Four of us went out before dawn to patrol a site where a C-130 gunship had engaged some forces the night before, to see if we could find any bodies. We reached the coordinates we’d been given just moments before the indistinct grays of predawn resolved into the pastels of daybreak. Before we could do any serious searching we heard voices coming from some nearby caves above us. The four of us instantly hit the ground and waited. As we watched, a spill of enemy fighters started pouring out of one of the caves — 20, at least, and all armed. 

If this were happening in the movies, we would all just leap to our feet and blow these guys away, but in real life, it doesn’t work that way. We were outnumbered at least five to one, and we were not exactly armed with machine guns. This was not the OK Corral, and if we leapt to our feet we would all be mowed down in short order. There was no hiding until they were gone, either: These guys were headed our way. We would have to call in an airstrike, and do it fast. 

There was a B-52 nearby; Brad got it on the radio. It was my job to give him the coordinates—but there was a snag. The only way to ensure that the team in the B-52 dropped their fireworks on the other guys and not on us was to give them exact coordinates. Typically we would do this using a high-powered laser rangefinder hooked into a GPS so that when it ranged the target it would give us not only distance but also the target’s GPS coordinates, which we could then pass on up to whoever we were calling for air support. These bombers are extremely accurate with their ordnance, like vertical snipers in the sky. 

But we’d only planned for a simple twelve-hour mission and didn’t have all our usual equipment. Typically, for a full-on recon mission, I’d have at least a good sniper rifle. We didn’t have even a decent rangefinder. 

Training, training. As a SEAL sniper, I’d been taught to estimate distances on the fly even without all the usual tools, using only my five senses and my gut, but typically I’d be shooting a 10-gram bullet from the muzzle of a rifle. In this case, we were shooting a 1,000-pound “bullet” out of a 125-ton aircraft, flying 20,000 feet above us at near the speed of sound, at a target less than 500 yards away from where we sat — and I had to get it right. 

Range estimation. This was something else we covered in sniper school: You visualize a familiar distance, say, a football field. That’s one football field, two football fields, three football fields … but this can be risky when you’re not on level ground. Here I had to sight up a rugged, rocky incline. And daybreak lighting can play tricks with distances. 

Those 20-plus al Qaeda, or Taliban, or who the hell knew who, were trickling down the slope heading straight for our position. They hadn’t seen us yet, but it would be only seconds before they did. If we were going to do this thing, it had to be now.

“Brandon!” Cassidy hissed. “You need to Kentucky-windage this drop!” “Kentucky windage” is a term that means basically this: Wing it. Give it your best shot. So I channeled my inner Carlos Hathcock and gave Cassidy a bearing I estimated as 100 meters past the group. If I was going to be off at all, better to guess long than short, and if I was balls-on accurate, a drop 100 meters behind them should at least buy us a few seconds to adjust and drop a second time.