If you haven’t seen the new TV show “American Grit” on Fox yet, the action-packed show stars Nick Irving—longtime Loadout Room and SOFREP contributor, and former Army Ranger sniper—as one of the military veteran “cadre.” Each cadre member is tasked to lead and mentor a team of four civilians through military-inspired obstacles and challenges. Nick, along with the rest of the cadre, are faced with a difficult decision every week, as they have to handpick one of their team members to run through the circus (the endurance portion that will result in the elimination of the person who rings the brass bell first).

If you have never read Nick’s book, “The Reaper,” and want to learn more about him, you can find an excerpt below to kickstart your reading. In his book, he recounts the events that earned him the name “The Reaper” from his fellow Rangers. He will be publishing a new book titled “The Way of the Reaper” in August, 2016. His new book can be pre-ordered on Amazon now.



The test we faced that third night working in support of Charlie Company, First Platoon, in Kandahar was not the first one and it wasn’t going to be the last. In fact, long before I rose through the Army’s ranks to become a direct-action sniper, I was constantly faced with challenges. To one degree or another, that’s probably true of most people in just about any walk of life. Except that for me, so much of it took place in a short period of time. I enlisted right of out of high school in 2004 and then served in various capacities with the Third Ranger Battalion after getting through the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP)—machine gunner, machine gun team leader, grenadier, team leader, designated marksman, sniper, sniper team leader, and master sniper.

During the three-and-a-half-month period from May of 2009 through August of that year, when I tallied more than 33 kills, I was about three months shy of turning 24 years old. On and off, I’d been deployed  to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2005; I married in 2007; and I’d gone through more schools and training programs than somebody who’d gone the other route and attended college as an undergraduate and then as a graduate. I like to think that I learned a whole lot, and I’m sure I did, but while it was all going on, I felt like I was a rock rolling downhill, gathering momentum, tearing up a few things around me, and accumulating a few things that stuck to me. Some of it was painful; some of it was fun; and like anybody who’d been rolling along like that, I was feeling a bit dizzy.

As you can imagine, especially during that period that earned me the nickname “the Reaper,” I didn’t have a whole lot of time to sit back and reflect on everything that had happened to me that put me in that hot zone. I knew that it was the luck of the draw that had us seeing so much action.

A lot of guys at Fort Benning told us when they learned that we were being deployed to Kandahar that we needed to be prepared to be bored out of our minds. I was also fortunate that I was with Charlie Company, First Platoon. After all, that was the unit that I grew up with in battalion. I knew most of the guys I was going to be assigned with. We’d been deployed together before, and they were really, really good guys, squared away. In some ways this was going to be different. I had rank now and I’d be one of the men planning missions, giving briefings. I felt prepared for that, but I also knew that with leadership came responsibility. You don’t serve in the armed forces without having a sense of responsibility for your fellow soldiers, but this was going to be at a different level. I wasn’t always the most responsible kid and I liked to have a good time still, and I told myself that I wasn’t going to change too much.

You’re always on edge pre-deployment. When word came down that we were going to Kandahar, we all met the news with a mixture of relief and curiosity. The Second Ranger Battalion was currently over there, and their guys were reporting back that things were very quiet. A few missions. Not really getting shot at. I should clarify something. Th e sense of relief I mentioned. That was mostly what we told our wives and girlfriends. I told my wife, Jessica, that this was going to be a boring deployment, probably my last one. I’d be away just a few months and then we’d figure out the next steps. Afghanistan sucks. You hardly ever see anybody; they all live hidden in the mountains. Kandahar is a city. Don’t worry. In truth, I was pissed for all the reasons stated above. I wanted to get into as much stuff as possible. That’s what I’d been spending all these years busting my ass off preparing to do. You become a sniper; you want to shoot. You want to do your job. So, along with the anxiety I was feeling, there was some disappointment and frustration. It didn’t help that all around the base we’re hearing from some other guys who’d been assigned to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Wilson as well as others in Kandahar that we better take our Xboxes and our PlayStations, and we’d better load every hard drive, zip drive, and any other kind of digital storage device we had with plenty of movies.

A few days later, I was sitting in our old Mercury Grand Marquis inside the brown gate that surrounded the Third Battalion’s secret compound at Benning. Jessica was in tears, just a river of them flowing. I felt helpless to really reassure her, and that made me mad at myself. Add that to being frazzled with all that comes with being deployed, all the worry and wonder I had about my new role, and our goodbye was not rom-com worthy. I cried a bit, and felt bad that the two of us had been Stateside together only a few months.

I have to admit that I wasn’t always the most pleasant guy to be around when I came back from deployment. Prior to this upcoming deployment, my company and I had been working out of Baghram Air Force Base in support of SEAL Team Six. While at Baghram I’d worked with another Ranger sniper by the name of Pete who really showed me the ropes. He had been in the sniper section for some time and served as the sniper platoon sergeant.

When I’d come back to Georgia, it was like I was in a new world. It always felt like that, but it didn’t help that while I was gone, Jessica had rearranged the whole house. I knew that I shouldn’t be pissed about that. After all, she was looking for ways to make things better, to help her pass the time waiting, but still. It’s hard to flip the switch back to being normal Nick after being downrange. Out in the field, you want to keep everything the same. Keep the routine going.

I knew that I had to flip the switch again. Go back to being that other Nick, the guy who, to be honest, over the five-plus years I’d been in the Army, was the easier one to be. So, as I’m standing outside the car hugging Jessica, it is like a scene from a sci-fi movie. She’s standing there holding on to me, and a faint, ghostlike image is separating himself from her, already with the other guys on the compound ripping and running around getting all their stuff together, hearing that C-17’s engines revving up and idling. Then I really did walk away, giving Jessica one more wave before immersing myself in my other life.

An hour later, I’m settled in. The Ambien-induced sleep had a hold on me, and twenty-three hours later I was in Afghanistan. Bleary-eyed and dry mouthed, I stepped off the transport into a kind of heat that Georgia can’t produce—a dry, searing version in which every ounce of moisture has been wrung from the air.

I liked that introduction to this other life. It signaled that the slate was wiped clean. This was not the States. When I looked around as we offloaded and then loaded to make our way to the FOB, nothing seemed at all familiar. Gone was the lush spring landscape of Georgia. No matter where I looked I wasn’t going to find a paved road, a white picket fence framing the driveway, and the cluster of mailboxes at our apartment complex, no whine and whirr of insects. Just the heat and the smell, a mixture of hay and manure. This is where the other Nick, the one who’d become the Reaper, could call home. I didn’t need reminders of my real home that would get my memory working. I was entering my workplace, and I didn’t need any more distractions.

I also liked that Pemberton and I were being housed in an area that was fenced off from the rest of the base. All the troops were in our own kind of walled city, cement Jersey barriers, metal gates, shipping containers, what seemed miles of chain-link fence and concertina wire. If this was going to be a boring deployment, at least we had a nice setup. Pemberton and I found our private rooms in what resembled a simple aluminum two-story apartment building.

“Not too bad,” I said to myself when I opened the door. I had a few storage-locker-type closets, a bed, a desk, and chairs in a room that was about 12 by 15 feet. Even though I was trying not to think about home, I was struck by how much it reminded me of the bedroom I’d had growing up as a kid in Maryland. My dad was an E6 stationed at Fort Meade. We lived in a modest house in Jessup, Maryland, where it was just my dad, my mom, and my sister, Jasmine. My parents had met in Augsburg, Germany, where they were both stationed. My mom was an E4, but I don’t remember her in uniform at all. By the time I was old enough to start school, she’d left the military to be a full-time mom. Money was always tight, so Mom worked for UPS and Burger King, among other jobs, to help make ends meet.

Growing up on base and living in military housing didn’t seem at all unusual to me. It was what I grew up with and what most of the kids I hung around with as a preschooler knew. Some of my first memories are of being on that base and going to work with my dad sometimes. I didn’t know what he did, all I knew was that the American flag went up every morning and we’d salute it. I was taught to show respect to everyone and especially to the men and women in uniform and to that flag flying above our neighborhood. In a way it was like we lived in Major Roger’s neighborhood. Those preschool lessons were spoken but mostly unspoken. Only later, when I went to the local elementary school, middle school, and high school, would I realize that the air of respect that permeated the base wasn’t the same one that existed off base.

As I stowed my gear at FOB Wilson, it was like I had to pack away some of those memories. Never the neatest kid in the world, I remember having my desk at school end up overflowing with homework papers, books, folders, and assorted junk. Not at home of course. That was the place that I had to keep squared away. Probably my greatest accomplishment in elementary school, besides advancing from grade to grade (barely), was meeting Jessica. I was one of the smaller kids in class, but I towered over her. Even at the age of six, as small as she was, Jessica was as energetic and  vibrant as any of the kids in our class. She had an awesome smile that she flashed as she ran around the playground during recess, a tiny dynamo daring anybody to keep up with her. I’d brought along a picture of the two of us when we were still dating and out for the day at Ocean City. A couple of kites are flying above our heads in the perfect blue sky, but it’s Jessica’s smile that outdazzles everything. I set the frame on the desk and resumed unpacking. From the twin building next door came the sound of barking, a fierce and insistent demand. In a way, another reminder of home. I’d always liked having dogs around and on previous deployments I’d seen how effective working dogs could be in helping us complete our missions. I also liked how they acted a lot like us. As soon as they had their kit on, you could see a change in their attitude. They were all business. They sat up straighter, their ears peaked to their highest point, their noses twitched, and it was as if their vision narrowed.

I’d been thinking about how businesslike I needed to be in my new role. As much as I’d always wanted to be in the military and had to grow up very, very fast and learn to do things the right way, I didn’t want to come across as too much of a hardliner. I was going to be in charge, but the key word in that sentence was “I.” I still had to be myself, still had to be the guy everyone called “Irv.” I’d been exposed to a few different leaders in my time, and I knew what it was like to be led. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being ordered and bossed around and that they have no say in how things are going to go down. Th e reality was that somebody had to be in charge and that the chain of command was a necessary, and often very good, thing. We all had our parts to play, but I was more than a rank and title and so were the guys I was there to help protect. Keep it simple and keep it real was going to be the order of my day.

My thoughts about how I was going to handle this new role were interrupted by the sound of my beeper going off . Leaving the task of organizing my room wasn’t something I was comfortable with, but another, and far more important, duty was calling. I grabbed my go-kit and weapon and headed over to Pemberton’s room. I nudged open the door with my shoulder and then stood there shaking my head. He was standing in front of a small mirror combing his closely cropped gray-streaked dark brown hair.

“Dude, this won’t be no photo-op. I know you want to look good for the overheads.”

The sound of boots clattering down the aluminum stairs was nearly deafening. Ignoring my wise-ass remarks, my spotter said, “So much for boring, right?” He looked at his watch. “Thirty hours ago I was in my rack at home.”

We joined the flow of guys into the ready room. Instead of taking my seat with them, I lingered near the front. I scanned the wood-paneled room and the six large-screen displays that had various satellite feeds and other data streaming onto them. Next to me was a large poster-type board, about the size of one panel of school chalkboard. On it were photos of various bad guys. Some of them had a big red X through the image. The photos weren’t posted haphazardly; they were organized into a type of flow chart with lines connecting some of the images to show relationships among and between the various Taliban enemies we’d been encountering.

I had a couple of topographical maps in my hand and I pushed at the end of the rolled tubes, extending them like a drill bit. I was gathering my thoughts while still eyeing the screens, watching the predator drones while also wondering how it was that the smell of pine could still be so strong. A whole lot of sweaty, smelly men had been in that room, and I thought that maybe the whole paneling thing served as a kind of room freshener. The Special Forces version of those tree-shaped car deodorizers.

I was still new to my leadership role and I also knew what it was like to be one of the guys in the seats. They respected you if you were real, still the same guy they’d known back before you were standing out front. That point was driven home when the platoon leader, whom we were there in support of, kept dropping AFI bombs (another f—ing inconvenience) and a bunch of other acronyms when talking about our ORP (objective rally point). He was a good soldier, but that wasn’t how I would handle things, with all the fancy lingo and by-the-book stuff .

I flashed again on that photo of Jessica and me. In it, I was wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey. I’ve always loved the ’Boys despite growing up near D.C. and the Redskins. I also loved the game itself and had fond memories of high school days out on the field. In a way I wished these kinds of sessions could be as simple as our pregame chalkboard talks had been. A lot less was at stake back then, of course, and it was easy to just get us hyped up so we’d charge hard and play with more guts than brains. Still, something about that approach appealed to me.

As I scanned the room, preparing my remarks, I remembered what it was like back in the day playing sandlot football. We’d all kneel down and I’d often be the one diagramming plays in the dirt. You do a stop-and-go. You run a post. You stay the hell out of the way.

While my presentation wasn’t that informal, I had the guys laughing a little bit when I opened with, “Dudes, listen up,” to help set the right tone. I sprinkled in a bit of Army lingo—sectors of security, cover and concealment, lines of advance—just to show the guys who didn’t know me that I knew my stuff. I told them that our high value target (HVT) was a suicide-vest maker. That got their attention, and I told them the obvious but necessary thing. “Likely, he’ll be wearing one or have one close by.” That fact seemed to get everybody’s attention, and it was good to have them all amped up.

The plan was relatively simple. We knew the HVT’s location. We’d all advance together, and then, about 300 to 500 meters from the objective, we were going to break off the sniper element. The assault force would proceed, but the snipers were going to climb onto the top of the building. From there we’d have a better perspective on the entire objective. I concluded my remarks the way I would have if I was talking to the guys back inside the wire. “Okay, we knock that out and pop on the helicopters.”

I made eye contact with a few of the guys I didn’t know already. Kopp. Fredericks. Gilliam. Howard. They all met my gaze and nodded.

“Good to go then.”

What ever anxiety I was feeling was gone. The briefing went well, and now it was on to the fun part. That began with climbing into the Chinook helicopter for insertion. I’d never flown in one of the newer MH47- G variants. They were a step up even from the CH47- Fs. Both were used widely with Special Forces operations, but with the addition of the FLIR (forward-looking infrared) and multimode radar, the MHs were ideal for nighttime, low-light, and foul-weather operations. We were definitely going to encounter the first two of those, and who knew about the third?

Given my interest in all things military, particularly weapons and machinery, I’d sat and talked with lots of pilots over the years. I’d been told previously that the CH47s, no matter the variant, were a better fit than the Black Hawks. They were more powerful for one thing, and without a tail rotor, they were less susceptible to the crazy winds in Afghanistan. Most important was that they had a safety feature that also worked well with the weather and terrain in Afghanistan. Windstorms could whip up the sand and soil and brown-out conditions were fairly common. The CH47s had a system that would enable the pilots to switch over to an automatic landing mode that they could use in those low-visibility conditions. It was nice to know that no matter what, we’d be in good hands— human or electronic.

I could feel the adrenaline buzz begin as soon as I approached the aircraft. That special sense of sharpness had begun when I’d gotten my kit on. I’d checked my batteries, my plates, and my night vision, doing my own version of preflight inspection. Now, walking up the ramp at the back of the helicopter, those twin Honeywell engines blasting in my face like the most intense hair dryer in the world, I took my seat knowing that it was now game time. We’d done our thing in the locker room, but that was that and this was this. My leg started bouncing in anticipation. Those weren’t my nerves kicking in. This was going to be fun.

Along with that thought, another one joined the party. Every time I was about to set out on an operation my mind turned back to the guys I knew at home, some of my teammates on the football team, other buddies. I wondered what they were doing just then. I knew that I was doing something totally cool. Something few people ever have the opportunity to do. Not only that, I was a leader now, and I was responsible for the safety of other grown men. How cool was that?

Of course, I also thought of my family. I knew they were all proud of me and how I’d risen through the ranks. My parents had never put pressure on me to join, but my dad had definitely been influential in my interest in warfare and weaponry. He fully supported my paperback book habit and let me raid his library. I’d always been interested in the Special Forces and read a lot of Vietnam-era memoirs by guys who were part of the LRRPs, MACV SOGs, SEALs, and Green Berets. I thought that their jungle cammies were so cool and loved how they’d darken their faces to blend into that densely foliaged environment. Living in Maryland, I could kind of sense what it would have been like to live in that hot and humid environment. My previous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan had exposed me to another kind of hostile environment entirely. Now, in the helicopter, I got to experience a bit of what Vietnam might have been like. The smell of the guys, gun oil, and the chopper’s hydraulics and engine fluids were all superheated. I also thought I could smell everyone’s excitement, and I looked around at their amped-up eyes, wondering if they were thinking what I was thinking.

Not all our talk was about warfare. For the first few minutes of the flight, the chatter was at its usual level. Over the sound of the rotors and the engine, I could hear a few guys talking about their picks. The NFL season had just ended in February 2009, with the Steelers beating the Cardinals, but the diehards were already talking about their fantasy draft picks.

“I’m going to grab my Holmes boy, and that’s the end of the discussion.”

“Cardinals can’t win the big one. You saw what Roethelisberger did. Piles up the numbers.”

“You don’t know jack about anything.”

After a while their voices became as much white noise as the helicopter’s sounds. I sat there and ran my hands along the stock of my weapon. Pemberton spotted me and smirked. “A little foreplay with Dirty Diana?”

I’d named my SR- 25 a while ago and even that early into the deployment, thanks to Pemberton, everyone in the platoon knew it. He also knew that I didn’t like his Win Mag at all. I was okay with bolt-action rifles like his, but I preferred the semiautomatic and felt like I shot so much better with my SR.

“Mike,” I said, using Pemberton’s first name as a way to let him know I wasn’t messing around. “Show some respect for my girl. Just because you’re stuck with that butt-ugly green Win Mag doesn’t mean you have to be all up and jealous. You already turned that thing green with envy, so don’t look to drag us down.”

I really did hate how Pemberton’s weapon looked. It was just a dull green. It had no personality whatsoever. In a way it was kind of like Pemberton. Quiet and no-nonsense, nothing that was going to attract anybody’s attention. That was the initial impression Pemberton gave off, but there was a lot more to him than that.

“Dude.” Pemberton just shook his head slowly. “You’ve got some issues.”

I wouldn’t have called my treatment of my weapon an issue. Jessica might have if I’d told her that the reason why I’d sometimes stay late after work was because I’d applied a new coat of paint to it. I would stay at work for three, four, or five extra hours just painting various colors and patterns on this rifle. I wanted every little piece to look perfect. If there was an edge that was not painted correctly or crooked, I’d start the whole thing over again. I had to have had at least thirty coats of paint on this gun by that point. It was thick. I didn’t want it to bang up on something, so that it would go back to its original, all-black color. If it did get chipped a little bit, there would still be a little bit of paint underneath it, so I could easily fix it. I would change the pattern at least once every two weeks.

Pemberton, on the other hand, needed nearly constant reminding that he needed to clean his gun. I ran my finger along the brown and black tiger stripes that were Dirty Diana’s present outfit. I figured I was going to have plenty of time for the gun’s care and feeding since this was most likely going to be one of those deployments where I’d be looking for ways to pass the time. I saw Pemberton take his helmet off and run his fingers through his hair. The first time I saw the guy back in garrison, the thing that struck me was his long hair. It gave him the air of a lady’s man, which he was, and a kind of sophistication that a lot of the other guys lacked. Part of that came from him being a prior-service guy. He’d been in the Navy and toured around the world, basically. He hadn’t seen any kind of combat, but traveling to all those places, experiencing all different kinds of cultures, made him worldly in ways that neither I nor many of the other guys were.

Pemberton was older than me and, though I outranked him and he was my spotter, we didn’t have that kind of strict top-dog pilot/copilot relationship. We were more or less equals, not like the golfer/caddy situation that marks how some sniper teams operate. He would take shots just as much as I did. The unusual thing about battalion snipers and spec ops snipers was the fact that we really don’t have the traditional spotter, where he knows everything there is to know about the environment, the gun, the bullet, and everything, and all the sniper has to do is listen to him and then pull the trigger. We had to be a spotter and sniper all in one, big ball. Sometimes, we’d have to split off and each operate on our own. I knew that there’d be times when we’d have an objective and we’d have to hit two buildings at once, or we’d go out in support of two assault teams. Pemberton and I would then split off , and I had to trust that he’d get the job done, and he’d have to trust me as well.

I did trust Mike and he was a good guy. A couple of days before we left for this deployment, he was over at our place. He was talking with Jessica and he said to her, “I’ve got your man covered. He’s going to come back.”

Jessica wrinkled her nose and said, “How do I know you’re telling me the truth?”

Mike ran his hand over his chin. I could hear his skin rustling through his two-day bristle. “Well, I’m afraid of you, so I’ll do anything to keep from having to experience your Latina wrath coming down on my head if I come back without him.”

He’d only known Jessica for a relatively brief time, but he’d picked up on the fact that she was fiery as habanero chili. He didn’t have to say it, but I knew that he’d literally take a bullet for me. I wouldn’t tell him this, but I was really glad when the sniper platoon sergeant, a guy named Pacchini, had paired the two of us up back at Fort Benning. At the time, I didn’t know Mike at all, except that he was the hair guy who drove a bright green Mustang, the kind of car only a single guy like him could afford. After that, we spent hundreds and hundreds of hours together and a bond had formed. Stateside, you’re always looking at other guys and evaluating them, trying to figure out how they’re going to act overseas. If you’re out at a bar and something comes up and a guy jumps up to either watch your back or to hustle you out of there, you know that they’re going to be good to go when deployed. Mike was that kind of shirt-off-his-back guy. I also liked that he wasn’t afraid to ask questions. A lot of guys don’t want to appear stupid or uninformed or whatever, and they’d rather keep quiet and pretend they understand when they don’t. I guess that was a part of Mike’s maturity. Twenty-seven didn’t make him ancient and wise, but it did give him some advantages over the rest of us.

When he’d talked to Jessica, he’d confirmed something that I’d been telling her all along, “The guy is loyal. He’s like a German shepherd or a pit bull. He’d do anything for me.”

Part of the reason why trust and loyalty built up between us was that I have enormous respect for my elders. Mom and Dad always preached that lesson and spending time in South Carolina with my grandparents and aunts and uncles reinforced that. They knew a hell of a lot more about life than I did. All of my male relatives were hunters and crack shots. They all contributed to teaching me weapon safety and respect for the power that guns had.

Because Pemberton was older than me, I had a hard time with the idea that I outranked him. At one point, early on in our pairing as a team, Pemberton said to me, “Hey, Sergeant, can you remind me again of the recommended lead for fast walkers at 800 meters?”

“I can, but only if you don’t call me ‘Sergeant’ anymore. Call me ‘Irv,’ or call me by my first name. We’re going to be together in the crap a lot over there. We’re going to be hanging out together. I don’t want to have this I-outrank-you kind of attitude. We’re going to be friends.”

I knew he appreciated that, and that the kind of kidding we did with one another, even when around the other guys, made us both feel more at ease. The closer we got to deployment, the more time we spent together. During training, the sniper/spotter teams worked mostly in isolation from the other five or six other pairings, so when you and your spotter are together that much of the day, you better get along well or you could have some really long and painful days. Snipers and spotters don’t have to be best buds, but too much tension can make you a hell of a lot less effective. You develop a relationship where you’re like brothers, and you know how that can sometimes go. But in the end, you always have each other’s backs.

We were competitive, of course, but early on it became clear why I was the sniper and he was the spotter. I’d always kid him about it, and he didn’t really like it, but the man had some issues of his own. Three hundred of them to be precise. For some reason, when we were training and out on the range, Pemberton could not hit a target that was three hundred meters away. He could nail something at a grand (one thousand meters) and every other distance with some accuracy, but the three hundred seemed to throw him off big time. I can’t really blame his choice of weapon; after all, other guys used the Win Mag very, very effectively at that distance and others. To its credit, the Win Mag does shoot really tight groups, but for me, it was just too slow. I felt it was a nuisance to have to manually load it and run the bolt back and forth. I figured that there were going to be a lot of times when we’d have to go after multiple targets. Manually racking that bolt every time was going to give the bad guys enough time to go to ground. I wanted to be able to neutralize targets before they knew what hit them.

Even if it wasn’t for that issue he had, he knew that I was going to be the primary shooter. We both knew that, regardless of rank, I was the more accurate shot. He had his relationship with his weapon and I had mine. That might sound strange to someone who’s never been a sniper or a serious hunter or target marksman, but our guns are so important to us. I wasn’t the only one who had named his gun, but I might have been a little more over the top about care and maintenance of my weapon than most. I was very protective of her, and I didn’t like anybody messing around with it behind my back. To make sure they hadn’t, and I did this as we were flying to our insertion point, I inspected her again. I made sure that the scope ring was exactly as I left it. I also checked the stock to see if the spot of gun grease I’d put there was still intact. If it wasn’t I knew somebody’d touched it. I hated people touching her.

A lot like baseball players with their bats, a sniper and his weapon have a way of communicating. You develop a kind of ritual in the way that you handle it and treat it. You take care of it and it will take care of you. Of course, war is no game, and the consequences are more often than not deadly.

The last few minutes to the insertion point, I tried to just empty my mind. I was successful in eliminating any thoughts of home. When I felt us make contact with the ground and we wobbled a bit, it was like someone had given me smelling salts. I was very clear-minded and felt none of the fatigue that I expected I might. Our walk up to the objective was uneventful. When we got to the point where we split off so the assault team could do their thing,I was feeling hesitant. Part of that was due to the fact that even though I’d seen the topographical maps and the satellite images, everything looked slightly different from what I’d pictured. Night vision contributed to that a bit, but having boots on the ground and an eye-level perspective was very different from the intel we used. I wasn’t able to identify any of the features that I thought might distinguish one area from another, one building from another. To be honest, at the break-off point, I had no real idea at all where I was and where I was supposed to position myself.

I hope I don’t screw this up, I thought. Then I checked myself and told myself to take a deep breath and play it cool.