ON THE STREET
The kid looked at me with a mixture of excitement and disbelief. He was a young Marine, eager but tempered by the fight we’d been waging the past week.
“Do you want to be a sniper?” I asked him. “Right now?”
“Hell yeah!” he said finally.
“Good,” I told him, handing over my Mk-11. “Give me your M-16. You take my sniper rifle. I’m going in the front door.”
And with that, I headed over to the squad we’d been working with and told them I was helping them hit the houses.
Over the past few days, the insurgents had stopped coming out to fight us. Our kill rate from the overwatches had declined. The bad guys were all staying inside, because they knew if they came outside, we were going to shoot them.
They didn’t give up. Instead, they would take their stands inside the houses, ambushing and battling the Marines in the small rooms and tiny hallways. I was seeing a lot of our guys being carried out and medevac’d.
I’d been turning the idea of going down on the street over in my head for a while, before finally deciding to go ahead with it. I picked out one of the privates who’d been helping the sniper team. He seemed like a good kid, with a lot of potential.
Part of the reason I went down on the streets was because I was bored. The bigger part was that I felt I could do a better job protecting the Marines if I was with them. They were going in the front door of these buildings and getting whacked. I’d watch as they went in, hear gunshots, and then the next thing I knew, they’d be hauling someone out in a stretcher because he just got shot up. It pissed me off.
I love the Marines, but the truth is these guys had never been taught to do room clearances like I had. It’s not a Marine specialty. They were all tough fighters, but they had a lot to learn about urban warfare. Much was simple stuff: how to hold your rifle as you come into a room so it’s hard for someone else to grab; where to move as you enter the room; how to fight 360 degrees in a city—things that SEALs learn so well we can do them in our sleep.
The squad didn’t have an officer; the highest-ranking NCO was a staff sergeant, an E6 in the Marine Corps. I was an E5, junior to him, but he didn’t have a problem letting me take control of the takedowns. We’d already been working together for a while, and I think I’d won a certain amount of respect. Plus, he didn’t want his guys getting shot up, either.
“Look, I’m a SEAL, you’re Marines,” I told the boys. “I’m no better than you are. The only difference between you and me is I’ve spent more time specializing and training in this than you did. Let me help you.”
We trained a little bit during the break. I gave some of my explosives to one of the squad members with experience in explosives. We did a little run-through on how to blow locks off. Until that point, they’d had such a small amount of explosives that they’d mostly been knocking the doors in, which, of course, took time and made them more vulnerable.
Break time over, we started going in.
I took the lead.
Waiting outside the first house, I thought about the guys I saw being pulled out.
I did not want to be one of them.
I could be, though.
It was hard to get that idea out of my mind. I also knew that I would be in a shitload of trouble if I did get hurt—going down on the streets was not what I was supposed to be doing, at least from an official point of view. It was definitely right—what I felt I hadto do—but it would severely piss the top brass off.
But that would be the least of my problems if I got shot, wouldn’t it?
“Let’s do it,” I said.
We blew the door open. I led the way, training and instincts taking over. I cleared the front room, stepped to the side, and started directing traffic. The pace was quick, automatic. Once things got started and I began to move into the house, something took over inside me. I didn’t worry about casualties anymore. I didn’t think about anything except the door, the house, the room—all of which was plenty enough.
Going into a house, you never knew what you were going to find. Even if you cleared the rooms on the first floor without any trouble, you couldn’t take the rest of the house for granted. Going up to the second floor, you might start to get a feeling that the rooms were empty or that you weren’t going to have any problems up there, but that was a dangerous feeling. You never really know what’s anywhere. Each room had to be cleared, and even then, you had to be on your guard. Plenty of times after we secured a house we took rounds and grenades from outside.
While many of the houses were small and cramped, we also made our way through a well-to-do area of the city as the battle progressed. Here the streets were paved, and the buildings looked like miniature palaces from the outside. But once you got past the façade and looked in the rooms, most were broken messes. Any Iraqi who had that much money had fled or been killed.
During our breaks, I would take the Marines out and go through some drills with them. While other units were taking their lunch, I was teaching them everything I’d learned about room clearance.
“Look, I don’t want to lose a guy!” I yelled at them. I wasn’t about to get an argument there. I ran them around, busting their asses while they were supposed to be resting. But that’s the thing with Marines—you beat them down and they come back for more.
We broke into one house with a large front room. We’d caught the inhabitants completely by surprise.
But I was surprised as well—as I burst in, I saw a whole bunch of guys standing there in desert camouflage—the old brown chocolate-chip stuff from Desert Storm, the First Gulf War. They were all wearing gear. They were all Caucasian, including one or two with blond hair, obviously not Iraqis or Arabs.
What the fuck?
We looked at each other. Something flicked in my brain, and I flicked the trigger on the M-16, mowing them down.
A half-second’s more hesitation, and I would have been the one bleeding out on the floor. They turned out to be Chechens, Muslims apparently recruited for a holy war against the West. (We found their passports after searching the house.)
I have no idea how many blocks, let alone how many houses, we took down. The Marines were following a carefully laid out plan—we had to be at a certain spot each lunchtime, then reach another objective by nightfall. The entire invasion force moved across the city in choreographed order, making sure there were no holes or weak spots the insurgents could use to get behind us and attack.
Every once in a while, we’d come across a building still occupied by families, but for the most part, the only people we were seeing were insurgents.
We would do a full search of each house. In this one house, we heard faint moans as we went down into the basement. There were two men hanging from chains on the wall. One was dead; the other barely there. Both had been severely tortured with electric shock and God knows what else. They were both Iraqi, apparently mentally retarded—the insurgents had wanted to make sure they wouldn’t talk to us, but decided to have a little fun with them first.
The second man died while our corpsman worked on him.
There was a black banner on the floor, the kind the fanatics liked to show on their videos when beheading Westerners. There were amputated limbs, and more blood than you can imagine.
It was a nasty-smelling place.
After a couple of days, one of the Marine snipers decided to come down with me, and both of us started leading the DAs.
We would take a house on the right side of the street, then cross to the left and take the house across the way. Back and forth, back and forth. All of this took a lot of time. We’d have to go around the gates, get to the doors, blow up the doors, rush in. The scum inside had plenty of time to get prepared. Not to mention the fact that even with what I’d contributed, we were running out of explosives.
A Marine armored vehicle was working with us, moving down the center of the street as we went. It only had a .50-cal for a weapon, but its real asset was its size. No Iraqi wall could stand up to it once it got a head of steam.
I went over to the commander.
“Look, here’s what I want you to do,” I told him. “We’re running out of explosives. Run through the wall in front of the house and put about five rounds of .50-cal through the front door. Then back up and we’ll take it from there.”
So we started doing it that way, saving explosives and moving much faster.
Pounding up and down the stairs, running to the roof, coming back down, hitting the next house—we got to where we were taking from fifty to one hundred houses a day.
The Marines were hardly winded, but I lost over twenty pounds in those six or so weeks I was in Fallujah. Most of it I sweated off on the ground. It was exhausting work.
The Marines were all a lot younger than me—practically teenagers, some of them. I guess I still had a bit of a baby face, because when we’d get to talking, and for some reason or another I’d tell them how old I was, they’d stare at me and say, “You’re that old?”
I was thirty. An old man in Fallujah.
JUST ANOTHER DAY
As the Marine drive neared the southern edge of the city, the ground action in our section started to peter out. I went back up on the roofs and started doing overwatches again, thinking I would catch more targets from there. The tide of the battle had turned. The U.S. had mostly wrested control of the city from the bad guys, and it was now just a matter of time before resistance collapsed. But being in the middle of the action, I couldn’t tell for sure.
Knowing that we considered cemeteries sacred, the insurgents typically used them to hide caches of weapons and explosives. At one point, we were in a hide overlooking the walled-in boundaries of a large cemetery that sat in the middle of the city. Roughly three football fields long by two football fields wide, it was a cement city of the dead, filled with tombstones and mausoleums. We set up on a roof near a prayer tower and mosque overlooking the cemetery.
The roof we were on was fairly elaborate. It was ringed with a brick wall punctuated with iron grates, giving us excellent firing positions; I sat down on my haunches and spotted in my rifle through a gap in the grid work, studying the paths between the stones a few hundred yards out. There was so much dust and grit in the air, I kept my goggles on. I’d also learned in Fallujah to keep my helmet cinched tight, wary of the chips and cement frags that flew from the battered masonry during a firefight.
I picked out some figures moving through the cemetery yard. I zeroed in on one and fired.
Within seconds, we were fully engaged in a firefight. Insurgents kept popping up from behind the stones—I don’t know if there was a tunnel or where they came from. Brass flew from the 60 nearby.
I studied my shots as the Marines around me poured out fire. Everything they did faded into the background as I carefully put my scope on a target, steadied the aim on center mass, then squeezed ever so smoothly. When the bullet leapt from the barrel, it was almost a surprise.
My target fell. I looked for another. And another. And on it went.
Until, finally, there were no more. I got up and moved a few feet to a spot where the wall completely shielded me from the cemetery. There I took my helmet off and leaned back against the wall. The roof was littered with spent shells—hundreds if not thousands.
Someone shared a large plastic bottle of water. One of the Marines pulled his ruck over and used it as a pillow, catching some sleep. Another went downstairs, to the store on the first story of the building. It was a smoke shop; he returned with cartons of flavored cigarettes. He lit a few, and a cherry scent mingled with the heavy stench that always hung over Iraq, a smell of sewage and sweat and death.
Just another day in Fallujah.
The streets were covered with splinters and various debris. The city, never exactly a showcase, was a wreck. Squashed water bottles sat in the middle of the road next to piles of wood and twisted metal. We worked on one block of three-story buildings where the bottom level was filled with shops. Each of their awnings were covered with a thick layer of dust and grit, turning the bright colors of the fabric into a hazy blur. Metal shields blocked most of the storefronts; they were pockmarked with shrapnel chips. A few had handbills showing insurgents wanted by the legitimate government.
I have a few photos from that time. Even in the most ordinary and least dramatic scenes, the effects of war are obvious. Every so often, there’s a sign of normal life before the war, something that has nothing to do with it: a kid’s toy, for example.
War and peace don’t seem to go together right.
THE BEST SNIPER SHOT EVER
The Air Force, Marines, and Navy were flying air support missions above us. We had enough confidence in them that we could call in strikes just down the block.
One of our com guys working a street over from us was with a unit that came under heavy fire from a building packed with insurgents. He got on the radio and called over to the Marines, asking permission to call in a strike. As soon as it was approved, he got on the line with a pilot and gave him the location and details.
“Danger close!” he warned over the radio. “Take cover.”
We ducked inside the building. I have no idea how big the bomb he dropped was, but the explosion rattled the walls. My buddy later reported it had taken out over thirty insurgents—as much an indication of how many people were trying to kill us as how important the air support was.
I have to say that all of the pilots we had overhead were pretty accurate. In a lot of situations, we were asking for bombs and missiles to hit within a few hundred yards. That’s pretty damn close when you’re talking about a thousand or more pounds of destruction. But we didn’t have any incidents, and I was also pretty confident that they could handle the job.
One day, a group of Marines near us started getting fire from a minaret in a mosque a few blocks away. We could see where the gunman was shooting from but we couldn’t get a shot on him. He had a perfect position, able to control a good part of the city below him.
While, ordinarily, anything connected to a mosque would have been out of bounds, the sniper’s presence made it a legitimate target. We called an air strike on the tower, which had a high, windowed dome at the top, with two sets of walkways running around it that made it look a little like an air traffic control tower. The roof was made of panels of glass, topped by a spiked pole.
We hunkered down as the aircraft came in. The bomb flew through the sky, hit the top of the minaret, and went straight through one of the large panes at the top. It then continued down into a yard across the alley. There it went low-order—exploding without much visible impact.
“Shit,” I said. “He missed. Come on—let’s go get the son of a bitch ourselves.”
We ran down a few blocks and entered the tower, climbing what seemed an endless flight of stairs. At any moment, we expected the sniper’s security or the sniper himself to appear above and start firing at us.
No one did. When we made it to the top, we saw why. The sniper, alone in the building, had been decapitated by the bomb as it flew through the window.
But that wasn’t all the bomb did. By chance, the alley where it landed had been filled with insurgents; we found their bodies and weapons a short time later.
I think it was the best sniper shot I ever saw.
After I’d been working with Kilo Company for about two weeks, the commanders called all the SEAL snipers back so they could redistribute us where we were needed.
“What the hell are you doing out there?” asked one of the first SEALs I met. “We’re hearing shit that you’re down there on the ground.”
“Yeah, I am. No one’s coming out on the street.”
“What the hell are you doing?” he said, pulling me aside. “You know if our CO finds out you’re doing this, you’re out of here.”
He was right, but I shrugged him off. I knew in my heart what I had to do. I also felt pretty confident in the officer who was my immediate commander. He was a straight shooter and all about doing the job that needed to get done.
Not to mention the fact that I was so far out of touch with my top command that it would have taken a long time for them to find out, let alone issue the orders to get me pulled out.
A bunch of other guys came over and started agreeing with me: down on the street was where we needed to be. I have no idea what they ended up doing; certainly, for the record, they all remained on the roofs, sniping.
“Well hell, instead of using that Marine M-16,” said one of the East Coast boys, “I brought my M-4 with me. You can borrow it if you want.”
I took it and wound up getting a bunch of kills on it. The M-16 and the M-4 are both good weapons; the Marines prefer the latest model of the M-16 for various reasons that have to do with the way they usually fight. Of course, my preference in close quarters combat was for the short-barreled M-4, and I was glad to borrow my friend’s gun for the rest of my time in Fallujah.
I was assigned to work with Lima Company, which was operating a few blocks away from Kilo. Lima was helping fill in holes—taking down pockets of insurgents who had crept in or been bypassed. They were seeing a lot of action.
That night, I went over and talked to the company leadership in a house they’d taken over earlier in the day. The Marine commander had already heard what I’d been doing with Kilo, and after we talked a bit, he asked what I wanted to do.
“I’d like to be down on the street with y’all.”
Lima Company proved to be another great group of guys.
DON’T TELL MY MOM
A few days later, we were clearing a block when I heard shooting on a nearby street. I told the Marines I was with to stay where they were, then ran over to see if I could help.
I found another group of Marines, who had started up an alley and run into heavy fire. They’d already pulled back and gotten under cover by the time I got there.
One kid hadn’t quite made it. He was lying on his back some yards away, crying in pain.
I started laying down fire and ran up to grab him and pull him back. When I got to him, I saw he was in pretty bad shape, gut-shot. I dropped and got an arm under each of his, then started hauling him backward.
Somehow I managed to slip as I went. I fell backward, with him on top of me. By that point, I was so tired and winded I just lay there for a few minutes, still in the line of fire as bullets shot by.
The kid was about eighteen years old. He was really badly hurt. I could tell he was going to die.
“Please don’t tell my momma I died in pain,” he muttered.
Shit, kid, I don’t even know who you are, I thought. I’m not telling your momma anything.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Everybody will make it sound great. Real great.”
He died right then. He didn’t even live long enough to hear my lies about how everything was going to be okay.
A bunch of Marines came. They lifted him off me and put him in the back of a Hummer. We called in a bomb strike and took out the shooting positions where the fire had come from, at the other end of the alley.
I went on back to my block and continued the fight.
I thought about the casualties I’d seen, and the fact that I could be the next one carried out. But I wasn’t going to quit. I wasn’t going to stop going into houses or stop supporting them from the roofs. I couldn’t let down these young Marines I was with.
I told myself: I’m a SEAL. I’m supposed to be tougher and better. I’m not going to give up on them.
It wasn’t that I thought I was tougher or better than they were. It was that I knew that was the way people looked at us. And I didn’t want to let those people down. I didn’t want to fail in their eyes—or in mine.
That’s the line of thinking that’s beaten into us: We’re the best of the best. We’re invincible.
I don’t know if I’m the best of the best. But I did know that if I quit, I wouldn’t be.
And I certainly did feel invincible. I had to be: I’d made it through all sorts of shit without getting killed . . . so far.
Thanksgiving shot past while we were in the middle of the battle.
I remember getting my Thanksgiving meal. They halted the assault for a little bit—maybe a half-hour—and brought up food to us on the rooftop where we’d set up.
Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans for ten—all in a large box.
Together. No separate boxes, no compartments. All in one pile.
Also no plates, no forks, no knives, no spoons.
We dipped our hands in and ate with our fingers. That was Thanksgiving.
Compared to the MREs we’d been eating, it was awesome.
ATTACKING THE MARSH
I stayed with Lima for roughly a week, then went back to Kilo. It was terrible to hear who’d been hit and who they’d lost in the time I’d been gone.
With the assault about finished, we were given a new task: set up a cordon to make sure no insurgents were able to get back in. Our sector was over by the Euphrates, on the western side of the town. From this point on, I was a sniper again. And figuring that my shots would now mostly be at longer range, I went back to the .300 Win Mag.
We set up in a two-story house overlooking the river a few hundred yards down from Blackwater Bridge. There was a marshy area immediately across the river, completely overgrown with weeds and everything. It was near a hospital the insurgents had converted into a headquarters before our assault, and even now the area seemed to be a magnet for savages.
Every night, we’d have someone trying to probe in from there. Every night I would get my shots off, taking out one or two or sometimes more.
The new Iraqi army had a camp nearby. Those idiots took it in their head to send a few shots our way as well. Every day. We hung a VF panel over our position—an indicator showing we were friendly—and the shots kept coming. We radioed their command. The shots kept coming. We called back and cussed out their command. The shots kept coming. We tried everything to get them to stop, short of calling in a bomb strike.
Runaway joined me again at Kilo. I had cooled off by now and more or less kept it civil, though my feelings toward him hadn’t changed.
Nor, I guess, had Runaway. It was pathetic.
He was up on the roof with us one night when we started taking shots from insurgents somewhere.
I ducked behind the four-foot perimeter wall. Once the gunfire subsided, I glanced over the roof and looked to see where the shots had come from. It was too dark, though.
More shots were fired. Everybody ducked again. I went down just a little, hoping to see a muzzle flash in the dark when the next shot came over. I couldn’t see anything.
“Come on,” I said. “They’re not accurate. Where are they firing from?”
No answer from Runaway.
“Runaway, look for the muzzle flash,” I said.
I didn’t hear a response. Two or three more shots followed, without me being able to figure out where they’d come from. Finally, I turned around to ask if he had seen anything.
Runaway was nowhere to be found. He’d gone downstairs—for all I know, the only thing that stopped him was the blocked door where the Marines were pulling security.
“I could get killed up there,” he said when I caught up with him.
I left him downstairs, telling him to send up one of the Marines pulling security in his place. At least I knew that guy wouldn’t run.
Runaway was eventually transferred somewhere where he wouldn’t go into combat. He had lost his nerve. He should have pulled himself out of there. That would have been embarrassing, but how much worse could it have been? He had to spend his time convincing everyone else that he wasn’t really a pussy, when the evidence was there for everyone to see.
Being the great warrior he was, Runaway declared to the Marines that SEALs and snipers were being wasted on sniper overwatch.
“SEALs shouldn’t be here. This isn’t a spec op mission,” he told them. But the problem wasn’t just the SEALs, as he soon made clear. “Those Iraqis are going to regroup and overrun us.”
His prediction turned out to be just a little off. But hey, he has a bright future as a military planner.
Our real problem was with the insurgents using the marsh across the river as cover. The river coast was dotted with countless little islands with trees and brush. Here and there an old foundation or a pile of dredged dirt and rock poked up between the bushes.
Insurgents would pop up from the vegetation, take their shots, then squirrel back into the brush where you couldn’t see them. The vegetation was so thick they could get pretty close not just to the river but to us—often within a hundred yards without being seen. Even the Iraqis could hit something from that distance.
Making things even more complicated, a herd of water buffalo lived in the swamp, and they’d tromp through every so often. You’d hear something or see the grass move and not know whether it was an insurgent or an animal.
We tried getting creative, requesting a napalm hit on the marsh to burn down the vegetation.
That idea was vetoed.
As the nights went on, I realized the number of insurgents was growing. It became obvious that I was being probed. Eventually, the insurgents might be able to get enough men together that I couldn’t kill them all.
Not that I wouldn’t have had fun trying.
The Marines brought in a FAC (forward air controller), to call in air support against the insurgents. The fellow they sent over was a Marine aviator, a pilot, working on a ground rotation. He tried a few times to vector in air attacks, but the requests were always denied higher up the chain of command.
At the time, I was told that there had been so much devastation in the city that they didn’t want any more collateral damage. I don’t see how blowing up a bunch of weeds and muck would make Fallujah look any worse than it already did, but then I’m just a SEAL and obviously don’t understand those sorts of complicated issues.
Anyway, the pilot himself was a good guy. He didn’t act stuck up or high and mighty; you’d never know he was an officer. We all liked him and respected him. And just to show there were no hard feelings, we let him get on the rifle every so often and look around. He never got off any shots.
Besides the FAC, the Marines sent a heavy-weapons squad, more snipers, and then mortarmen. The mortarmen brought some white phosphorous shells with them, and they tried launching those in an attempt to burn down the brush. Unfortunately, the shells would only set small pieces of the marsh on fire—they’d burn a bit, then fizzle and go out because it was so wet.
Our next try was throwing thermite grenades. A thermite grenade is an incendiary device that burns at four thousand degrees Fahrenheit and can go through a quarter-inch of steel in a few seconds. We went down to the river and hauled them across.
That didn’t work, either, so we started making our own homegrown concoctions. Between the Marine sniper detail and the mortarmen, there was a great deal of creative brainpower focused on that marsh. Of all the plans, one of my personal favorites involved the creative use of the shaped “cheese” charges the mortarmen typically carried. (The cheese is used to propel mortar rounds. Distance can be adjusted by varying the amount of cheese used to fire the projectile.) We’d shove some cheese in a tube, add a bunch of det cord, some diesel, and add a time fuse. Then we’d heave the contraption across the river and see what happened.
We got some pretty flashes, but nothing we came up with worked real well.
If only we’d had a flamethrower . . .
The marsh remained a “target rich environment” filled with insurgents. I must have gotten eighteen or nineteen myself that week; the rest of the guys brought the total up to the area of thirty or more.
The river seemed to hold a special fascination for bad guys. While we were trying various ways to burn down the marsh, they were attempting all sorts of ways to get across.
The most bizarre involved beach balls.
BEACH BALLS AND LONG SHOTS
I was watching from the roof one afternoon when a group of roughly sixteen fully armed insurgents emerged from cover. They were wearing full body armor and were heavily geared. (We found out later that they were Tunisians, apparently recruited by one of the militant groups to fight against Americans in Iraq.)
Not unusual at all, except for the fact that they were also carrying four very large and colorful beach balls.
I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing—they split up into groups and got into the water, four men per beach ball. Then, using the beach balls to keep them afloat, they began paddling across.
It was my job not to let that happen, but that didn’t necessarily mean I had to shoot each one of them. Hell, I had to conserve ammo for future engagements.
I shot the first beach ball. The four men began flailing for the other three balls.
I shot beach ball number two.
It was kind of fun.
Hell—it was a lot of fun. The insurgents were fighting among themselves, their ingenious plan to kill Americans now turned against them.
“Y’all gotta see this,” I told the Marines as I shot beach ball number three.
They came over to the side of the roof and watched as the insurgents fought among themselves for the last beach ball. The ones who couldn’t grab on promptly sank and drowned.
I watched them fight for a while longer, then shot the last ball. The Marines put the rest of the insurgents out of their misery.
Those were my strangest shots. My longest came around the same time.
One day, a group of three insurgents appeared on the shore upriver, out of range at around 1,600 yards. (That’s just under a mile.) A few had tried that before, standing there, knowing that we wouldn’t shoot them, because they were so far away. Our ROEs allowed us to take them, but the distance was so great that it really didn’t make sense to take a shot. Apparently realizing they were safe, they began mocking us like a bunch of juvenile delinquents.
The FAC came over and started laughing at me as I eyed them through the scope.
“Chris, you ain’t never gonna reach them.”
Well, I didn’t say I was going to try, but his words made it seem like almost a challenge. Some of the other Marines came over and told me more or less the same thing.
Anytime someone tells me I can’t do something, it gets me thinking I can do it. But 1,600 yards was so far away that my scope wouldn’t even dial up the shooting solution. So I did a little mental calculation and adjusted my aim with the help of a tree behind one of the grinning insurgent idiots making fun of us.
I took the shot.
The moon, Earth, and stars aligned. God blew on the bullet, and I gut-shot the jackass.
His two buddies hauled ass out of there.
“Get ’em, get ’em!” yelled the Marines. “Shoot ’em.”
I guess at that point they thought I could hit anything under the sun. But the truth is, I’d been lucky as hell to hit the one I was aiming at; there was no way I was taking a shot at people who were running.
That would turn out to be one of my longest confirmed kills in Iraq.
People think that snipers take such incredibly long shots all the time. While we do take longer shots than most guys on the battlefield, they’re probably a lot closer than most people think.
I never got all caught up in measuring how far I was shooting. The distance really depended on the situation. In the cities, where most of my kills came, you’re only going to be shooting anywhere from two hundred to four hundred yards anyway. That’s where your targets are, so that’s where your shots are.
Out in the countryside, it’s a different story. Typically, the shots out there would run from eight hundred to twelve hundred yards. That’s where the longer-range guns like the .338 would come in handy.
Someone once asked me if I had a favorite distance. My answer was easy: the closer the better.
As I mentioned earlier, another misperception people have about snipers is that we always aim for the head. Personally, I almost never target the head, unless I’m absolutely sure I’m going to make the shot. And that’s rare on the battlefield.
I’d much rather aim center mass—shoot for the middle of the body. I’ve got plenty of room to play with. No matter where I hit him, he’s going down.
BACK TO BAGHDAD
After a week on the river, I was pulled out, swapping places with another SEAL sniper, who’d been injured briefly earlier in the operation and was ready to get back into action. I’d had more than my fair share of kills as a sniper; it was time to let someone else have a go.
Command sent me back to Camp Fallujah for a few days. It was one of the few breaks in the war that I actually welcomed. After the pace of the battle in the city, I was definitely ready for a brief vacation. The hot meals and showers felt pretty damn good.
After chilling out for a few days, I was ordered back to Baghdad to work with GROM again.
We were on the way to Baghdad when our Hummer was hit by a buried IED. The improvised explosive blew up just behind us; everybody in the vehicles freaked—except me and another guy who’d been at Fallujah since the start of the assault. We looked at each other, winked, then closed our eyes and went back to sleep. Compared to the month’s worth of explosions and shit we’d just lived through, this was nothing.
While I’d been in Iraq, my platoon was sent to the Philippines on a mission to train up the local military to fight radical terrorists. It wasn’t exactly the most exciting assignment. Finally, with that mission complete, they were sent to Baghdad.
I went out with some other SEALs to the airport to greet them.
I was expecting a big welcome—here my family was finally coming in.
They came off the plane cussin’ me.
And much worse than that. Like everything else they do, SEALs excel at foul language.
Jealousy, thy name is SEAL.
I’d wondered why I hadn’t heard anything from them over the past few months. In fact, I was wondering why they were jealous—as far as I knew, they hadn’t heard about anything I’d been doing.
Come to find out, my chief had been regaling them with the after-action reports of my sniping in Fallujah. They’d been sitting around hand-holding the Filipinos and hating life, while I’d been having all the fun.
They got over it. Eventually, they even asked me to do a little presentation on what I’d done, complete with pointers and stuff. One more chance to use PowerPoint.
FUN WITH THE BIG SHOTS
Now that they were here, I joined them and started doing some DAs. Intel would find an IED-maker or maybe a financer, give us the intel, and we’d go in and snag him. We’d hit them very early in the morning—blow his door down, rush inside, and take him before he even had a chance to get out of bed.
This went on for about a month. By now, DAs were pretty much an old routine; they were a hell of a lot less dangerous in Baghdad than in Fallujah.
We were living out near BIAP—Baghdad International Airport—and working from there. One day, my chief came over and gave me a chiefly grin.
“You’ve got to have some fun, Chris,” he told me. “You need to do a little PSD.”
He was using SEAL sarcasm. PSD stands for “personal security detail”—bodyguard duty. The platoon had been assigned to provide security for high-ranking Iraqi officials. The insurgents had started kidnapping them, trying to disrupt the government. It was a pretty thankless job. So far, I’d been able to avoid it, but it seemed my ninja smoke had run out. I left and went over to the other side of the city and the Green Zone. (The Green Zone was a section of central Baghdad that was created as a safe area for the allies and the new Iraqi government. It was physically cut off from the rest of the city by cement walls and barbed wire. There were only a few ways in and out, and these were under strict control. The U.S. and other allied embassies were located there, as were Iraqi government buildings.)
I lasted an entire week.
The Iraqi officials, so-called, were notorious for not telling their escorts what their schedules were or giving details on who was supposed to be traveling with them. Given the level of security in the Green Zone, that was a significant problem.
I acted as “advance.” That meant I would go ahead of an official convoy, make sure the route was safe, and then stand at the security checkpoint and ID the convoy vehicles as they came through. This way the Iraqi vehicles could move through the checkpoints quickly without becoming targets.
One day, I was advance for a convoy that included the Iraqi vice president. I’d already checked the route and arrived at a Marine checkpoint outside the airport.
Baghdad International was on the other side of the city from the Green Zone. While the grounds themselves were secure, the area around it and the highway leading to the gate still came under occasional fire. It was a prime terror target, since the insurgents could pretty much figure that anyone going in or out was related to the Americans or the new Iraqi government in some way.
I was on radio coms with one of my boys in the convoy. He gave me the details on who was in the group, how many vehicles we had, and the like. He also told me that we had an Army Hummer in the front and an Army Hummer in the back—simple markers I could pass along to the guards.
The convoy came flying up, Hummer in the lead. We counted off the vehicles and lo, there was the last Hummer taking up the rear.
All of a sudden, two more vehicles appeared behind them in hot pursuit.
The Marines looked at me.
“Those two are not mine,” I told them.
“What do you want us to do?”
“Pull your Hummer out and train that .50 on them,” I yelled, pulling up my M-4.
I jumped out in the roadway, gun raised, hoping that would get their attention.
They didn’t stop.
Behind me, the Hummer had pulled up, and the gunner was locked and loaded. Still unsure whether I was dealing with a kidnapping or just some stray vehicles, I fired a warning shot.
The cars veered off and hauled ass the other way.
Thwarted kidnapping? Suicide bombers who’d lost their nerve?
No. Come to find out, these were two friends of the vice president. He’d forgotten to tell us about them.
He wasn’t too pleased. My command wasn’t too pleased, either. I got fired from my PSD job, which wouldn’t have been all that bad except that I then had to spend the next week sitting in the Green Zone doing nothing.
My platoon leadership tried to get me back for some DAs. But the head shed had decided to stick it to me a bit, and kept me twiddling my thumbs. That is the worst possible torture for a SEAL—missing out on the action.
Luckily, they didn’t hang on to me for too long.
In December 2005, Iraq geared up for national elections, its first since the fall of Saddam—and the first free and fair ones the country had ever held. The insurgency was doing everything it could to stop them. Election officials were being kidnapped left and right. Others were executed in the streets.
Talk about your negative campaigning.
Haifa Street in Baghdad was a particularly dangerous place. After three election officials were killed there, the Army put together a plan to protect officials in the area.
The strategy called for snipers to do overwatches.
I was a sniper. I was available. I didn’t even have to raise my hand.
I joined an Army unit from the Arkansas National Guard, a great bunch of good ol’ boys, warriors all.
People who are used to the traditional separation between the different military branches may think it’s unusual for a SEAL to be working with the Army, or even the Marines for that matter. But the forces were often well-integrated during my time in Iraq.
Any unit could put in an RFF (Request for Forces). That request would then get filled by whatever service was available. So if a unit needed snipers, as they did in this case, whatever branch had available snipers would ship them over.
There’s always back-and-forth between sailors, soldiers, and Marines. But I saw a lot of respect between the different branches, at least during the fighting. I certainly found most of the Marines and soldiers I worked with to be top-notch. You had your exceptions—but then you have your exceptions in the Navy, too.
The first day I reported for my new assignment, I thought I’d need an interpreter. Some people like to harass me about my Texas twang, but these hillbillies—holy shit. The important information came from the senior enlisted and the officers, who spoke regular English. But the privates and junior guys straight out of the backwoods could have been talking Chinese, for all I knew.
We started working on Haifa Street right near where the three election officials had been killed. The National Guard would secure an apartment building to use as a hide. Then I’d go in, pick out an apartment, and set up.
Haifa Street was not exactly Hollywood Boulevard, though it was the place to be if you were a bad guy. The street ran about two miles, from Assassin’s Gate at the end of the Green Zone and up to the northwest. It was the scene of numerous firefights and gun battles, all sorts of IED attacks, kidnappings, assassinations—you name it and it happened on Haifa. American soldiers dubbed it Purple Heart Boulevard.
The buildings we used for overwatches were fifteen to sixteen stories tall, and had a commanding view of the road. We moved around to the extent that we could, shifting locations to keep the insurgents off-balance. There were an untold number of hideouts in the squat buildings beyond the immediate highway, all up and down the street. The bad guys didn’t have much of a commute to get to work.
The insurgents here were a real mix; some were mujahedeen, former Baath or Iraqi Army guys. Others were loyal to al-Qaeda in Iraq or Sadr or some of the other whackadoos out there. At the start, they’d wear black or sometimes these green sashes, but once they realized that set them apart, they resorted to wearing regular civilian clothes just like everyone else. They wanted to mix with civilians to make it more difficult for us to figure out who they were. They were cowards, who not only would hide behind women and children, but probably hoped we’d kill the women and children, since in their minds it helped their cause by making us look bad.
One afternoon, I watched a young teenage kid waiting for the bus below me. When the bus pulled up, a group of older teenagers and young adults got off. All of a sudden, the kid I was watching turned and started walking very quickly in the opposite direction.
The group caught up quickly. One of them pulled out a pistol and put his arm around the kid’s neck.
As soon as he did that, I started shooting. The kid I was protecting took off. I got two or three of his would-be kidnappers; the others got away.
The sons of the election officials were a favorite target. The insurgents would use the families to put pressure on the officials to drop out. Or else they’d just kill the family members as a warning to others not to help the government hold the elections or even vote.
THE SALACIOUS AND THE SURREAL
One evening, we took over what we thought was an abandoned apartment, since it was empty when we arrived. I was rotating with another sniper, and while I was off, I went hunting around to see if there was something I might use to make the hide more comfortable.
In an open drawer of a bureau, I saw all this sexy lingerie. Crotchless panties, nightgowns—very suggestive stuff.
Not my size, though.
There was often an odd, almost surreal mix of things inside the buildings, items that would seem out of place under the best circumstances. Like the car tires we found on the roof in Fallujah, or the goat we found in the bathroom of a Haifa Street apartment.
I’d see something, then spend the rest of the day wondering what the story was. After a while, the bizarre came to seem natural.
Not quite surprising were the TVs and satellite dishes. They were everywhere. Even in the desert. Many times we’d come upon a little nomad settlement with tents for houses and nothing but a couple animals and open land around them. Still, they were bristling with satellite dishes.
One night, I was on an overwatch and things were quiet. Nights were normally slow in Baghdad. Insurgents usually wouldn’t attack then, because they knew we had the advantage with our technology, including our night-vision gear and infrared sensors. So I thought I’d take a minute and call my wife back home, just to tell I was thinking of her.
I took our sat phone and dialed home. Most times, when I talked to Taya, I’d tell her I was back at base, even though I was really on an overwatch or in the field somewhere. I didn’t want to worry her.
This night, for some reason, I told her what I was doing.
“Is it all right to talk?” she asked.
“Oh yeah, it’s all good,” I said. “There’s nothing going on.”
Well, I got maybe another two or three sentences out of my mouth when someone started firing at the building from the street.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing,” I said nonchalantly.
Of course, the gunfire stoked up real loud as the words came out of my mouth.
“Well, I think I’m going to get going now,” I told her.
“Are you okay?”
“Oh yeah. It’s all good,” I lied. “Nothing happening. Talk to you later.”
Just then, an RPG hit the outside wall right near me. Some of the building smacked into my face, giving me a couple of beauty marks and temporary tattoos courtesy of the insurgency.
I dropped the phone and started returning fire. I spotted the guys down the street and popped one or two; the snipers who were with me downed a bunch more before the rest got the hell out of there.
Fight over, I grabbed up the phone. The batteries had run out, so I couldn’t call back.
Things got busy for a few days, and it wasn’t until two or three days later when I finally got a chance to call Taya and see how she was.
She started crying as soon as she answered the phone.
It turned out I hadn’t actually ended the call before I put down the phone. She’d heard the whole gunfight, complete with shots and curses, before the batteries had finally run out. Which, of course, happened all of a sudden, adding to the anxiety.
I tried to calm her down, but I doubt what I said really eased her mind.
She was always a good sport, always insisting that I didn’t have to hide things from her. She claimed her imagination was a lot worse than anything that really could happen to me.
I don’t know about that.
I made a few other calls home during lulls in battles during my deployments. The overall pace of the action was so intense and continuous that there weren’t many alternatives. Waiting until I got back to our camp might mean waiting for a week or more. And while I’d call then, too, if I could, it wasn’t always possible.
And I got used to the battles. Getting shot at was just part of the job. RPG round? Just another day at the office.
My dad has a story about hearing from me at work one day when I hadn’t had a chance to call in a while. He picked up the phone and was surprised to hear my voice.
He was even more surprised that I was whispering.
“Chris, why is your voice so hushed?” he asked.
“I’m on an op, Dad. I don’t want them to know where I’m at.”
“Oh,” he answered, a little shaken.
I doubt I was actually close enough for the enemy to hear anything, but my father swears that a few seconds later, there were gunshots in the background.
“Gotta go,” I said, before he had a chance to find out what the sound was. “I’ll get back to you.”
According to my father, I called back two days later to apologize for hanging up so abruptly. When he asked if he had overheard the start of a firefight, I changed the subject.
BUILDING MY REP
My knees were still hurting from being pinned under rubble back in Fallujah. I tried to get cortisone shots but couldn’t. I didn’t want to push too hard: I was afraid of getting pulled out because of my injury.
Every once in a while, I took some Motrin and iced them down; that was about it. In battle, of course, I was fine—when your adrenaline is pumped, you don’t feel anything.
Even with the pain, I loved what I was doing. Maybe war isn’t really fun, but I certainly was enjoying it. It suited me.
By this time, I had a bit of a reputation as a sniper. I’d had a lot of confirmed kills. It was now a very good number for such a short period—or any period, really.
Except for the Team guys, people didn’t really know my name and face. But there were rumors around, and my stay here added to my reputation, such as it was.
It seemed like everywhere I set up, I’d get a target. This started to piss off some of the other snipers, who could spend whole shifts and even days without seeing anybody, let alone an insurgent.
One day, Smurf, a fellow SEAL, started following me around as we went into an apartment.
“Where are you setting up?” he asked.
I looked around and found a place I thought looked good.
“Right there,” I told him.
“Good. Get the hell out of here. I’m taking this spot.”
“Hey, you take it,” I told him. I went off to find another spot—and promptly got a kill from there.
For a while, it didn’t seem to matter what I did, things would happen in front of me. I wasn’t inventing the incidents—I had witnesses for all my shots. Maybe I saw a little farther, maybe I anticipated trouble better than other people. Or, most likely, I was just lucky.
Assuming being a target for people who want to kill you can be considered luck.
One time, we were in a house on Haifa Street, where we had so many snipers that the only possible place to shoot from was a tiny window above a toilet. I had to actually stand up the whole time.
I still got two kills.
I was just one lucky motherfucker.
One day, we got intel that the insurgents were using a cemetery at the edge of town near Camp Independence at the airport to cache weapons and launch attacks. The only way I could get a view of the place was to climb up on this tall, tall crane. Once at the top, I then had to go out on a thin-mesh platform.
I don’t know how high I went. I don’t want to know. Heights are not my favorite thing—it makes my balls go in my throat just thinking about it.
The crane did give me a decent view of the cemetery, which was about eight hundred yards away.
I never took a shot from there. I never saw anything aside from mourners and funerals. But it was worth a try.
Besides looking for people with IEDs, we had to watch out for the bombs themselves. They were everywhere—occasionally, even in the apartment buildings. One team narrowly escaped one afternoon, the explosives going off just after they collapsed down and left the building.
The Guard was using Bradleys to get around. The Bradley looks a bit like a tank, since it has a turret and gun on top, but it’s actually a personnel carrier and scout vehicle, depending on its configuration.
I believe it’s made to fit six people inside. We would try and cram eight or ten in. It was hot, muggy, and claustrophobic. Unless you were sitting by the ramp, you couldn’t see anything. You kind of sucked it up and waited to get wherever it was you were going.
One day, the Bradleys picked us up from a sniper op. We had just turned off Haifa onto one of the side streets, and all of a sudden—buh-lam. We’d been hit by a massive IED. The back of the vehicle lifted up and slammed back down. The inside filled with smoke.
I could see the guy across from me moving his mouth, but I couldn’t hear a word: the blast had blown out my ears.
The next thing I knew, the Bradley started moving again. That was one tough vehicle. Back at the base, the commander kind of shrugged it off.
“Didn’t even knock the tracks off,” he said. He almost sounded disappointed.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true: you form tight friendships in war. And then suddenly circumstances change. I became close friends with two guys in the Guard unit, real good friends; I trusted them with my life.
Today I couldn’t tell you their names if my life depended on it. And I’m not even sure that I can describe them in a way that would show you why they were special.
Me and the boys from Arkansas seemed to get along real well together, maybe because we were all just country boys.
Well, they were hillbillies. You’ve got your regular redneck like me, then you got your hillbilly who’s a whole sight different animal.
The elections came and went.
The media back in the States made a big thing of the Iraqi government elections, but it was a nonevent for me. I wasn’t even out that day; I caught it on TV.
I never really believed the Iraqis would turn the country into a truly functioning democracy, but I thought at one point that there was a chance. I don’t know that I believe that now. It’s a pretty corrupt place.
But I didn’t risk my life to bring democracy to Iraq. I risked my life for my buddies, to protect my friends and fellow countrymen. I went to war for my country, not Iraq. My country sent me out there so that bullshit wouldn’t make its way back to our shores.
I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.
A short while after the election, I was sent back to my SEAL platoon. Our time in Iraq was growing short, and I was starting to look forward to going home.
Being at camp in Baghdad meant I had my own little room. My personal gear filled four or five cruise boxes, two big Stanley roller boxes, and assorted rucks. (Cruise boxes are the modern equivalent of footlockers; they’re waterproof and roughly three feet long.) On deployment, we pack heavy.
I also had a TV set. All the latest movies were on pirated DVDs selling at Baghdad street stands for five bucks. I bought a box set of James Bond movies, some Clint Eastwood, John Wayne—I love John Wayne. I love his cowboy movies especially, which makes sense I guess. Rio Bravo may be my favorite.
Besides movies, I spent a bit of time playing computer games—Command and Conquer became a personal favorite. Smurf had a PlayStation, and we started getting into playing Tiger Woods.
I kicked his butt.
DAS, HELOS, AND HEIGHTS
With Baghdad settling down, at least for the moment, the head shed decided they wanted to open up a SEAL base in Habbaniyah.
Habbaniyah is twelve miles to the east of Fallujah, in Anabar Province. It wasn’t quite the hotbed of the insurgency that Fallujah had been, but it wasn’t San Diego, either. This is the area where before the First Gulf War, Saddam built chemical plants devoted to manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, such as nerve gas and other chemical agents. There weren’t a lot of America supporters out there.
There was a U.S. Army base though, run by the famous 506th Regiment—the Band of Brothers. They’d just come over from Korea and, to be polite, had no fucking clue what Iraq was all about. I suppose everybody’s gotta learn the hard way.
Habbaniyah turned out to be a real pain in the ass. We’d been given an abandoned building, but it was nowhere near adequate for what we needed. We had to build a TOC—a tactical operations command—to house all the computers and com gear that helped support us during our missions.
Our morale sunk. We weren’t doing anything useful for the war; we were working as carpenters. It’s an honorable profession, but it’s not ours.
It was on this deployment that the medical doctors did a test and, for some reason, thought Chris had TB. The doctors told him he would eventually die of the disease.
I remember talking to him right after he got the news. He was fatalistic about it. He’d already accepted that he was going to die, and he wanted to do it there, not at home from a disease he couldn’t fight with a gun or his fists.
“It doesn’t matter,” he told me. “I’ll die and you’ll find someone else. People die out here all the time. Their wives go on and find someone else.”
I tried to explain to him that he was irreplaceable to me. When that didn’t seem to faze him, I tried another equally valid point. “But you’ve got our son,” I told him.
“So what? You’ll find someone else and that guy will raise him.”
I think he was seeing death so often that he started to believe people were replaceable.
It broke my heart. He truly believed that. I still hate to think that.
He thought dying on the battlefield was the greatest. I tried to tell him differently, but he didn’t believe it.
They redid the tests, and Chris was cleared. But his attitude about death stayed.
Once the camp was settled, we started doing DAs. We’d be given the name and location of a suspected insurgent, hit his house at night, then come back and deposit him and whatever evidence we gathered at the DIF—Detention and Interrogation Facility, your basic jail.
We’d take pictures along the way. We weren’t sightseeing; we were covering our butts, and, more important, those of our commanders. The pictures proved we hadn’t beaten the crap out of him.
Most of these ops were routine, without much trouble and almost never any resistance. One night, though, one of our guys went into a house where a rather portly Iraqi decided he didn’t want to come along nicely. He started to tussle.
Now, from our perspective, our brother SEAL was getting the shit kicked out of him. According to the SEAL in question, he had actually slipped and was in no need of assistance.
I guess you can interpret it any way you want. We all rushed in and grabbed the fatso before he could do much harm. Our friend got ribbed about his “fall” for a while.
On most of these missions, we had photos of the person we were supposed to get. In that case, the rest of the intelligence tended to be pretty accurate. The guy was almost always where he was supposed to be, and things pretty much followed the outline we had drawn up.
But some cases didn’t go so smoothly. We began realizing that if we didn’t have a photo, the intelligence was suspect. Knowing that the Americans would bring a suspect in, people were using tips to settle grievances or feuds. They’d talk to the Army or some other authority, making claims about a person helping the insurgency or committing some other crime.
It sucked for the person we arrested, but I didn’t get all that worked up about it. It was just one more example of how screwed up the country was.
One day, the Army asked for a sniper overwatch for a 506th convoy that was coming into base.
I went out with a small team and we took down a three- or four-story building. I set up in the top floor and started watching the area. Pretty soon the convoy headed down the road. As I was watching the area, a man came out of a building near the road and began maneuvering in the direction the convoy was going to take. He had an AK.
I shot him. He went down.
The convoy continued through. A bunch of other Iraqis came out and gathered around the guy I’d shot, but nobody that I could see made any threatening motions toward the convoy or looked to be in a position to attack it, so I didn’t fire.
A few minutes later, I heard on the radio that the Army is sending a unit out to investigate why I shot him.
I had already told the Army command on the radio what had happened, but I got back on the radio and repeated it. I was surprised—they didn’t believe me.
A tank commander came out and interviewed the dead man’s wife. She told them her husband was on his way to the mosque carrying a Koran.
Uh-huh. The story was ridiculous, but the officer—whom, I’m guessing, hadn’t been in Iraq very long—didn’t believe me. The soldiers began to look around for the rifle, but by that time so many people had been in the area that it was long gone.
The tank commander pointed out my position. “Did it come from there?”
“Yes, yes,” said the woman, who, of course, had no idea where the shot had come from, since she hadn’t been anywhere nearby. “I know he’s Army, because he’s wearing an Army uniform.”
Now, I was two rooms deep, with a screen in front of me, wearing a gray jacket over my SEAL camis. Maybe she hallucinated in her grief, or maybe she just said whatever she thought would give me grief.
We were recalled to base and the entire platoon put on stand-down. I was told I was not “operationally available”—I was confined to base while the 506th investigated the incident further.
The colonel wanted to interview me. My officer came with me.
We were all pissed. The ROEs had been followed; I had plenty of witnesses. It was the Army “investigators” who had screwed up.
I had trouble holding my tongue. At one point, I told the Army colonel, “I don’t shoot people with Korans—I’d like to, but I don’t.” I guess I was a little hot.
Well, after three days and God only knows how much other “investigation,” he finally realized that it had been a good kill and dropped the matter. But when the regiment asked for more overwatches, we told them to fuck off.
“Any time I shoot someone, you’re just going to try and have me executed,” I said. “No way.”
We were heading home in two weeks anyway. Aside from a few more DAs, I spent most of that time playing video games, watching porn, and working out.
I finished that deployment with a substantial number of confirmed sniper kills. Most happened in Fallujah.
Carlos Norman Hathcock II, the most famous member of the sniping profession, a true legend and a man whom I look up to, tallied ninety-three confirmed kills during his three years of tours in the Vietnam War.
I’m not saying I was in his class—in my mind, he was and always will be the greatest sniper ever—but in sheer numbers, at least, I was close enough for people to start thinking I’d done a hell of a job.