Here is a small excerpt from Chapter 2 of “The Killing School” by Brandon Webb, former Navy SEAL sniper instructor turned media CEO. There will also be a private booking signing for this book on May 11 in NYC, click here to get more details. In case you missed the first excerpt, you can check it out here.- Desiree Huitt, Managing Editor
Chapter 2: Born to Shoot
As a young’n, I’d go sit in the woods and wait a spell. I’d just wait for the rabbits and squirrels, ’cause sooner or later a squirrel would be in that very tree or a rabbit would be coming by that very log. I just knew it. Don’t know why, just did.”
— Carlos Hathcock
The U.S. Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) sniper program, the U.S. Marine Scout Sniper Basic Course, the U.S. Army sniper programs, and all the other courses of sniper instruction, both military and civilian, that we’ll explore in this book are among the most sophisticated, difficult, and exhaustive training programs in the world. But they don’t make a sniper a sniper, not in and of themselves. To a great extent, expert snipers are born more than made.
The Killing School happens in three phases, not all of them necessarily recognized as such. You might think of these as primary school, high school, and grad school. The first, primary school phase is over and done with by the time you enlist in the armed services.
It’s what in ordinary society you’d call “childhood.”
The eldest of six kids, Rob Furlong grew up on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, a dot of land off the eastern coast of Canada, a place so remote it has its own time zone. His town (total population: maybe three hundred) was a community of fishermen, men toughened by bitter weather and a difficult life. Rob’s dad was a member of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or, as they are referred to locally, the fish cops. Law enforcement in a town perched on the outer edge of civilization isn’t the easiest job. Rob learned how to use his fists from an early age.
Rob spent the better part of his childhood in the great outdoors, either fishing on the water, hunting moose with his dad out in the woods, or cutting firewood to heat the family home. From the time he could walk he could navigate his way around the wilderness using the stars, plants’ direction of growth, and the rest of the expert tracker’s lexicon.
He was seven years old when he got his first gun, a pump-action BB gun. To Rob it felt like he’d been given ownership of a Ferrari. He couldn’t imagine treasuring anything more than he did that BB gun. Still, it didn’t take long to realize how underpowered his pump-action gun was, and by age nine Rob had moved up to a pellet gun. Now his dad started taking the time to school him in proper sight alignment and how to adjust his aim for shooting at greater distances. Rob had never heard the term marksmanship principles and would have had no idea what it meant if he did. He just wanted to be able to shoot well and hit birds.
Every day when Rob got home from school, he would take his pellet gun and a can of pellets and go out into their backyard—and in Rob’s case “backyard” meant acres and acres of unfenced forest—and practice shooting at birds, wooden targets, or whatever he could find to shoot at. Often his little brother would go with him, bringing his own gun along and shooting alongside Rob. They would catch small tomcods, a North Atlantic fish, and lay them on a piece of wood for target practice. After a while the little fish would attract flies.
One day Rob said to his brother, “Hey, why shoot the fish? Let’s try to shoot the flies!”
So they graduated from shooting at the fish to shooting at the flies. Every so often one of them would cry out, “I think I hit one!” and they would run over together to examine the board for a fresh pellet hole and pieces of fly. “Yeah,” one would say, “I think that’s something right there!” Rob says he has honestly no idea if they ever really hit one of those little buzzing flies or not. But, he adds, they did sometimes find little fly remnants.
As their aim steadily improved they made the targets more and more difficult. Rob started stringing up old oil cans and bottles with pieces of fishing line, and they would try to make the can drop by severing the piece of line with a pellet. Shot after shot, Rob continually worked at refining his accuracy. It might take him up to 150 pellets to successfully hit and break a piece of line, but the sense of achievement and satisfaction he got every time he saw one of those cans suddenly drop made the effort well worth it.
Rob’s family was not exactly wealthy—this was a single-income home with six kids to feed on a small-town cop salary—and being given those pellet guns was a big deal for him and his brother. They cherished those guns. (In fact, the guns still sit today in his parents’ home in the exact same spot where they always kept them as kids.) When he first took possession of the gun, Rob carefully sanded down the stock, painted it jet black, refinished it, then mounted a few studs onto the stock so he could rig a sling on it. Sometimes a whole bunch of kids would get together, seven or eight of them, and all go out shooting together. But Rob was the only one who ever took the time and care to refinish or refurbish his gun.
Why did he feel compelled to do that?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I just did. There was a sniper inside me.”
While Rob Furlong’s primary school was happening in the northern wilderness, Jason Delgado’s was taking place in the mean streets of the Bronx. In the eighties, the Bronx was a world controlled principally by crack cocaine, crime, and violence. The landscape of Delgado’s youth was littered with junkyards and abandoned buildings. The younger kids called them “clubhouses.” To older kids, they were places of business. Stabbings, slashings, and shootings were routine events to Jason and his friends; the available figures to look up to as heroes were typically big-time dope dealers who drove around in mammoth Cadillacs and sported flashy wardrobes pimped out with mink accents.
One day when Jason was five years old, he was sitting on a car with his cousins across the street from his father’s auto body garage while his uncle worked on his dad’s mint-green Cadillac. A strung-out-looking guy walked up, pulled out a sawed-off shotgun, put it to the back of the uncle’s head, and pulled the trigger, then ran off in the direction he’d come from.
Jason’s mother grabbed the kids and ushered them into their house a block away, where they sat for while, crying, hugging, and consoling one another, while the adults scrambled to make sure they were all safe. Which of course they weren’t.
Two years later Jason awoke one night to the loud hiss and squawk of a two-way radio. He stumbled sleepy-eyed out into the living room, squinting at the living room lights, and found two police officers hovering over his mother, who was hysterical past the point of coherence. A turf war of some sort had broken out between rival dealers, lighting up the entire block with automatic weapons fire and riddling their home with bullets. One round had entered their house and grazed his mother’s head as she lay asleep on the living room couch before lodging itself in the far wall.
Jason’s mother and father were good parents, but they had to work constantly just to make ends meet, so the two Delgado boys grew up more or less in the streets, forced to fend for themselves and learn the law of the jungle, urban style.
A life of crime seemed like one of the few career paths open to these kids, and Jason had relatives who walked on the other side of the law. But events like his uncle’s murder sparked a sort of generational shift. Something inside them said this wasn’t fair, that they didn’t want to be victims anymore. They wanted guns, but they wanted to be the ones with the guns who were protecting their mothers and families from the evil shit—not the ones doing the evil shit. His two oldest cousins grew up to become police officers, one a sergeant in the NYPD. Jason thought about that, too. But run-ins and hassles with the neighborhood cops left him uneasy with law enforcement.
When Jason was about nine years old, he and a friend, an African American kid his age, were walking home one day from a Boys and Girls Club on Fordham Road when a squad car squealed up and turned sharply onto their sidewalk, cutting them off. Two white officers jumped out, threw them against the wall, and started frisking the two kids. Jason’s friend asked the cops why they were being searched, and one of the cops said, “Shut the fuck up, kid.”
The friend said, “You can’t be doing this shit to us.”
The cop spun him around and smacked him across the face. “Watch your mouth, you little shit,” he said. They let the two kids go. Jason still remembers walking home, tears running down his face, talking with his friend and trying to make sense out of what had happened.
When Jason was fourteen he joined a cadet organization called Third Recon Battalion, named after a U.S. Marine battalion that fought in Vietnam.
The brainchild of a vet named Sean Godbolt, Third Recon was created to give kids something to do after school. More specifically, something to keep them out of trouble. All the facilitators were Vietnam vets, and the organization was highly structured to duplicate the military with complete accuracy. Jason and his compadres learned how to write five-paragraph orders, plan and conduct missions, go through gear checks, and conduct themselves with military precision. All the acronyms used were the same as in the real military. Not only were they learning the trappings of military behavior, but more importantly, they were instilled with a strong sense of pride and the desire to serve.
The kids would go out to Van Cortlandt Park and camp out for days, plan missions, do reconnaissance on other cadet groups. They would troll for intel throughout the week, listening carefully to anything they could pick up, in the schoolyard or neighborhoods, find out when and where the other kids were going to be doing their patrols so they could ambush them. It was complete guerrilla warfare with paintball guns.
“We would build hide sites out there,” says Jason, “and I’d wait out there in my ghillie suit with my scoped-out Tippmann Pro Lite paintball rifle. We would wait for other cadet organizations to come out there to set up camp, and when they got within range, I would scope those guys and let one fly.
“I was being groomed for a career as a military sniper and didn’t even realize it.”
Godbolt, the program’s founder, also served as the first major role model for Jason who wasn’t a drug dealer. Charismatic and motivational, he was probably the only clear positive influence in Jason’s life during those years, other than his own parents.
“He never looked at us as children,” says Jason. “He treated us as young men.”
Like Rob Furlong, Nick Irving had his first experiences in shooting early on, when at the age of six his dad took him out into the west Georgia woods to show his boy how to shoot his 20-gauge shotgun. Nick couldn’t even lift the damn thing, much less hold or aim it by himself. His father stood behind him, cradled the foregrip, set the buttstock into his son’s shoulder pocket, and held it in place while Nick pulled the trigger.
From that first shot, Nick was in love. He was good at it, too. Even in those early years when he was too little to hold the gun up by himself, more times than not he hit what he was aiming at. (“Of course,” he points out, “this was birdshot, so we’re talking about casting a pretty wide net.”)
Before long his dad had given him a .22, and he practiced on it as often as he could—which was not often enough for him. Nick grew up in Maryland, just off Fort Meade Army base where his parents worked, but his family on his mother’s side is from deep-country Georgia and they would typically spend their summers there. Nick spent those summer months learning how to hunt, fish, make his way around the woods—and shoot.
During the school year he had to content himself with an awful lot of dry-firing to keep his skills from getting rusty. But every summer, he and the .22 would be inseparable. He would sneak cigarettes from his grandfather, go outside and carefully set them up, then walk back a hundred paces, turn, take aim, and shoot at them. By the time he reached high school he was pretty decent at shooting those cigarettes in half.
In addition to his .22, he continued practicing with the shotgun. His father had gotten that 20-gauge as a present from his father, and on Nick’s fifteenth birthday it now became the grandson’s. Nick was a fairly expert shot by this time, and now his dad taught him how to disassemble the big gun. Every day after school, Nick would take the shotgun apart and then put it back together again, timing himself to see how quickly he could do it and still get it right. Before long he could practically do it in his sleep.
Nick wasn’t especially into hunting per se. What he loved was that sense of controlled precision, the mastery and elegant simplicity that came with expert marksmanship. For years he had been watching shows on the History Channel about warfare and military operations, especially Vietnam. Carlos Hathcock, who had redefined the sniper’s art in the modern era, became Nick’s hero. The young boy watched Hathcock interviews over and over. He made his first ghillie suit in middle school, taping lengths of his mom’s sewing yarn onto the back of a black jumpsuit. Now he started making regular trips to the library, devouring every book he could find that might enhance his skill and understanding, including everything from math textbooks to books on Special Operations Forces in Vietnam.
“I wanted to be a sniper,” says Nick, “for as long as I can remember.”
Unlike these other guys, I didn’t shoot guns when I was a kid, and I had no aspiration to become a sniper. Other than shooting clay pigeons off the bow of the dive boat where I worked as a teenager, I’d never really handled a rifle until they thrust one into my hands in the middle of BUD/S.
For me, it was spearguns.
When I started working on the dive boat I was hungry to learn, and I began tagging along with Mike Roach, the captain, and Jim Hralbak, the second captain, shadowing these two, watching them closely as they would stalk and shoot their prey. It took me a while to follow exactly what was going on. We’d be swimming along, and all of a sudden—whooshhhh, thwap!—one of them had shot something I hadn’t even seen. Where the hell had that that come from? But before long, I started picking it up, too.
Spearfishing is physical in a very intuitive way. There’s no scope, no crosshairs to peer through. As with traditional bow hunting, you’re just using natural point of aim. What’s more, you’re shooting a relatively thick steel shaft, and since you’re in the water, that shaft meets a great deal more resistance from the medium it flies through than a bullet hurtling through air. As a result, you can’t shoot out to a range of more than twelve feet. Which means you really have to master the use of stealth, if you want to stalk close enough to your prey to shoot it without spooking it first.
I was barely thirteen when I started. By the time I was fourteen I was a pretty accomplished spearfisherman. The Fish and Game guys gave me a hard time for a while. They didn’t believe that all these fish I was pulling in were really all my own catches. Since the law didn’t require a fishing license until you turned fifteen, they thought I was covering for what were actually other people’s catches. But that didn’t last for long. Once they got to know me, they started to believe me when I told them these were all my own.
It takes a certain kind of person to make a top military sniper, and it may not be the kind you’d expect. Furlong, Delgado, and Irving all had a powerful affinity for rifles and shooting from an early age—but that was not what made them born snipers. At least, not entirely. Having a natural feel for long guns was certainly part of it, but not nearly enough. There are plenty of great marksmen in the world, match shooters who can do a kickass job on a rifle range but would be useless in the heat and fog of live-action combat, or incapable of the patience and mental stamina it takes to absorb and process massive amounts of information and observation.
Being a sniper is not the same thing as being a marksman. In today’s warfare, a sniper is first and foremost an intelligence asset. Which means that as important as shooting is to a sniper, it’s less about how to use a gun, more about how to use your eyes, and even more about how to use your brain.
Every great sniper seems to have some quality, skill, or attribute that has nothing to do with shooting but everything to do with mastering the sniper’s craft.
For Nick Irving, it was chess.
Nick still remembers his first game on that sixty-four-square board, which he played with his dad when he was three years old. His parents had both worked in army intelligence during the Cold War era, and his father had a deep love for the game of chess. He told his son that chess was a “brain game” and that playing it would make you smarter. Nick liked the sound of that. So as often as they could, Nick’s father would take out his beautiful old German board with its hand-carved oak pieces, and they would play.
In fact, the two still play chess when Nick’s father comes to Nick’s home on their customary Thanksgiving visit.
“Every Thanksgiving, we play chess,” says Nick. “And every Thanksgiving, he beats me. To this day, I still can’t beat my dad.”
What he could do was absorb the game, and the long-range strategic thinking at its core, into his bones. Like Philip Marlow, Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye, Nick spent hours studying the games of the masters and playing games with himself. And the more he studied chess, the more it reminded him of the sniper’s art. It was all about strategy and planning, he realized. Just like shooting.
In later years, his love of chess informed the way he approached his missions in the field.
“I think the reason I eventually got so much action,” he says, “was that I played my mission planning a lot like chess. In chess, you always have to think two steps, three steps, four steps ahead. I’d think, Okay, say I’m at this spot—if something happened over here, where would I immediately go?”
Before the firefight even started, he would set himself up with his team where he figured the enemy was going to be after it broke out, having worked out ahead of time where he would be if he were the other guy. Nine times out of ten, that would turn out to be right where they were. Nick says he reached close to a 100 percent success rate with that chess-based approach to planning his ops.
For Delgado, it was art.
By the time Jason was in second grade he was constantly doodling, drawing caricatures and cartoon strips. That in itself was no big deal; a lot of kids doodled and drew. But early on Jason realized he had some ability here; he could do things with a set of colored pencils that his classmates couldn’t. Soon drawing was absorbing the lion’s share of his time and attention at school, which seemed like a good thing to him, because otherwise he was generally bored out of mind.
In later years, when he took college art courses, he learned more about the technical aspects of art, the interplay of light and shadow, scale and perspective, the hierarchy of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. But long before he had any formal schooling in it, he was already perfecting his craft.
Drawing taught Delgado how to pay attention to every last detail of a scene. If the girl he was drawing had one hair out of place, he would draw her with that one hair exactly out of place. He learned how to faithfully reproduce exactly what he saw—and how to see with far greater accuracy than most.
That sense of visual detail had a huge impact on how Jason worked on the battlefield.
“I have a range finder in my head,” says Jason. “If you point out an object in the distance, I can call it to within yards.” This was enormously useful in shooting, of course, but also in reconnaissance. Snipers in the field spend a great deal more time in observation than they do on the gun, and the ability to sketch out a scene accurately is critical. In a sheerly technical sense, Jason was able to knock out field sketches of extremely large areas with almost architectural accuracy.
Beyond that, his art also had a profound impact on how he observed situations overall, how details fit together and what they meant, what made sense and what did not. It gave him an uncanny sense of how to read a complex scene.
A skill that would prove critical in Husaybah.
Rob Furlong didn’t draw, and he didn’t play chess. For Rob it wasn’t anything so specific as an artistic skill. It was more the mix of attributes that came from growing up in such a wild and untamed environment, which produced in him that unique sniper’s mind-set: whip-smart, focused like a laser, and cussedly independent.
Snipers come in all stripes. You’ll find oversize extrovert personalities like the Luttrell brothers and quiet, still-water-runs-deep guys like Chris Kyle. Politically conservative, politically liberal, and politically I-don’t-give-a-shit. Brutally aggressive and surprisingly gentle. But one thing we all seem to share in common: a sort of love-hate thing with authority. That is, a deep respect for truly great leadership, and total intolerance for shitty leadership. SEALs have more of a reputation for being, how to say this politely, resistant to conformity, Marine and army Spec Ops less so. But Spec Ops is Spec Ops and snipers are snipers: by definition, we exist to function off the reservation.
And independent: that was Rob.
Aside from being big into sports—hockey, basketball, baseball, whatever came along—his interests were focused. He loved to be outdoors; he loved to fish; he loved to hunt. And growing up in wilds of Fogo Island, he couldn’t have avoided developing a seriously independent nature. (Again, a place with their own freaking time zone, ninety minutes ahead of New York and Toronto!)
In school he leaned toward numbers more than words; math and physics held some fascination, and in his teens he got into computers. That would provide him a job, for a while at least, though not a career. But in numbers themselves, the numbers of windage and elevation, range and terminal ballistics: that’s where he would find a calling.
Like me, Alex Morrison never shot a rifle until he was in BUD/S. Also like me, though, Alex grew up on the California coast with a speargun in his hands—except that in Alex’s case it was a not speargun but a polespear, which is essentially like shooting a spear with a slingshot. When you see someone hunting fish with nothing but a rubber-band-powered spear in his hand, you know you are looking at a man who is dead serious about hunting.
And that’s a crucial point. Understand that it’s not about shooting. Hunting isn’t shooting. Hunting is, more than anything else, the art of the stalk. Hunting fish with a spear means you have to master the skill sets of stealth, invisibility, and empathy.
Empathy? That’s right. To get within striking distance of a fish, a primitive creature that is about as perfectly designed to be a danger-detection machine as anything on the planet, it’s not enough to be sneaky. You have to have an innate sense of what that fish is sensing and feeling. It verges on the telepathic. A sniper has to know the mind of his prey almost as well as the prey himself. Or better.
And that was Alex’s chess, his artwork, his uniquely born-to-shoot quality. As far back as he can remember, he was always driven by a burning desire to be in the great outdoors, to travel, to seek adventure—and, more than anything else, to hunt. Military snipers are sometimes called the “big-game hunters of the battlefield.” Those six words express perfectly what it was that led Alex from the speargun to sniper school.
For Alex, it was always a given that he would join the military. Growing up in a marine household where jarheads were the premier fighting men, he always assumed he’d join the Marines and become part of Force Recon, the Marines’ deep reconnaissance and direct-action Spec Ops unit. Until one day in 1984, when his parents pointed out that one of his karate instructors served in Vietnam as a SEAL.
“What’s a seal?” asked Alex, thinking that sounded pretty ridiculous.
“Those are the guys who eat Force Recon marines for breakfast,” said his mom.
His dad nodded. “Yup.” (Disclaimer to my Marine friends: no disrespect intended—I’m just reporting what his parents told him.)
That was that. Alex was fifteen years old at the time; three years later he graduated from high school and went straight into navy boot camp, where he did the SEAL selection.
Unlike Alex, Rob Furlong had absolutely no inkling that he was headed for the military. It just seemed to unfold on its own.
One day in the fall of 1997, Rob found himself kicking around town with no clear destination. He’d been up for twenty-four hours (full day at school followed by the night shift at his security job) and wasn’t thinking about much. He was, frankly, a little bored with his life. Going to college, doing some computer programming, working a part-time security gig at a compound down on the waterfront. His twenty-first birthday was coming up and he wasn’t that thrilled with where his life seemed to be going. Rob liked computers, had spent a lot of time on them, but it was clear that computer programming just wasn’t his thing. Every spare minute he could eke out he spent outside, going hunting when he could. He was looking for something, but didn’t know what.
As he ambled down the street he came upon a big sandwich board out on the sidewalk. He stopped and read the board. It sported a recruitment ad for the Canadian Armed Forces.
Rob had grown up shooting, but the thought of joining the army had never occurred to him. The military didn’t have much of a presence in rural Newfoundland, and the idea seemed almost foreign. But there it was, staring him in the face. What could it hurt to look?
He walked into the recruiting center. A navy officer asked him why he was there.
“I’m interested,” he said.
The guy ushered Rob into a room with a television and VCR, a few chairs, and four or five dozen VHS tapes lying around on tables. Told him he should feel free to pop in whichever tapes interested him and watch the brief introductory clips about each branch and trade within the service. And then walked out, leaving Rob with the cassettes and player.
Rob started popping videos in and out, watching bits and pieces. Some were pretty ho-hum, and a few piqued his interest. One of these showed a bunch of young men in green, running around, shooting and blowing stuff up, and jumping out of planes. Infantry, he thought. He didn’t know much about the armed forces, but he did know that infantry was the point of entry.
Then, as he sat there watching, an image came on the screen that made him sit up straight. There was a guy dressed in some kind of camouflage outfit with pieces of vegetation stuck to him, crawling along the ground.
The guy was stalking.
At this point Rob knew absolutely nothing about snipers, who they were or what they did. He’d never heard the name Carlos Hathcock or the term ghillie suit. But he knew what hunting was, all right, he knew that as well as he knew his own name, and he felt an instantaneous connection with the image on that television screen.
A few minutes later Rob strolled out of that little viewing room, walked over to the recruitment officer’s desk, and tossed his application onto the man’s desk, fully filled out.
“Here you go,” he said. He walked out and headed home to get some sleep.
A few months later Rob got a call from the recruiting office. “Hey,” the guy said, “we have an opening in the infantry. Are you still interested?”
Hell yeah! thought Rob. What he said was, “Sure. Let’s do it.”
“Okay,” the guy said. “You leave in two weeks.”
And that was that.
Rob hadn’t expected it to happen so fast, or even known whether it would happen at all. He hadn’t told anyone he’d applied, not even his family, with whom he was quite close. He knew it would come as a surprise to his folks. There was absolutely no military history in his background; the Furlongs had mostly been seafarers, working as captains or mates on tankers or long-haul boats.
He called his parents and said, “Oh, hey, I’m joining the army.”
For Jason Delgado, it was a moment that did it, a moment that happened when he was just nine.
Back in mid-January 1991, when Coalition forces began aerial bombardments of Saddam’s forces and Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm, Jason was glued to the television. The first Gulf War was the watershed event that established the kind of round-the-clock live news coverage we’ve come to see as normal, and Jason would watch for hours. One day he saw a short clip, shot in night vision perspective, that showed tracer rounds going off and smacking a building while a team of soldiers penetrated the structure.
Oh my God, he thought, this is the real deal…
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