It was 2006, and Army Staff Sgt. Brett Johnson of the 1st Ranger Battalion peered through night-vision goggles, slowly moving with his squad toward a house in Iraq with a high-value target inside. They knew there were armed militants nearby, but they had no idea they were about to run into one.
"Right as we were about to break the corner of the building, a guy — unbeknownst to us — was literally coming around the corner with an AK-47," now-Sgt. Maj. Johnson of the 3rd Ranger Battalion recalled 13 years later.
But the insurgent didn't make it, thanks to a sniper.
"As we broke the corner, he took the most perfect, well-aimed shot and put him down," Johnson recalled. "Had he not been there, that guy … definitely would have shot one of us."
"It was pretty incredible for him to take that shot. An error of one foot to the right could have hit one of us," Johnson continued.
Things happen quickly in a firefight, and even the best technology can't always keep up with the changing battlefield environment. That's why the sniper's reconnaissance skills and ability to relay intelligent information to the commander are crucial.
"We've got drones, we've got robots, we've got all kinds of stuff … but we still need that real-time battlefield information that keeps soldiers safe," said Staff Sgt. Michael Turner, a sniper course instructor.
Becoming a Sniper
Becoming a sniper isn't easy. The qualification course at the Army Sniper School in Fort Benning, Georgia, is seven weeks long, and any military branch or federal agency can send candidates. Instructors say there's currently about a 60 percent attrition rate.
"As you go through it and see the maturity and discipline that it takes in order to take a shot and execute the orders … that takes an emotional toll on you, Turner said. "That's why you need a more disciplined, intelligent soldier to process those emotions."
It takes someone who knows how to manage resources and someone with serious patience — there's a lot of observing and waiting for something to happen.
"They're some of the most patient people I've ever met in my life," Johnson said.
Take the stalking portion of the course. Using their homemade ghillie suits — camouflage uniforms they've personally retrofitted for durability and protection in all sorts of weather conditions — the sniper candidates get to "veg out" by incorporating vegetation into those suits to blend in with their surroundings. They then spend the next couple of hours moving at a snail's pace through an area of woods. The goal — take a shot at the instructors who are looking for them in the brush, hoping to find them first.
But school instructors said a lot of candidates fail that part. When we visited, not a single sniper team got to take their shot.
"The hardest part about this school so far has been stalking for me, because I'm a big, gawky guy, so crawling through the woods is tough," explained Staff Sgt. Johnnie Newton, who passed the course.
Then there are the technical aspects. They're always refining their skills for every possible circumstance, like wind and distance.
"If I'm operating in a rural environment like Afghanistan, I have longer lines of sight and I'm at higher elevation. What that means is I'm able to extend the capability of my weapons system to a greater distance," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Rance, team leader of the Army sniper course. "In an urban environment, things are a lot quicker, a lot more dynamic, with shorter field of views."
Many of the soldiers we talked with at our visit to the Army Sniper School said they felt safer knowing a sniper was watching their backs. So did those who've been saved by them in the past.
"Their critical role on the battlefield to observe and report and then take the most critical shot when needed is a skill that can't perish," Johnson said.