'A difficult and dirty job': Soldiers push their limits in training at Army Sniper School
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Sniper candidate Spc. Logan Boling, camouflaged in a ghillie suit, had been hiding in the woods under leaves and branches for what seemed like hours. He was attempting to crawl undetected several hundred meters, to take a shot at a target he had selected.
Boling made a mistake, however. The vegetation he chose to hide beneath didn't adequately conceal his weapon. The sun glistened off his barrel, which revealed his position to the spotters who had been looking for him. Boling had failed the challenge by allowing himself to be seen. As a result, an instructor pulled him from the training exercise.
Boling wasn't the first to make a mistake, and wouldn't be the last, either. More than 300 Soldiers each year begin the seven-week U.S. Army Sniper School at Fort Benning, Georgia, but only the best of those will make it through the course to graduation.
"Sniper school is one of the hardest schools in the military, not physically, but mentally," said Staff Sgt. Brian Moran, one of the 11 instructors who oversees the training.
DAY ONE: WELCOME TO SNIPER SCHOOL
Before sunrise in early August, 46 Soldiers reported for the first day of sniper school as part of Class 10-17 at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Every new student, private first class through staff sergeant, had already met demanding criteria just to be accepted into the school.
Before deciding to send a Soldier to sniper school, for instance, a Soldier's home unit typically evaluates them on land navigation and marksmanship skills. Those same Soldiers also needed to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test at their home unit, and needed exceptionally high marks on their Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Experience as an infantry, cavalry or Special Forces Soldier is also a requirement.
Additionally, each student needed to undergo a psychological evaluation before being cleared to attend the training, to ensure they had the mental fitness to be a sniper.
"Snipers are often deployed in small two-man teams, which requires a great deal of mental fortitude to remain focused on the task at hand," Moran said. "If individuals have difficulty being isolated, there is a potential for mission failure."
Snipers must be physically fit, patient, even-keeled, quiet, smart, good at math, agile, and adaptive, Moran said. They must also be able to make snap judgments and quick decisions on their feet.
On a miserably hot and humid day in middle Georgia, Soldiers formed up inside a makeshift gymnasium, and waited to be given another demanding physical fitness test. They had to prove once again to the Army that they were fit enough to be trained as snipers.
Moran said fitness is important because being a sniper is physically demanding.
"Instead of a normal 35-pound rucksack, a sniper might carry up to 110 pounds on his back and have to walk many miles or even crawl to accomplish the mission," Moran said. "Since snipers operate in small teams, if the equipment is needed, it has to be carried by that team."
The students, nervous and anxious, were fidgeting in anticipation before this first evaluation at sniper school. One by one, they cranked out pushups and sit-ups. Then they fell out on a nearby road and prepared for a 2-mile run that they had to complete in less than 16.3 minutes.
All the students passed the test, but as they finished, each was winded, breathing heavily, with t-shirts soaked from sweat.
Usually, during the initial physical evaluation, a few students will fail and are dropped from the course. But this day, every student passed.
In the afternoon, students were taken to a shooting range and tested on their marksmanship skills with the M4 carbine, using only the fixed iron sights.
During firing, instructors walked up and down the lines ensuring students were using the proper techniques they had been taught.
A few students looked confused, and bewildered. It was apparent they needed some extra instruction. Instructors patiently stooped down to answer questions and ensure they understood.
During the firing, students wiped the sweat from their eyes as they squinted in the hot sun. They were uncomfortable, tired, hot and exhausted. However, they could not let these discomforts deter from their marksmanship. After each student shot, their scorecards were collected and evaluated by instructors.
Twelve students were sent home.
DAY 2: GHILLIE CHALLENGE
On the second day, students were taught how to make a ghillie suit, a type of camouflage designed to resemble the foliage in the environment where a sniper might operate. The suit helps break up the outline of a sniper's body.
Students laid a net on a large wooden table and then patiently attached strips of burlap, leaves, twigs, and other foliage to the net. The result was their own personalized garment that would help them blend into the natural foliage at the Fort Benning training area.
Students also learned to apply camouflage to places the ghillie suit wouldn't cover. Using mirrors, they applied the camouflage makeup to their face, neck and hands. Students then inspected one another to ensure no skin was exposed.
Later in the afternoon, dressed in their ghillie suits and with camouflage makeup on their faces, the students got the first opportunity to crawl through the mud like a real sniper.
Together, the students crawled several hundred feet through tall grass down the side of a road. Near the end of road, they turned and continued crawling through a deep ditch filled with water, mud, rocks, vegetation and fallen tree branches.
Moran observed and coached each student as they crawled and paddled through the ditch. "Watch out for that rock," he called out. "And don't forget to open your eyes."
Part of the exercise also involved students helping one another. Each picked up and carried a classmate for a short distance in their wet and muddy ghillie suits. Then they pulled one of their buddies back down the side of the road in the grass.
The training is meant to prepare snipers for a situation where one of their fellow Soldiers is wounded or hurt. It enables them to live up to the motto: "never leave a Soldier behind."
Moran said he remembered doing the same exercises himself when he went through sniper school, and it made him smile. But back then, he said, he didn't know for sure why it was they had been crawling through the mud.
Today, he knows. One reason for these exercises, he said, is to test the durability of the ghillie suits. When suits are tested in these conditions, they often become snagged on rocks or branches and tear. A suit that is not put together well will fall apart, he said.
"The object of this training is to teach students that being a sniper can be a difficult and dirty job," Moran said. "These are the conditions that snipers will often find themselves in."
(Editor's note: This is the first of a four-part series on the U.S. Army Sniper School at Fort Benning, Georgia.)