You can run, but you’ll only die tired.
The air in the jungle crawls across you and drops heavy on your body like a warm wet blanket. It’s a living, breathing cocoon and you can either fall into it’s embrace, or you can die.
“You can’t fight the jungle.” He had told us that.
Then a moment later he took the first step of what would be a 96 hour patrol; my first in that place, with so much weight on my back and an ocean of humming darkness grinning at me. I watched him, dark green and barely visible in the total absence of even some scant moonlight, as he moved forward off the tarmac road and disappeared instantly, completely engulfed in the blackness of a tropical forest at midnight.
I knew that the jungle was no place to mess around. Just months earlier while I was still with a kine infantry unit, I had seen a lance corporal lose his footing on a muddy incline. He managed to perform a perfect 180 degree about-face just in time for the small sharp end of a snapped off tree branch to lodge itself cleanly in his right eye socket. It took hours to evacuate him from the training area and the visual memory of that egg yolk like substance running down his face, contrasting vibrantly with his light green camouflaged paint is still connected, yet oddly estranged, from the twitching motions his body par took in before his screams ripped open the quiet and shook the bamboo.
Rain for days. Deadly poisonous snakes that drop from trees and lurk in shallow rivers. Spiders the size of basketballs. You can’t fight the jungle.
Regular “line units” or standard infantry sound like a herd of cattle doing a jig through the foliage wearing Christmas bells. Impossible not to hear and likely equally impossible not to ambush with unrestrained glee. Shades of Vietnam. Hoc Man in ’68.
That night when I first entered the void of that throbbing jungle just as the witching hour began screaming at me, I wasn’t with standard warriors anymore. It was my first outing with my new brothers. A group known, respected and feared by foe and friend alike; I had joined my battalions Scout/Sniper Platoon.
“It’ll always be STA platoon to me.”
I first noticed the tattoo on Sgt. Borba’s forearm when I came sprinting into the toilet. It was the seventh week of boot camp and Borba had ordered every recruit with an infantry MOS (Military occupational specialty) into the toilet for a meeting. I found out later that this number, 8541, was the numerical code for the occupation of Sniper. The term that was used at the time was actually Scout/Sniper. The S/S initials and their historic significance was lost on no-one.
Another recruit, who would later go on to join the famed Reconnaissance units, inquired about the tattoo and Sgt. Borba’s history. His nostalgia for his old unit, what he referred to as “STA” (Surveillance and Target Acquisition) was impressive and although I had never entertained any ideas of being that man slowly creeping through the grass, spending hours, even days, preparing to take one single shot, the significance of that role heavy and I recognized it.
In the end, it was Sgt. Borba who handed me my EGA, or Eagle Globe and Anchor; the symbol of the Marine Corps, at the completion of boot camp. He said nothing, he simply put the insignia in the palm of my left hand and firmly shook my right hand. His grip was intense; prestressed concrete strong. Our moment of eye contact and the nod of his head meant infinitely more than any words he could have contrived and tossed to yet another doughy nobody produced by that swamp island in the nowhere.
The fact is, every man I met in the United States Marine Corps that impressed me as someone who was alive to wage war and survive that outing were all at some point, except one man, members of the Sniper community.
There is a hardness and can-do attitude amongst Marine snipers that has continued to impress me to no end. They have little money for training, horrific equipment, are generally disliked by the unit at large and train more than anyone else in their battalion yet no other platoon is more functional nor more cohesive. No other unit is capable of terrorizing a thousand with only two men. Marine Snipers are the definition of terror. They are the bringer’s of death from afar and they deliver their gift skillfully, swiftly and without warning. One minute, you’re taking a much-needed crap, the next your face and head are lawn ornaments. Viscera and brain matter grey delights for the crows and coyotes.
I am a hunter of men; a predator. This is a truth. However, I am no natural sniper. I’m too big and in too much of a hurry. Somehow I passed “indoc”, or sniper selection, and made it into the unit, but I did this by just not quitting. This only exposed me to men whose genetic purpose is to hunt others from afar. Seriously, there are people out there genetically pre-disposed to this business. I really believe it.
I function well up close because I’m pretty good with small arms and I’m top tier when it comes to mauling someone with my mitts. I can also take a beating pretty well, for better or for worse.
The things I have seen done by men designed to hunt like animals in the wild however make me shudder and caused me to wonder how far have we evolved? What are the defining characteristics of the warrior class and from what age could we identify them? Is this nature or is it brutal nurture? How can men be this lethally proficient? Questions of others left unanswered like so many of my own. Many questions have no answers, and wasting time pondering them is masturbatory at best and debilitating the rest of the time. We all are dealt a certain hand and it can shine and fly or it can wallow in the gutter; the jackpot is ours to construct, but so is the walkway of broken dreams and the parlor you wait in to slowly die. Ride the wind or turn your back. These men make their own choices.
I had been laying on my belly in the hot, wet undergrowth for several hours.
The morning sun was quickly making the temperature rise and this was good because it woke me up. I hadn’t slept since Sunday night and it was Wednesday morning. Sweat slid down my face over my green/brown cammy paint and I shifted my weight slightly and was re-exposed to my uniform which was totally saturated. That fantastic mix of sweat and damp found in every jungle anywhere. Inescapable.
My ruck sack was laying in front of me and on top of that was my M16-A2 service rifle. It’s standard issue black color broken by strips of green cloth tied to it in various places and seemingly random spray paint patterns of off green across the barrel and butt stock. My right hand held the pistol grip firmly, my index finger straight and off the trigger. Lessons well learned.
I looked over at “Sergeant Lopez” about 1.5 meters to my left and again was impressed by how little of him I could see. During our time in this position, the last five hours, he had gradually buried himself in progressively deeper foliage and now was for all practical purposes invisible. Only the whites of his eyes gave away his position to me, the one person in this bee hive of life that knew where he actually was. Even his pack and rifle were largely invisible. The product of painstaking preparation and masterful manipulation of his environment.
Then his posture changed. Maybe it wasn’t his posture. Something more subtle and less physical but it was clear that something had changed for him. I sensed his heightened level of awareness and froze my motion, willing my body to mimic the stationary silence of a rock, the land, a mountain. Slowly, painstakingly slowly, his right hand left the invisible trigger assembly of his M40-A1 rifle and without looking at me, the confirmation was unnecessary at thispoint- we were that in tune – his left hand made a peace sign and he gestured first at this eyes telling me he had seen something, then he indicated with in extended hand in a slow chopping motion up a slight gradual hill densely blanketed in foliage and trees and vines.
I shifted my gaze up to the direction that Lopez had indicated and saw nothing but the green and brown wall of jungle mass. I could see nothing moving and nothing that resembled a human. I began slowly scanning up the little hill moving my eyes in figure eight motions in the hopes of my peripheral vision picking up some small sign, some little token. Nothing.
Seconds clicked by and time began to grind down into a nearly stationary element as every part in my body ascended to a extraordinary level of sensitivity and awareness trying to find the component in the ocean of pulsating green that Lopez had already seen. Sweat rolled down my face and off my back down my sides to my stomach.
I could not even hear their movement, which was disconcerting. They certainly were not standard infantry. The gate crashers never move this quietly. Thirty more seconds clicked by and for a brief moment I thought that perhaps this time, Lopez, the predator, had made a mistake.
Then I got him. I saw an out-of-place silhouette float across a tiny gap between the ceiling of tree life that allowed some morning sun to sneak through. Once I had that little piece it was suddenly so clear. Like one of those 3-D images that suddenly show themselves when your eyes finally relax and stop searching.
He was tall and thin. Full camouflage gear and a massive ruck sack on his back. M16-A2 rifle in his hands and he was wearing a bonnie cover style bush hat that had additional pieces of cloth and some small bits of bush attached to it in an attempt to further disrupt his natural outline. His camouflage was very good but not as good as ours. It dawned on me then that what we had found here in this heat and green by the small hill was the other battalions sniper element.
They were hunting us, too.
This was a “Force on force” training exercise between two battalions but had it been real world, that two-man team would have been executed, and Lopez and I would have been the ones wielding the axe. How had he seen him so long before I had? The question ran around in my head and punched holes in my confidence for quite a while. It shouldn’t have though. Lopez was a machine. His eye sight was hawk like. He stood about 5’11 and what weight he had was packed densely into his shoulders and quads.
He had been the person who had convinced me to take the Sniper selection indoctrination in Okinawa and after passing selection, training and operating with him was one of the resonating highlights of my time in the United States Marine Corps.
Aside from having eyes designed by a geneticist in a lab dedicated to building the perfect soldier, he could also run ’till the wheels fell off and swam like a fish. Another odd bonus, another indication that some people are hardwired and built for certain specific areas of the warrior forces, he was somehow nearly immune or highly tolerant to poison oak and poison ivy. This made his leading us new “Pigs” on long runs through large batches of these lovely plants all the more hilarious. Also, on a stalk course, the observers don’t look at areas they know are covered in those vicious plants, yet there he would head to. Setting up his final firing position then disappearing after his two shots.
He had long been a sniper and then sniper instructor when I finally met him and it was from that point on that I met more and more men in that community that defied the borders and sense of what’s possible, that society and normal life define for us. Even a couple of years later when I found myself in the Camp Pendleton Base brig, I was in the bed next to a well-known and somewhat infamous sniper named “Staff Sergeant Scully”.
He had been arrested on illegal weapons charges in connection with a soldier of fortune named “Mike Ballows” who owned a military equipment business in Oceanside California and who had been a member of the Rhodesian S.A.S. Ballows had joined the Regiment in the late 70’s and did counter-insurgency operations during the Rhodesian bush war. This man had given classes at Sniper School on knife fighting and trophy taking to confirm kills.
“Well, ye have to dig yer knife deep into the flesh around the ear. If ye just lop off de ear den it shrivels right up and falls off de chain on yer neck. Need dat good meat, ye?”
He had regaled many a class with nightmare tales of S.A.S. selection and the horrors it entailed. He and Staff Sergeant Scully had met while Scully was the head instructor at Sniper School.
I spent nearly two months with Scully in the Brig just working out together and talking about every conceivable branch of sniper and special forces operations. Green side, black side, C.Q.B., Force protection, C.T., Urban sniping, Recon surveillance. Endless lessons on everything up to and including his step by step instruction on how we could simply walk out of the brig through the fence surrounding the workout area or “Yard”.
“Just walk out? Hop the fence?” I had asked between sets of bench press.
“Look at all this equipment here. Have you ever heard of a little thing called applied physics?” He said this as he gave me a spot and lifted the three hundred plus pounds up and checked me while I brought it down and pushed it back up. Once, then again.
I learned more about things in that two months than I learned in four years of high school. It was like a high pressure crash course in alternative military tactics and strategy, and both their combat and civilian world applications.
This was something Scully could talk about at length. The man literally wrote the “Scout Sniper Hand book” I was issued when I joined the platoon. I considered the time with him my graduates course in hell raising and thinking outside the box.
The Real Quiet professionals
The definition of a Marine Scout Sniper is “A Marine highly skilled in field craft and marksmanship who delivers long-range precision rifle fire from concealed positions on select targets in support of combat operations.”
The Navy SEALs and the Army Rangers are the rock stars of the Special forces community but the old title of “The quiet professionals” belongs to two groups. The Armies green berets or USMC snipers.
For a little perspective, the famed and infamous BUD/S (Basic Underwater demolition/ SEAL) training course boasts an 80% attrition rate. Army special forces selection has an average 70% attrition rate. In comparison, Marine Sniper basic course (the West coast camp Pendleton course) has an average failure rate of 80% and has even had whole training classes that failed. On the wall at the school where a photo of each graduating class can be found there hanging proudly, there is a photo of one class in which everyone failed and all that can be seen is a recently slaughtered pig, dead. Everyone failed.
Welcome to Sniper School.
Marine Snipers largely have limited funds, limited training opportunities outside of what their own platoon sergeant can come up (which can be epic in the right hands) and until recently the M.O.S. didn’t even fall under the “03” or infantry banner (It’s now 0317 changed from the 8541 of old). Often ignored and denied the respect they deserve by higher-ups, it’s very telling that in almost every West Coast Sniper training class one can also find Navy Seals, Army Rangers and Force Recon Marines. They come because simply, it’s the best, most developed sniper program the world has ever seen.
Note: The names in this have been changed. But if you know, then you’ll know.
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