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Leatherneck: In the Crosshairs - USMC Snipers in Iraq
Leatherneck: In the Crosshairs - USMC Snipers in Iraq

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By Ross W. Simpson

"Fallujah" has become a four-letter word in leatherneck lexicon since 1st Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment and 1/5's sister battalion, 2/1, took over the Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad in mid-March.

Fallujah is a town of about a quarter million people - the most populous town in Anbar province. Since major combat in Iraq ended in May 2003, Fallujah has become infested with insurgents, some left over from Saddam Hussein's regime and Muslim fanatics who have slipped into Iraq from neighboring Syria and Iran.

Marines who took over control of Fallujah and other rebellious cities in the Sunni triangle from the Army's 82d Airborne Division on the first anniversary of their invasion of Iraq feel like they are living in a shooting gallery and they are the ducks.

In the first 13 days of April, three dozen Marines were killed, many by sniper fire.

In April, I spoke via satellite phone with Corporal Jason K. Lee in 1/5's antiarmor platoon, usually referred to simply as "Counter Mech" in Iraq. I was an embedded journalist with Lee's unit during Operation Iraqi Freedom. While I was talking to Lee, an Iraqi sniper shot at him. The 26-year-old combat veteran from Syracuse, N.Y., who is credited with the first Javelin kill of the war last year, didn't flinch.

Another intended victim recovered a sniper's bullet that buried itself in a mound of dirt next to his head.

Although the Marines underwent extensive military operations on urbanized terrain training before returning to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom II, the stress of urban combat is taking its toll. At least one Marine from Weapons Company had to be medevaced for stress. Other Marines like Lance Corporal Richie Gunter, a member of Headquarters and Service Co's security platoon, and his best friend, LCpl Wayne M. Smith of Patterson, Calif., are coping as best they can. Gunter wrote a letter to his mother in March.

"Dear Mom,
"How are you? I'm hanging in there. We get shot at every day, and mortared every night. I hate this country. But my team is doing some outstanding work. Sorry I haven't been writing much, but I don't have much good to say.
"Love, Richie."

LCpl Smith had a reason to be stressed. A mortar round fell at his feet in early April. Fortunately for him, it failed to explode. It would be a great conversation piece if the explosive ordnance disposal team could disarm it and he could get it through Customs, but given security today, there's fat chance of that happening.

Even though Gunter is under extreme stress, he hasn't lost his sense of gallows humor. After almost two weeks of being in the crosshairs in Fallujah, he sent four postcards to his home in northern California. One was addressed to himself. It read, "If you are reading this, you made it through again."

Best Friend, or Worst Enemy

The fighting in Fallujah is classic urban combat - house to house, building to building. Iraqi snipers hiding in the rubble present the greatest danger during daylight hours. However, when the sun goes down, Marine snipers come out like the stars. With their night-vision capability, they own the night. While going through the first Department of Defense media boot camp at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Va., in the fall of 2002, I was shown and allowed to handle an M16A4 equipped with the latest generation of night scope. I could see facial features at 300 meters and targets at 1,000 meters.


Marine Snipers Are Racking Up Kills in Fallujah

"It is a target-rich battlefield," say Marine snipers operating in Fallujah, a city of of about 250,000 before the population began leaving in droves. "It's a sniper's dream," said a 21-year-old corporal sniper to Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times.

The Marine sniper went on to explain, "Sometimes a guy will go down. ... Then I'll use the second shot. As a sniper your goal is to completely demoralize the enemy."

Even with a recent truce in Fallujah, Marines will fire on insurgents who display weapons, break the curfew or move their forces toward U.S. troops. The corporal sniper chalked up 24 confirmed kills in two weeks, making him the top sniper.

Associated Press reporter Jason Keyser reported Iraqi gunmen often are hit in the early morning and early evening. Long shots, sometimes at distances of 1,000 yards, have been finely adjusted to account for wind, temperature, barometric pressure and distortions from sunlight, shadows and waves of heat from the ground.

Snipers prefer to change positions after a few shots to keep their posts secret so gunmen can't turn the tables. Barking dogs and birds suddenly taking flight can give them away.

"You have to have a combat mind," said one sniper. Intelligence reports indicate the snipers have "terrified" the Iraqi insurgents.

- R. R. Keene

The military doesn't like to talk openly about the snipers. There's just something "uncivilized" about snuffing out lives like cigarette butts, but snipers are a fact of life in warfare. The late, great Marine Corps sniper, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, once said, "There was nothing personal about my 93 confirmed kills in Vietnam. It was just business." And nobody is any better at the business of firing from concealed positions than scout-snipers in the United States Marine Corps.

Sergeant Dagan R. Vanoosten, chief sniper and scout for 1st Bn, 5th Marines, was attached to "Charlie" Co on the opening night of OIF I. Cpl Damon A. Wolfe in the Scout-Sniper Platoon was attached to Alpha Co in the battalion.

Vanoosten, a 23-year-old Marine, didn't take a shot on that first night of the war. Charlie, 1/5 was tasked to set a ring of security around GOSP-4, a gas and oil separation plant, in the Rumeila oilfields just inside the border in southern Iraq.

"My spotter and I didn't see anything to shoot at as British Army engineers checked the plant to make sure the Iraqis hadn't wired it for remote demolition," said Vanoosten, who learned the tricks of his trade at the "Schoolhouse for Snipers" at Quantico.

Wolfe, a 25-year-old Marine, who was not trained at the schoolhouse, but went through a sniper indoctrination course in Okinawa three years ago, also failed to fire his sniper rifle the first night of the war. However, he did fire a few rounds on the morning after the invasion.

The 2d Plt had right flank security for Alpha Co at PST-2, an Iraqi pumping station along the southern terminus of a long oil pipeline that stretched more than 400 miles from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. Wolfe and his spotter were with the platoon atop a small knoll on the otherwise flat desert floor facing the rising sun to the east of the pumping station.

Bloody Encounter

Just after daylight on March 21, the first of two truckloads of Iraqi soldiers in pickups came barreling down a dirt road in front of Alpha Co's position.

"I had just gotten to my feet and was headed back to our trac [amphibious assault vehicle] when my spotter who was covering my back opened fire with his squad automatic weapon [M249 SAW] as the first truck approached our [position]," said Wolfe. By the time he got turned around and into a firing position, the first truck had made it safely by his position. But Wolfe and his spotter stopped a second truck 100 yards before it got to their position.

"It was coming down the road about 50 miles per hour," said Wolfe, who got three shots off with his bolt-action sniper rifle at about 300 meters out, before the truck closed in. Needing more firepower, he picked up his M16 and fired a magazine and a half, about 45 rounds, into the truck, slowing it down, but failing to stop it.

Second Lieutenant Therrel "Shane" Childers, 2d Plt's commander, was mortally wounded by the Iraqis who were "spraying and praying" as they came flying down the road.

"I heard on the radio that we had a man down, but I didn't know what had happened until we stopped the truck," said Wolfe, who was trying to alert Childers as to what was happening to their front. But Wolfe got no response on the intersquad radio.

Childers, a former enlisted Marine, was hit in the abdomen just below his body armor. Some Marines in his platoon think Kevlar plates in his vest were hiked up an inch or two when he raised his M16 to engage the enemy, but he never fired a shot. Before he could pull the trigger, an AK47 round entered his body just below the armor vest he wore.

After Childers was hit, his platoon attacked the Iraqis who shot him and killed or wounded all seven of them. In all, 1/5 was responsible for 24 enemy killed in action by direct fire, 10 wounded and countless KIAs by artillery and close air support missions during the first few hours of the 2003 war in southern Iraq.

Wolfe also entered a brief comment in the notebook he carried. "Four dead, two wounded, and seven EPWs [enemy prisoners of war]." Wolfe killed one of the Iraqis as he crawled out of a roll of carpet in the bed of the second pickup.

Getting Some Trigger Time

Sgt Vanoosten finally had the opportunity to fire his sniper rifle, April 1, 2003. He was riding with First Lieutenant Jeremy M. Stalnecker, Counter Mech's platoon commander, when the antiarmor team rolled up to the Saddam Hussein Canal behind Bravo Co amtracs. From atop the humvee, Vanoosten apparently fired the first shot of the 45-minute battle.

Vanoosten fired his heavy-barrel M40A1 sniper rifle, which is a product-improved Remington model 700, at a ZSU-23-4, a 23 mm, four-barreled antiaircraft gun on the other side of the canal.

Although outgunned, Vanoosten kept the Iraqi gunners off balance by bouncing match-grade 7.62 mm rounds off the steel plates in front of them, making it difficult for them to bring their gun to bear on his buddies. "I think I shot at it out of fear," confessed Vanoosten, laughing, as he reconstructed what he witnessed on April Fool's Day 2003.

Once across the canal, Vanoosten fired at two Iraqis in another bunker before Cpl Jeremy Mahon destroyed it with an AT-4 rocket. But it would be another nine days before Vanoosten and Wolfe would take another shot with their sniper rifles.

Battle of Baghdad

Sgt Vanoosten rode into the north side of Baghdad in the early morning hours of April 10 on top of 1stLt Pat Henry's LVTP-7 amphibious assault vehicle (AAV). Henry was in command of the 81 mm mortar platoon in Weapons Co, 1/5. Once small-arms fire began ricocheting off the AAV, Vanoosten climbed inside the lightly armored hull of the amtrac.

Cpl Wolfe drove a high-back humvee into the Iraqi capital with five other members of his platoon in the back. Wolfe fired his weapon at muzzle flashes as he drove down darkened streets and boulevards crawling with Republican Guard troops and Fedayeen guerrillas loyal to Saddam Hussein. "It was pretty hectic," said Wolfe, who just kept driving and firing. Because of heavy enemy fire in Baghdad, Vanoosten rotated his four-man team, one at a time, to the firing platform in Henry's AAV, but he advised them to conserve ammunition. Sgt Vanoosten told team members the real fight would come later at the objective, the Al Azimiyah Palace on the Tigris River, one of Saddam's favorite hangouts.

The Scout-Sniper Plt rolled into the palace grounds of the 17-acre compound at about six o'clock in the morning and provided security for Army Special Forces who swept the palace to make sure there were no Iraqis hiding in the shadows of the bombed-out building.

Once SF said "All clear," Wolfe and his spotter ran up stairways to the roof. The situation was not as tactically sound as they preferred.

"Every time we stuck our heads above the façade that ringed the south wing of the palace, someone would take a shot at us," said Wolfe, who retreated downstairs to a room facing a busy neighborhood. There he set up an "urban hide site" up against the wall of a room, about 20 feet from windows that had been blown out by satellite-guided bombs the night before.

"We piled up some pieces of concrete and other rubble," said Wolfe as he described making a place where he spent the next 10 to 12 hours.

From the shadows, Wolfe could see his targets, but they couldn't see him. Lying in among chunks of concrete wasn't very comfortable. Wolfe had just gotten to his feet and was about ready to seek a better hide site when his spotter saw an Iraqi soldier in an alley about 350 yards away. By the time Wolfe was back in position, the enemy soldier disappeared. But a few minutes later, he reappeared, running into some civilian houses, trying to get up high where he could shoot at Marines in the palace.

"I got him when he stepped to a window," said Wolfe. One shot? "Yeah, one shot," replied Wolfe. With a 10-power Unertl sniper scope, Wolfe said everything in Baghdad was "up close and personal."

"The guy I shot had an AK47," said Wolfe, "but I don't know what he thought he was going to do with an assault rifle at that range."

There was another guy in the room with an RPG. But he bailed out of there when his buddy was blown away. Wolfe got him about an hour later as he tried to hide behind a concrete wall outside the house. Wolfe ended the war with seven confirmed kills?most of them in the 300-yard range. However, he did nail an Iraqi at 650 yards.

From his hide site in the palace, Wolfe dropped that enemy soldier as he ran up a set of steps in a building several blocks away while clutching a couple of AK47s in his hands. It was a difficult shot, because the intended target was on the move.

"If they had a weapon, we could shoot them," said Wolfe. "Those were the rules of engagement."

Although Wolfe recorded some long-distance shots, his team leader owns the bragging rights. That kill occurred 30 to 40 miles south of Baghdad. It involved an Iraqi spotter who had been directing mortars at Marine artillery from a tall concrete silo complex along Highway One. The cannoncockers couldn't see him, but Cpl James Bowman could through his scope.

"Bowman hit him in the head at 840 yards," said Wolfe, who was impressed. When Sgt Vanoosten arrived at the palace in Baghdad, he and his spotter rushed to the roof of the north wing. But it was his radio operator, LCpl Oscar Reyes, who spotted the first enemy soldier.

"We saw two individuals; one had an AK47 with a chest rig full of magazines, the other with a loaded RPG launcher and a rucksack full of rocket-propelled grenades. Both men were running down a street about 200 yards away from us," said Vanoosten, who shot the Iraqi who had the RPG, as his assistant team leader, Cpl Christopher Livermore, shot the one carrying the assault rifle.

"Everybody wanted to get their hands on those weapons," said Vanoosten, who along with Livermore took turns littering the street with dead bodies. Vanoosten ended the war with four confirmed kills and three probables. Livermore had three confirmed kills and two probables.

By the time the Scout-Sniper Plt posed for its unit picture at Al Azimiyah Palace, the platoon had been credited with 38 confirmed kills in Iraq - almost all of them in Baghdad.

After the war, Sgt Vanoosten returned to the Scout-Sniper School at Quantico, to pass along what he learned to Marines following in his footsteps. He currently is trying to get a temporary assignment in Iraq with his former team members.

Cpl Wolfe left the Marine Corps and is attending San Diego State University on the GI Bill.

LCpl Reyes has returned to Iraq with 1st Bn, 5th Marines. He and Cpl Michael A. Gary are believed to be the only returning members of the Scout-Sniper Plt that is fighting in Fallujah, where snipers are playing an ever-increasing role in security operations.

Gary left a brief message on Vanoosten's home answering machine at the height of the battle.

"We're taking care of business," said the young marksman.

Editor's note: Ross W. Simpson is a nationally known radio broadcaster for the Associated Press Radio Network in Washington, D.C., and is a longtime contributor to Leatherneck magazine. He was an embedded reporter during 1/5's operations in Iraq and maintained contact with Marines of the battalion and their families as the Marines prepared for deployment and a return to Iraq for OIF II.

© 2004 Leatherneck Magazine. All rights reserved.



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