For my friend Eric Smith – An American Sniper. Albeit a brief chapter, it’s among one of my favorites.
When I hear the word “sniper”, one person instantly comes to mind; my “battle-buddy” (or battle for short) from basic training, Eric Smith. Smith was a great soldier, a badass, and among the finest human beings I have ever known. I’ve always felt privileged to be his friend. As soon as we met and were made battle buddies in basic training, we realized we were twins. The resemblance is uncanny, though somehow he got caught using my ID card in basic training while trying get into the chow hall, something that still puzzles us both to this day. You can probably only tell me from Eric due to my eyes being green. We were also the same height, weight and build and also both played football in college. We also both left college early after hearing that same patriotic call to duty. Today, we are both college graduates and also both work in IT.
When A Co 1-87 deployed with TF 2-87 to Somalia, we brought along one other 1-87 asset, our scout platoon. They were the eyes and ears of our battalion. They got priority over training and you had to tryout to be a scout. Many in the scout platoon were Ranger or Sniper qualified, of those, many were both.
In December I had been introduced to their platoon sergeant while at Baledogle as a potential candidate to become a scout, and I was genuinely excited about the prospect. I was to follow up with him once we returned state-side (though I never did). One obvious advantage I saw to being a scout is that they got higher priority in the battalion for all the best schools. Some of them had even attended SERE School (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) which was a tough school to get (and pass). Smith had gone to Sniper School while still a private pretty early in his Army Career. It would be well over another year before I had the opportunity to go to Sniper School, which is a highly competitive and highly sought after school.
Our scouts typically operated in small teams, sometimes as few as 2 men would compose one of their teams, especially when they were employed specifically as snipers. Sometimes they even worked alone. Being in a firefight, and usually at night in Somalia, many people might never have actual knowledge that their bullets ever found their mark; which is a luxury or a comfort in some ways in my opinion. A luxury never enjoyed by a sniper. He only fires when he has a target acquired, and he fires exactly one deliberate shot, hence their motto “One Shot, One Kill”, making each and every kill an entirely intimate affair. One of his main purposes in life is to harass the enemy in a way that they become demoralized, by randomly picking them off at will, while never being discovered. Another major function they have is to provide an extra layer of security for guys like me who might be on a patrol or kicking in doors, unaware of danger that may be lurking nearby. In this role, they acts as our guardians in a very real sense.
Much of our time in Somalia reminded me of the stories I had read about the LRRP’s (Long-range reconnaissance patrols; pronounced “Lurps”) in Vietnam in that we operated in such small numbers while performing our air assaults, reconnaissance missions and ambushes. The way we lived day to day was also very similar; in the dirt. This was a pretty unique experience among those who deployed to Somalia.
Many times we would break down into teams of 8 men or less during missions. With the scout platoon, this was even more true and applied to almost every mission they did, with very few exceptions. Occasionally they would patrol in the streets like the rest of us might do, but usually they were in concealed positions as snipers or doing reconnaissance. Also, their engagements were usually more equally matched than our typical engagements seeing how there were probably never more than four of them operating together at any given time. At this time in Somalia, most engagements were with 5 or fewer Somalis at any given time, though you’ll read about a few exceptions.
One night in March of 1993 in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia, outside one of the smaller towns in proximity to Merca, Smith had laid in wait for hours in a well concealed sniper position. He wasn’t far from where I had been during the events of “The Gift”, but the circumstances and outcome of his mission would be much different. He was monitoring the area for guerrilla or militant clan activity when he suddenly acquired a target. As previously stated, the night vision of the day wasn’t particularly clear, and like I had done in “The Gift”, he took his time and studied his target carefully.
Once he was sure his target was armed, he prepared to take the shot. He steadied his breathing as he dialed in on his target and began to apply steady pressure to the trigger. When properly done, it should almost be a surprise to the shooter when the weapon discharges. At this point, as romantic as it might have sounded to say that in this moment he pondered the weight of taking a human life, it just simply isn’t true. Having a legitimate and identifiable target, training takes over and you do what you’re trained to do as though it was second nature. Because it is.
As the shot rang out, his target being over 100 meters away (the approximate length of a football field), fell instantly in the dark. It was a headshot. Before moving an inch, Smith radioed in a brief SITREP to higher and reported the incident, and then scanned the area for some time to ensure there weren’t more targets. It would have been foolish to have gone anywhere away from the position.
After a brief wait of about fifteen minutes, everything seemed clear as a Humvee which had been hastily racing to the scene, pulled over on the road near well his target had fallen, where it then stopped. Several soldiers got out and then secured the immediate area as Smith made his way toward the Humvee.
The officer in charge walked over with Smith to examine the body when he realized his target may not have been armed. As they looked down they couldn’t see a weapon.
“Are you sure he was armed? I don’t see a weapon. Did someone take it?” the officer in charge inquired.
“No, sir, no one has gone anywhere near the body until just now. Yes, sir, I’m positive he was armed.” Smith replied.
The officer continued to ramble on until Smith himself began to doubt that the man had been armed and that he may have made a mistake.
“Hold on” the officer said as he walked quickly back toward his Humvee and dug around in the back for a minute. He then returned with an AK-47 and positioned it near the body. “I’ve got you covered, son.” The officer said.
At this point, Smith was thoroughly confused at what was going on. Before any more discussion could take place, another Humvee pulled up that carried this officer’s superior. He began to get the details from Smith and the group about exactly what had transpired. Since it was clearly evident that it had been a headshot, and that the man had been armed (due to the AK-47 lying next to him), the new ranking officer on site offered Smith his congratulations on a job well done and then ordered that the body be turned over onto its back.
“Let’s roll this body over” he told a couple of the soldiers nearby.
As they rolled the body over everyone was more than a little surprised to see yet another weapon which had been lying under the dead man.
“This man had two weapons?” the ranking officer asked Smith.
Being in an even more awkward position at this point and not wanting to lie, Smith just sort of shrugged his shoulders and stared in silence as they continued to examine the scene. The first officer on the scene who had placed the weapon was the same officer that had previously ordered a group of us to hang the bodies of three dead Somalis up to serve as a warning. I had also later learned that it had been this same officer that had created so much tension during the events described in “The Gift”, and why I had to repeatedly refuse to take a shot on unarmed civilians, while he remained adamant that at least one of them had been armed and therefore insisted that I take the shot. Now he’s placing weapons by bodies where he believed the deceased had been killed by mistake. I saw a pattern, and one that I didn’t like, and one that Smith was deeply troubled by as well.
Having done his job, Smith returned to Merca where we discussed the event in great detail. A few days later, a formation was called and he was awarded The Army Achievement Medal, a medal at the time normally given in training or while garrison stateside. Certainly not a wartime medal at the time, and something we joked about. Given the amount of danger he was in while sitting there alone all night in a combat zone, taking that shot and remaining calm and collected, and oh, for having integrity, I would say that AAM felt more like a slap in the face than it did an award. Like many in Somalia, Smith had actually been put in for a BSM (Bronze Star Medal) which was denied without even being processed; a topic for discussion in another chapter.
Good soldiers don’t do anything with the idea that they will be earning a medal. Medals are never a motivation for their actions. People who are motivated by the prospect of medals don’t belong in the military in my opinion. However, giving an inappropriate medal to recognize what a soldier has done, or failing to recognize a soldier at all, demoralizes all soldiers.
Smith never voiced an opinion one way or the other about receiving a lowly AAM outside of our initial joking. In my opinion, the act itself was probably best suited as a bullet point in a long list of bullet points for a higher award, and one that was a “wartime” award rather than a training award, that encompassed his service in Somalia. But as previously stated, that topic has its own chapter.
What was very apparent to many of us by this time in our deployment to Somalia was that some people, certain career officers, were more interested in body counts and creating more war than they were creating or maintaining any peace. I’m not sure if they were just following orders of their own or if this was their doing. It was best to just not give a crap; just focus on doing your job right and going home. By now, we were likely the most cynical people you might ever meet. A trait most of us will carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Copyright© 1991-2017 by Bravo Charles/Steve Slane