Nick Irving, SOFREP contributor and former US Army Ranger sniper, has written his second book titled, “Way of the Reaper“. Here is an excerpt from his new book. You can also read Nick’s interview HERE.
CHAPTER 4: SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER US
“WITHOUT WARNING; WITHOUT REMORSE.”
That’s the motto that snipers live by. I was fortunate that my early interest in becoming a sniper turned out to be my reality. I transformed myself, with the help of a lot of instructors, a lot of patience and persistence, into the guy who became known as The Reaper. Before that, though, as I made the transition to a Sniper Team Leader, I learned over time another important lesson: to trust my gut instincts.
That’s not easy to do, especially when you’re in the environment that existed in Iraq as the war wound down. The same was true in Afghanistan. At the time I was a Stryker driver/machine gunner, I don’t think I appreciated fully how simple my life was. I’d go out and do my job and go back to base and get ready to do it all over again.
I didn’t have to file any after action reports. That was up to my team leaders, guys like Juan and Richie. I knew that we were responsible collectively for keeping track of the number of killed in action (KIA) that we accumulated on our operations. Every time any of us, whether we were an assaulter, a mortar guy, or a grunt on the ground, believed we had evidence to support a claim that we’d killed a bad guy, we’d call it up to our platoon sergeant or ground force commander to have that kill noted. We weren’t into keeping track of our individual accomplishments, but it seemed like those in charge of us, because of what was being handed down to them from Washington, were really concerned about accounting and accountability.
The rules of engagement dictated much of our lives outside the wire, and as I rose through the ranks, I saw how they also figured in what we did once back inside the wire after an operation and engaging with the enemy. One of the first tasks that I had to get used to was doing a body count and inspection after an engagement. A couple of guys in the unit were issued digital cameras and were tasked with taking photos of the KIA to demonstrate that it was a “good” kill, meaning they’d been armed. We’d walk among the dead guys taking photos of the bodies, their weapons, spent shells, anything at all to prove that we’d followed the ROEs. Doing all this was such an established part of the routine that I didn’t really think much about the why of it all. I knew that it made me feel good to see the dead guys there. That was proof that we were doing our jobs and taking down people who wanted to destroy America and our way of life any way they possibly could.
I don’t think that I would like a job where at the end of the day I didn’t have some evidence of what I’d accomplished. It’s kind of like if you worked construction and walked to your truck at quitting time and looked back and saw that the second story of the house had been framed that day and the job site looked different as a result. You could point to it and say, “We did that,” and it would be obvious to anyone paying attention that the building looked different, no doubt about it.
Taking the time to photo graph those bodies seemed worth it, even though it exposed us to more risk; most of the time I was on the perimeter facing out to provide security for the guys doing the actual photography and searching for documents and other forms of intel. It gave me some validation, which was important. I didn’t think a whole lot about what it meant in terms of policy and perception. Th at would come later, after I’d become a sniper and had a couple of my kills called into question by investigators from outside my direct chain of command. That happened to me twice, when I experienced something that was something like what a person unjustly accused of a crime might go through. You know what you did, but when you get asked all kinds of questions and have things turned around and kind of twisted, you start to doubt yourself. You start to question, not so much what you saw and what you did, but whether or not it was worth feeling this way about yourself.
I go back to our sniper’s motto: “Without warning; without remorse.” I can’t say that I felt remorse for taking out the bad guys that I did. It’s way more complicated than feeling good or feeling bad. Some of it had to do with the feeling that maybe there were some people— people outside the units I served with— who had doubts about my integrity. That’s a tough thing to swallow, having your judgment and your intentions called into question. I was out there, the rest of us were out there, putting our lives on the line. But either back home or in other commands, people were to either a small or a large degree questioning what I was doing. Hard to shut all of that out, but in the heat of the moment, when the battle’s raging, the last thing you want to do is worry about that stuff .
In the potentially disastrous friendly- fire instances I wrote about earlier, I’m damn glad that I did hesitate and I did worry about reviews. I was the new guy and didn’t have much experience to rely on. As I spent more time downrange and as I talked with guys who’d seen a lot more action than I did and learned from them, I started to trust myself a whole lot more. Funny thing is, as I write this now, I only realize fully just how much “oversight” there was on our actions. With the drones and other aircraft flying above us, there was an eye in the sky looking down on us at all times. There were a few times when I was a part of that eye- in- the- sky group and, to be honest, I liked having my boots on the ground a whole lot better.
In case you haven’t read my first book, let me make one thing clear: I don’t like heights. I’m okay flying in the helicopters, but just as a means to get someplace quickly so that I can get back on the ground and do my job. I admire the pilots and crews that fly those things, but I would never want to be one of them. So with that in mind, you can probably understand why I was a bit apprehensive when, in late spring of 2009, my spotter Mike Pemberton and I got the call, along with eight other guys, to report to the TC for a briefing. Mike and I took our seats and looked at the roster and saw something odd.
“What’s up with this?” I asked Mike.
“Damned if I know,” he said, running his finger down the list.
Our names weren’t there. Normally, anytime anybody went out on an operation, the sniper teams went along in support of them. As the briefing went on, we learned that we’d be going along on the operation as what I guess you could call aerial “squirter” stoppers. “Squirters” were any of the enemy who tried to flee the position where our operation was taking place. Normally, Mike and I would be positioned somewhere on the ground, generally at a high vantage point, so that we could spot them and shoot them.
Not this time.
Instead, we were going to fly around in a second Chinook helicopter while the rest of the team went in on another and performed the operation. If anyone tried to flee the objective, we’d fire from the belly of the bird at them. Now, some guys really got off on doing that kind of flying and firing, but not me. Nor was it just my fear of heights that had me anxious on these kinds of operations— and this was my first one ever downrange.
Firing from a moving aircraft, even one that was hovering, required a different mind- set and technique than firing from the ground. At Sniper School and later, between deployments, we trained to do this, but I didn’t like it at all. I was a perfectionist, and my accuracy suffered when I was up there firing at targets. I’ve even taken part in shooting competitions from helicopters, and I never score nearly as high in those than I do in any of the others.
Now, it was different when we didn’t fire from above but landed the bird ahead of the squirters, dismounted, and fired from a fixed position. I didn’t like all the up and down and rapid ascents and descents, but at least I was firmly connected to Mother Earth when I had the weapon in my hands. Unless you’ve done it, it’s hard to imagine how much vibration and bouncing around goes on when you’re in a helicopter with its turbine engines going. Just trying to keep the weapon steady for a second to look through the scope sometimes takes monumental effort. But like I said, it was a different deal when the choppers just got us from point to point a lot more quickly than we could have gone on foot or in a ground vehicle.
Mike and I got pretty good at that, especially since from up above it was easy to spot a good hide from which we could set up our sniper position. I liked the improvisational nature of those operations as well. We’d get to one area, do our thing, see some other activity, head over there, and on and on, stringing them together without having to do a brief or debrief in between. It was like running a fast-break offense in basketball or the kind of high-tempo stuff without a huddle that a lot of football teams now use, run and gun and all that.
So there Mike and I were in the belly of a Chinook along with a bunch of other guys while our regular assault team was in another bird about to be set down below us somewhere in Helmand Province. While a bunch of the other soldiers tried to grab a quick nap, I sat listening to the radio as our assaulters went in. Before we lost radio feed, it seemed as if every thing was going to plan.
“Every thing’s cool,” I told Mike. “We can just chill.”
“I’m good to go with that,” he said.
I sat there staring into the middle distance, not a whole lot on my mind other than how numb my butt was starting to feel. I was also thinking about Jessica, a woman I’d just started to exchange communications with back home via Myspace. I also wondered what some of my buddies back home were up to, if they were studying for a test or just hanging out drinking and playing video games. Then, without anything happening that I could detect, the rest of the guys on board all started stirring around. I crawled over to the assault team squad leader so that I could be heard above the engine’s roar.
“What’s going on?” Jackson, an African-American from Fort Lauderdale who used to crack me up with his ability to sing really high and hit notes like Mariah Carey, said, “ We’re about to land. Your guys need some backup.”
Jackson shrugged and patted his pockets before taking out a stick of gum and unwrapping it. I figured either the guys had gotten into a firefight or the squirters needed tracking. I went back to my seat and pointed to the floor of the helicopter, indicating to Mike that we were going in. I couldn’t respond to Mike’s question about what was happening. All I knew was they were descending crazy fast. Mike was on one knee, and I got down beside him in the same position.
We bumped fists and wished each other good luck like we usually did. As the chopper’s skids hit the turf and dust rose up, I yelled at Mike, “Let’s do this thing.”
Instead of being at the front like we normally were, Mike and I were the last ones off the bird. I watched us scatter to our positions and it was weird but cool to be able to account for every one of us. With just ten of us now on the ground, I felt like I was a Delta Force guy doing some real high-speed gig. I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of that. This was my first time with such a small group, and I liked the flexibility of it all. Who knew what we might be called on to do? Sure, we all had our assignments, but when you’re out there with such a small group, the chances of having to take on some other task were greater. I also felt a greater sense of responsibility toward the other members of this small element. You always relied on other people, but this was different just because the numbers were so low.
I surveyed the surroundings and, instead of the usual low-scrub, high-altitude desert I was so accustomed to seeing, in front of me spread a clump of tall trees covering about the area of a city block. A small section had been cleared in the center of that wooded area and in that space a neat rectangular house sat. The scene was almost pretty, and I could imagine what it might have been like to be out there in that solitude and with those trees to give you even more privacy and a break from the relentless wind. I’d heard guys use the term “God’s Country” when talking about places that they wanted to settle someday back in the States; I wondered briefly if it was terrain like this that they had in mind. I didn’t have too long to think about it. I looked at the GPS unit and listened through our air link to the intel we were getting. Four to six squirters. RPGs. AK47s. Most likely to the north of our location, beyond the house and the clearing surrounding it. That meant in the tree line beyond. Not good. Lots of places for them to hide and a good vantage point for them to shoot and pick us off . Within a few seconds, a plan was formulating. As we ran the three hundred or so yards through that clearing, I kept thinking, “This could be bad. Really bad.”
A few seconds after we ran by the house, we heard over the comms, “You passed it. You passed it. You overran the objective.”
We were still running. I looked over at the squad leader and I could see the confusion in his expression. He raised his hand and we all came to a stop. I eased up my night vision to get a better sense of where we were and the lay of the land. A perfectly sliced half-moon was in the sky and every thing was washed in a grayish light. The house sat there, dark and silent.
Why hadn’t they opened up on us as we ran past? Did they think we’d just keep right on going and then they’d slip out behind us and head back in the other direction? I considered the options. I had my SR-25 long rifle with me and I could, if necessary, join the guys in clearing that house. It wouldn’t be ideal, but I could. Mike had his bolt-action, and that wasn’t going to be of much use; the best he could have done was taken up the tail position among the assaulters. We were only ten guys total and, given the number of Hajis we were told might be in there, we didn’t have overwhelming numbers. Maybe we were going to be needed.
The team leader gets every body grouped up and then they take a position along an outside wall of the house, stacked up against one another. He wanted us to do our usual thing, so Mike and I took positions about fifty yards from the house—me at a position where I could see the front entry of the building, Mike at the rear. The team was in my line of sight and once the second man gave the first a quick squeeze on the shoulder, they busted inside. I heard the muffled sound of a few flash bangs going on, but nothing else until the all clear came over the comms just a few seconds later. What the hell?
Turned out nobody was inside. But there were a whole lot of things inside. The guys started carrying out bags and bags of refined heroin, unrefined opium, and pods of poppy. We also suspected that some of the other bags they found contained bomb-making materials. None of us were experts on what they looked or smelled like and we didn’t have a working dog with us to help us out, so the assault team guys just added it to the pile they were building in front of the porch like entry way at the front of the house.
Mike and I had taken position to do overwatch, each of us taking half of the 180- degree view in front of us. I knew what was going on, but the wind freshened, and the smell of plastic bags being burned, along with their contents, had my eyes stinging a bit. Smoke from the fire swirled around me and I stepped a few paces further downrange to be away from it. What ever I’d been thinking before about this setting being a part of God’s Country was gone. I was glad that we’d made that find and discovered this cache. It was good to know that not only would we be hitting the Taliban’s ability to finance operations, but that those drugs weren’t going to end up on the streets of Miami or somewhere else in the world.
Half-joking and half-serious because I had no idea how heroin got abused, I said to the assault team leader, “We better get the hell out of here before we all get messed up by that heroin smoke.”
He shook his head. “No worries about that, Irv. That won’t hurt us, but we’re out of here in a few anyway.”
We were waiting for more intel to come in about those squirters— they had to have gone somewhere. I scanned the area in front of me and wondered if they were somewhere just outside our vision, pissed as all hell that we’d burned up their stuff and just waiting for the right moment to attack.
Once the fire had died down a bit, we moved to another position, dropping down into a dry riverbed eight hundred or so yards from the house. A few large rocks sat scattered among the loose stones beneath our feet. Beyond the riverbed to the west was an open area the length of a football field and more trees. A couple of houses sat on the perimeter of that stand of trees; it was massive by Afghan countryside standards— three floors and, alongside it, a slightly smaller home. A small wooden bridge, spanning another dry irrigation ditch, stood sentry, allowing access to the houses.
I can’t really explain why, but I was suddenly struck by a sense that something wasn’t right. This was different than me being on high alert and wondering about those squirters. Something just didn’t seem right about this whole situation.
“Mike, you have that feeling?”
“I sure do. I don’t like this at all.”
I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. Suddenly, I was back at home as a kid going up the darkened stairs to my room feeling like some monster loomed behind me.
“I got the same thing, Irv. I got the same thing.” Something about Pemberton talking again and repeating himself intensified the feeling. Plus, by this time I’d been in country over the course of 5th deployment, 700 plus days, and 552 operations, and I’d learned to trust my gut. I looked at my watch. The copters were about five minutes out.
“We should hunker down a bit,” I said. Mike and I dropped a bit lower into the riverbed, still keeping our eyes high enough to see over the bank into the tree line.
As soon as I’d settled in and moved a few rocks out of the way so that I could rest my elbows more comfortably on the ground, I saw tracers and heard their snap, snap, snap, just overhead. It freaked me out a bit to think of what had been going on for the last hour or so. We’d come after these guys. They weren’t where we’d been told they were. Now, after we’d moved along into a new position for an extraction, they decided to try to ambush us. We could see that the tracers were coming from multiple locations within those two buildings and from a few holed up in the tree line.
We spread out and the machine gunners and the lightweight gunners laid down some suppressive fire. We were only a hundred yards from those houses, close enough that I could see the tracers leaving the muzzles of the enemy’s weapons and follow them.
“Holy shit,” I thought, “this is scary.” Their rounds were coming low to the ground, and I hated that. I wanted to run to get into a more protected position, but with them low-firing, the thought of getting kneecapped stopped me. Pemberton and I weren’t in the best position relative to the house, either. We were on the extreme far left of the rest of the unit, closer to the building than anyone else. Worse, a few trees stood between us and the house. It gave us some protection, but not as clear of a line of sight as I would have liked.
The rest of the team was focusing their fire on the tree line, but I knew that if I was one of those Hajis, I’d have wanted to be in one of those upper windows of the two houses. So that’s where I focused my attention. Sure enough, one of the bad guys popped up in the window, sprayed a few rounds, and then ducked back for cover.
Every few seconds, he’d do the same thing. I just waited and watched and counted. He’d pop and shoot. A thousand one. A thousand two. A thousand three. Pop and shoot. A thousand one. A thousand two. A thousand three. I knew I had him. I focused on the corner of the window he would appear in, and after he disappeared I counted to two and fired even before I saw him. Easy pickings. He went down. From a hundred yards that was no big deal, but I owed credit to my idol, Carlos Hathcock, the greatest sniper of the Vietnam War, or any war as far as I was concerned. I read his book as a kid and watched a documentary about him. In this situation,
I relied on something the bad guy did that Carlos Hathcock had said was one of the deadliest sins you could commit as an active shooter. That bad guy in the window had fallen into a rhythm and a pattern that I could easily figure out. Once I understood the timing and got the tempo, the rest was just the most basic marksmanship that any soldier has mastered.
Just to be sure I’d gotten the guy, I pointed my spotlight into that window and ran it all around the window frame. The edges of it were splotched with dark. The same was true of the wall beyond the window. That wasn’t messy house keeping; that was the dude’s recently spattered blood. All of that— from me spotting him to figuring out his pattern to spotlighting the area— took less than fifteen seconds. But it seemed like time had really slowed, as it often did during those firefights. It’s weird, and it’s nearly impossible to describe that sensation of time slowing like that. People moved at a normal rate, but it was as if everything else around them was frozen. I looked at Mike, and he was scanning the tree line and then over to the house and then to our flank on the far right, making sure no one breached our line.
From within the tree line, I saw four distinct muzzle flashes. I wasn’t so concerned about the number, but about how those flashes were arrayed. These guys knew what they were doing! One flash out front, another a few yards behind the first, and then the same thing for the other two. With that kind of depth it was going to be hard to get a good gauge on their distance and location. Then, for some reason, their fire ceased completely. I looked over at Mike. He was still scanning. I grabbed at his ankle.
“Move. Move. Move. There. Now.”
I don’t why it was, but I always had a hard time talking in complete sentences in the middle of a firefight. I was scared and that had a lot to do with it, but it was like my mouth couldn’t keep up with what my mind was telling me. Fortunately, Mike and I had been together for a while, and he and I had developed an instinctual understanding of some kind.
In my mind, I was hearing myself say this: “Mike.
Hey, man, let’s get up and push way far left, because I think these guys are going to try to flank us. So we better hustle over to the tree line over there and make sure no one gets past us. Got it? Okay. Let’s go.”
Mike got my much shorter message. We took off running with me in the lead, both of us bent at the waist trying to make ourselves as small as possible while still making good time. I always wanted to be out in front of him, even if that meant that I was in line to take a shot instead of him. I was the squad leader and that meant being out in front. Bullets were striking and skipping between the two of us and I kept thinking, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” in time with my footsteps. That was a variation on what we’d learned in training— “I’m up, you see me, I’m down. I’m up. You see me. I’m down.”
We took our far-left position and then I radioed the squad leader to let him know where we were. We fi guard we were going to settle in there for as long as this was going to take. We both were scanning the tree line, Mike through his scope, me with just my naked eye. Behind one of the skinniest trees, I thought I detected some motion.
“See that?” I asked.
“Roger that, Irv.”
We confirmed our suspicion: These dudes were trying to flank us. The right thing to do, probably, but one of the Hajis picked the wrong tree to use as a backrest. The tree was maybe six to ten inches in circumference and parts of his back spread out well beyond its edges. I could see other trees just a few feet from that one that were much wider. Why he settled on that one, I have no idea.
“You seeing this?” Mike hissed, his voice a mix of disbelief and a tiny laugh.
“I am,” I said. Then I added, “You got one. You got one,” signaling to Mike that I saw that the enemy was armed, which meant we were good to go to shoot him. Pemberton racked a round.
“Hey, distance?” he asked.
I thought it didn’t matter. Anything between a hundred and five hundred yards, Mike could basically hold anywhere on the torso of the target and he’d smack it. With his weapon, one that fired a big flat- flying round, he didn’t have to worry too much about the trajectory.
“Dial for two,” I told him, indicating that he didn’t really have to make much of an adjustment, just hold under the target slightly.
Mike let one rip and watched as the trunk of that skinny little tree sparked. The guy behind it twitched a bit, but didn’t go down.
That was a good shot even if he didn’t hit the guy. As direct-action snipers, our tactics and aim weren’t as precise as long-range guys. We didn’t have the time in that situation to sit there and fully set up with a tripod and do all kinds of calculations and fine-tune our aim and use laser rangefinders and other bits of technology. Mike knew not to go for a head shot; heads move too much. He went for a center mass shot. “Hit him. Hit him. Hit him,” I said. Mike didn’t need me to tell him what to do, but I was so pumped I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Mike must have adjusted his aim a bit because the next round he fired didn’t hit the tree at all. I heard the round striking flesh with a smack- pop, and the guy was down. I scanned away from that skinny tree and thought I saw one or two more targets in that same small area. I was absolutely certain of one of them. He was using a partially fallen tree to brace his AK as he sprayed fire toward our assault team’s position. When I say “ toward,” I really mean toward it and not at it. Our guys were firing at him and I saw tree bark and dirt clods flying all around the guy. He had to be scared shitless and was just shutting his eyes and squeezing the trigger. The barrel of the gun was pointed midway between ground and sky. I’d seen that so many times and I’d come to believe, like a lot of our guys did, that those dumbshits believed that God’s will was truly what determined who got shot and who didn’t. Aim and firing discipline had nothing to do with it. If you were meant to kill a guy, God would make that bullet find its way home.
“Dumb ass,” I thought. I focused on his muzzle flash and then aimed for that. I was dialed in for the distance and figured that if I was a little high, I’d hit him in the head. If I wasn’t high, then I’d likely hit the AK and take that out of commission. I got the guy in the neck and that ended his random AK firing.
During all of this, the squad leader had called in for air assets. I believed there was one or at most two more squirters to be taken out. I couldn’t see their exact positions, but it didn’t really matter when the bombs started falling out there. By that time, we were in the helicopter and heading out. We were riding high and feeling really good about ourselves.
Back at the joint operations center (JOC), we all gathered around a screen to watch the drone footage. That was one of the best parts of any operation, watching how the day was won.
I didn’t mind one bit experiencing that version of someone looking over my shoulder. More than that, though, I was grateful for having more time outside the wire as a sniper developing a kind of sixth sense that was going to help me and the rest of the guys stay safe. Experience was the best teacher out there, and that was something you’d never get from a book or a classroom. As much as all that was in place to help prepare us, I think that more than anything else, it reinforced the idea that no matter what anyone can teach you, you’re going to have to learn on your own and be accountable. A lot was at stake, and that helped you develop the skills that you weren’t even aware you had and that no simulation could ever bring out in you. Combat shone a light on you and aspects of yourself that would have otherwise never been tested. It was as much a proving ground as a battleground.