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.
Now the enemy cluster was so close we couldn’t wait any longer. We were concealed but not covered; that is, they couldn’t easily see us, but once they knew where we were, our concealment would give no protection against incoming fire. We quickly moved to cover — and that’s when they spotted us. There were a few alarmed shouts and then the sounds of small-arms fire.
There is nothing quite so galvanizing as the distinct crack! snap! of semiautomatic weaponry being fired over your head, the crack! being the sound of the initial shot itself and the snap! being the bullet breaking the sound barrier as it zings past you.
We returned fire. I sighted one guy wearing a black headdress, dropped him. Quickly resighted and dropped a second, this one wearing the traditional Afghan wool roll-up hat. sighted a third — then glanced up and saw vapor trails in the sky. The B-52 was flying so high it was invisible to us, but I knew exactly what was happening up there: They were dropping the first bomb.
When you are this close to a big explosion it rocks your chest cavity. You want to make sure your mouth is open so the contained impact doesn’t burst your lungs. Brad got the call: We were seconds from impact. We opened our mouths, dropped, and rolled.
The Joint Direct Attack Munition is a big bomb and extremely accurate. When the first set of JDAM hit, it shook the mountain under our feet, throwing rubble everywhere.
I whipped around and glanced back up the incline to assess the strike. Perfect — about 100 yards behind the target. I rolled again, adjusting numbers in my head, and quickly shouted the new coordinates to Cassidy, who gave them to Brad to relay up to the bird. In moments like this, your senses go into hyperacute mode and seconds seem to stretch into minutes, hours, a timeless series of discrete snapshots. I focused on my breathing, making it slow and deliberate, feeling the cool morning air mixed with the distinct smell of explosives teasing my lungs. I knew my numbers were accurate and that the men shooting to kill us would themselves be dead in seconds. For a brief moment, I was at peace. And then an unexpected sound sliced through the strange silence: the wail of a baby crying.
My stomach twisted. I had a five-week-old baby boy at home whom I’d not yet held in my arms; hopefully, I would survive this war to meet him face-to-face. Someone up on that hillside had a baby they would never see or hold again.
I knew these people had made the decision to bring their families out here to this godforsaken fortress, knowingly putting them in harm’s way. Sometimes, I’d heard, they even did this intentionally, using their own children, their flesh and blood, as living shields to prevent us from attacking. It was their choice, I told myself, not ours. But I’ll never forget the sound of that baby’s cry.
We opened our mouths, ducked, and rolled. The second drop took them all.
Dedicated to the legend himself.
Carlos Norman Hathcock (May 1942 – February 1999) was a USMC sniper with a record of 93 confirmed kills in Vietnam. His record and incredible combat stories made him a legend in the Marine Corps.
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