The shadows grew long on a cold, clear December night at Camp Geiger, North Carolina, as a bonfire raged and a pig roasted -- it was an initiation into an elite club that would grow no more after that night.
Eight Marines surrounded by generations of scout snipers donned their "hogs teeth," rounds of 7.62mm tied with parachute cord, meant to symbolize that they had completed the Scout Sniper Course at the School of Infantry-East.
The gathered Marines were the last of a kind, the final handful out of over two dozen who had tried out for the final Scout Sniper Course and passed. After a century of use and legend-building, the Marine Corps is doing away with the scout sniper as part of a larger force redesign, and the eight Marines who graduated on Dec. 15 signaled the end of that era.
"They are in charge of carrying on the legacy," Johnathan "JT" Taylor, the president and CEO of the USMC Scout Sniper Association, told Military.com on Tuesday. "And taking lessons from the conflicts that are going on around the world and continuing to build their knowledge and pass off what they've learned."
Before the change, Marine infantry battalions had dedicated sniper platoons made up of 18 scout snipers who would provide not only precisions fires, but reconnaissance and information-gathering for the commander.
"Shooting is about the smallest part of your job anyway," Taylor said. "Controlling close air support, calling in for fire -- all these things are what you're really tasked with more than anything.
"The shooting is at least part of your job until it's time to shoot someone, and then it's the most important part of your job," he added.
Last year, Military.com reported that the Marine Corps would be axing the elite scout sniper platoons, a move made to comply with what the service calls Force Design 2030 -- an effort to modernize the Marine Corps. Testing had shown that infantry companies' scouting capabilities were "insufficient to offer the battalion continuous all-weather information gathering."
So the Corps took the precision firing expertise and flattened it across the force, stating that sniper weapons and marksmen would be "sustained" within infantry companies to provide precision shooting capabilities across the force, but not in a way they were once dedicated.
As for the scouting and reconnaissance part of the job, the service authorized scout platoons of 26 Marines that would solely focus on information gathering instead of precision fires. What that formal training looks like has yet to be seen, though a spokesperson for the Corps' training and education command told Military.com that curriculum could be completed before the end of fiscal 2024.
Marine Corps scout snipers have earned themselves a spot in the annals of history as one of the most elite military units to form in the last century. The need for precision fires swelled during World War I as a way to combat expert German marksmen, according to the Marine Corps Association.
World War II saw the infamous tale of "The 40 Thieves of Saipan" where Marines in Guadalcanal employed scrappy tactics to get supplies they needed to fight in the unforgiving South Pacific. Legends were born out of Vietnam, such as Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock, who racked up 93 confirmed kills and hundreds more unconfirmed kills during the conflict.
"Carlos Hathcock is a staple. The stories of how he operated in Vietnam is essentially what led the rest of the world to believe what scout snipers are capable of," Phillip Velayo, a Marine veteran who had worked his way up to chief scout sniper and was an instructor at Camp Pendleton in California, told Military.com.
Those legends bled into Hollywood, with movies like "Jarhead" and TV shows such as "NCIS," where the protagonist, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, often refers to his time as a scout sniper before joining the Navy's law enforcement arm. Scout snipers became a household name.
"Everyone has their part, even that guy that works behind the desk -- everybody has their piece, right?" Justin Governale, a former scout sniper who is now a comic and dog rescue advocate, told Military.com in a recent interview. "But who is known for their scout snipers? Is it the Army? Navy? Air Force? It's the f**king Marine Corps."
Assets and Mismanagement
But the shooting component of the job was where the legend of scout snipers was made, along with resourcefulness and bringing an unseen psychological factor to the front that other assets didn't have.
"We're an amplifier on the battlefield," Governale said. "They hear one shot and the guy drops; they don't want to move."
While the Marine Corps cites a desire for increased reconnaissance capabilities as it squares off with near-peer competitors such as China, some former scout snipers that Military.com spoke to pointed to other issues that led to the demise of the scout sniper program.
"The problem is that the people that were utilizing us were not training [to know] how we are an asset," Governale said. Scout snipers -- those who pulled the triggers on the front lines -- were enlisted, but as an asset, they were managed by officers who did not have the specific training that the scout snipers did, outside of courses in the Officer School or officer-specific sniper courses they may have had.
Governale recounted one frustrating incident when he was deployed to Iraq. His commander ordered his team to stand up intermittently so the enemy knew that there was sniper overwatch, a move counter to sniper training, which calls for not being spotted at all.
Other Marines with whom Military.com spoke pointed to issues with the scout sniper promotion pathway.
Velayo, the former instructor, said the pipeline for scout snipers is narrow. They were viewed by the Marine Corps through their primary military occupational speciality, which could be infantry, for example, meaning that their duties as a sniper often took a back seat to the needs of the Marine Corps, he said.
"There is not enough of a pipeline for snipers in the scout sniper community, specifically the Marine Corps, because once you pick up staff sergeant, your career as a sniper is pretty much over," Velayo said.
"The way that the Marine Corps sees it," he said, "because he's a staff sergeant, he should be able to fill the role of any other platoon sergeant billet, whether it be mortars, machine gunners or a regular infantry platoon -- let's just send them there, which is not the most effective."
For those eight Marines who graduated last month, they won't be getting the coveted scout sniper military occupational speciality, according to Maj. Joshua Pena, a spokesperson for Marine Corps Training and Education Command.
Instead, "they will play a vital role of ensuring infantry battalions retain scouting and precision marksmanship capabilities while the training and curriculum necessary to meet fleet requirements is finalized and approved," Pena said.
But it's not the first time the service has set about doing away with the scout sniper program. Military.com has previously reported that the program was scrapped after both world wars and Vietnam, only to be brought back when the need for snipers were realized in each future conflict.
"It definitely hurts in the sense that knowing the nature of war and knowing the history of snipers leaving ... whether it's five years from now, 10 years from now, snipers are going to come back," Velayo said.
"The unfortunate part is, it's going to take another war for the commanders to realize that, and at which point when snipers do come back, they are going to be inexperienced, which is going to lead to young Marines and young men dying until they're able to refigure it out," he said. "Ultimately, that's what really hurts."