown. “If you’re doing a show of force or presence operation and the enemy sees you placing a position, it changes his whole disposition. He’s more apt to relax and stay mellow. The enemy won’t get into big crowds, because he knows we can pick him out of those crowds.”
The snipers’ skills go beyond that of skilled marksmen. Many people, even some of the current students, think that the sniper’s only addition to a unit is that of a sharpshooter.
“I thought we’d just come out here and shoot, but I learned a lot more than I thought I was going to,” said SGT Justin Mongold, one of the class graduates and a member of Company A, 1st Bn., 23rd Inf.
Reconnaissance, target acquisition and damage assessment are also skills snipers bring to the table.
“We give a unit a different edge. You don’t always need a door kicker or a squad just to bust into a room. You might need to take out — or ‘get eyes on,’ just one person,” Mongold said.
It isn’t enough to have trained snipers in the unit. You have to have leaders who know how to take advantage of the snipers’ skills. During the team’s stop at Fort Lewis, about 50 leaders from the 3rd Bde. and 2nd Cav. Regt. attended a sniper-employment class. Classes like the Sniper-Employment Officers’ Course help develop unit SOPs for the use of snipers.
“It used to be part of the Infantry Officers Basic Course, but now we teach the latter as a separate class for staff sergeants and above,” said Smith.
“Commanders are slowly becoming educated about using snipers to their best advantage,” said Souerwine. The snipers themselves hope that this trend continues.
“I think there needs to be more concentration on sustainment training, and snipers need to be allowed to operate to their fullest potential,” Brown said. “We know that this is a risky job, but everybody’s here despite that.”