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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
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.
"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.
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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
"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.