We’ve decided to start a new feature, “Voices from Down Range”. Here we will feature a story from the front lines, reminding all readers how real the combat is that our service men and women deal with every day. The following post comes from Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Ben Anderson via At War: Notes from the Front Lines of the New York Times.
During the 2010 assault on Marja in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Cpl. Thomas Gibbons-Neff was the leader of a Marine Corps scout sniper team that came under fire from a Taliban sniper. The sniper, like others in the area, had proved surprisingly effective, and Corporal Gibbons-Neff’s team was ordered to flush him out. Ben Anderson, a journalist and filmmaker, accompanied the team on the assault. The two became friends, and the following is their joint account of the weeklong hunt for one sniper, told from their different viewpoints on the battlefield.
I hesitate to write this because it is a war story. Maybe not a war story of the likes that is told at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post, but a war story nonetheless. War stories can be filled with bravado and some truths; they almost always make the characters seem larger than life, as if those characters had a say in shaping the story. But they don’t. I know I didn’t.
I hesitate also because I was a kid who was in situations like in the books I once read to make sense of my father’s service in Vietnam. I didn’t earn a Bronze Star. I didn’t get shot. I did my job and I did it the best I could.
So what did Tim O’Brien say about war stories? “It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.”
Here it goes.
In February of 2010 I was a 22-year-old Marine corporal and leader of an eight-man scout sniper team. It was my second deployment to Afghanistan and my battalion had been ordered to assault the Taliban stronghold of Marja. Our leaders promised us a place in the annals of Marine Corps history, right next to Hue and Fallujah. We would be called Marja Marines and we would tell our grandchildren about it.
Three days into the assault I met Ben Anderson. Through the adrenaline-soaked recollections I see a patchy beard and the distinct British helmet cover. I remember thinking, as I’m sure most combatants think when they see a guy running around with a camera instead of a rifle: “Who is this crazy jerk?”
Everyone, including the Taliban, knew that “the big one,” the invasion of Marja, was going to happen. I was joining the first wave of Marines, who would be dropped into Marja before dawn on Day 1. In the sleepless nights leading up to it there was much talk of antiaircraft guns and improvised explosive devices and hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of hardened and well-prepared fighters waiting. Nobody mentioned snipers.
I’d heard stories about snipers in Helmand and Kandahar, but they were often about a possibly mythical 16-year-old Chechen girl, so it was easy to dismiss them. But in Marja, it became immediately clear that snipers would cause the Marines more problems than anything else. On the first day, after six hours of fighting, the team finally found cover behind mud walls only to see a stretcher being loaded onto a helicopter. A sniper had shot a Marine in the back as he tried to bring them mine-clearing explosives. He did not survive.
Over the next few days, another sniper fired just four bullets and hit three Marines, sometimes when their heads had bobbed up above sandbags for just a second or two. He would fire just once, then stay silent for hours. His single shot was usually followed by a burst of shots from marksmen elsewhere, making it impossible for the Marines to identify his hiding place.
The battle between the Marine Corps and the Taliban snipers felt entirely different from the fighting elsewhere. It was slow, considered and cerebral. Most fighters have no idea where the hundreds of bullets they fire wind up, but snipers can tell you exactly what happened each time they squeezed the trigger. They are often looking at the magnified face of their targets as they shoot.
They seem to work with a set of rules, with tricks, feints and a mutual respect that almost suggest a shared etiquette. There are levels of skill and trickery, moves and counter-moves, some easily recognized by their enemy. “It’s not ‘Enemy at the Gates,’ ” Corporal Gibbons-Neff explained to me, “But you do try to get in the other guy’s head.”
I looked at Matt, a corporal who was my assistant team leader, as he stared through his rangefinder. The sun danced with the horizon and the trees grew long in the dusk. He saw nothing; I heard nothing when the first rounds started skipping across the roof.
We were being targeted from what I believed to be three shooters at close range. I knew this by the sound of the Kalashnikovs. Snap/heavy pop. But I also heard something distinct before that: a snap and pop almost an octave higher. It was the sound of a 5.56×45 round, the primary cartridge used by NATO that is smaller than the cartridge fired from a Kalashnikov. And it was coming from an enemy sniper, firing from a well-concealed position only 75 yards away. As we attempted to find a muzzle flash we would immediately be distracted by the semiaccurate AK fire.
When my machine gunner began to engage targets and Matt started using his 40-millimeter grenade launcher, I thought we would gain some breathing room. Wrong.
What happened next is a collection of images burned into my head like a highlight reel from a nightmare. Bullets through flesh. (Think baseball bat hitting uncooked meat.) Matt’s face contorting.
My kneecap to a pressure point. Blood on my hands as I cut off his uniform. My slow recitation of the script: “Easy buddy, you’re gonna be fine, look at me.”
Matt and my gunner were both hit by the same burst of fire from the sniper. They were evacuated by helicopter that night. Both survived.
A day or so later I was back on the same roof, which had the best view in town. By 10 in the morning, Lance Corporal Koenig collapsed. I thought he was dead. Twenty-four hours later, a lone round almost took off Lance Corporal Fletcher’s nose. The sniper again.
Soon after, Marines found what appeared to be the sniper’s lair. He had moved to the west where he was harassing turret gunners of a sister company. Our commander ordered us to find him.
Here is how Lance Corporal Koenig described being shot in the helmet by the sniper: “I came up and turned around to get my rifle passed to me and as I turned around, I guess my head was just a little above the sandbags and he shot and ended up hitting me directly in the head.”
As he spoke, he had a glow about him. His whole face was smiling, the look of a man glad to be alive. “It cracked me back and I was dazed and didn’t really know what was going on. I was like, ‘I’m hit!’ ” He picked his helmet off the ground and showed me a dent an inch above his eyes. The mount for his night vision goggles probably stopped the round from going through the helmet’s Kevlar skin, which contrary to popular belief is not bulletproof.
“It hurt really, really bad,” he continued. “I thought I’d actually been hit, it scared me pretty bad.”
I went to the small room where the sniper had been hiding. There was no furniture, no weapons and no blood. I did not know what I was looking at until I saw Captain Sparks, Corporal Gibbons-Neff’s commander, staring though a slit in the wall. A straight line of sunlight painted a thin vertical stripe from his helmet down to the ground. He was seeing exactly what the sniper had seen for the last three days: a perfect view of the sandbags on the roof where the Marines had been staging.
“This is it. Perfect angle,” Captain Sparks said.
He spoke in rapid bursts but it was obvious that he was furious. He clenched a fist and gently punched the wall next to the hole.
Another Marine picked 18 bullet cases off the floor and put them in a plastic bag: 5.56 rounds, NATO size. “He was probably using a weapon that we’d supplied him with in some way or another,” the captain said.
“He was probably sitting back in the shadows where we couldn’t see any indication of his weapon at all,” he added. “Perfect sniper position.”
Another Marine said the sniper had obviously received military training. “Possibly ours,” he said.
Captain Sparks was visibly aggravated that the man who’d shot four of his Marines was getting credit for having skill. “A real sniper would have destroyed this wall or patched it up and picked up his casings and we’d never have known,” he said. “He’s just a guy that’s a good shot and knows a little bit about concealment.”
From skilled sniper to idiot in a few minutes. Such reasoning seemed to help the Marines move forward. Captain Sparks put a huge lump of chewing tobacco in his mouth and walked back into the sun. “Let’s continue the game,” he said.
Our company leadership believed the sniper was in an orchard to the southwest. An observer team was to move under the cover of darkness and conceal themselves 500 yards in front of a fire team whose job was to lure the sniper out. In short, become bait.
One of my Marines and I hid under a haystack, not wearing body armor and carrying just a bolt-gun, the squad automatic weapon, a 66-millimeter disposable rocket launcher and our sidearms.
The sun rose, the haystack heated up. The first round came in. From under the haystack we calculated the direction and distance with our compass and radioed it back to command.
From the two positions — the haystack and the roof — we had begun to triangulate the sniper’s position. He fired again. A snap and a dull thud as a sandbag absorbed the round.
Again, we plotted direction and distance, but this time our coordinates were passed to an MQ-9 Reaper, an unmanned aerial vehicle armed with a missile. The Reaper’s sensor found a lone individual running to our southwest near where our two teams had calculated he was hiding.
There was a low wail, a freight train in the sky, and then the concussion of the explosion.
I saw a plume of smoke drifting lazily in the breeze. Somewhere a bird chirped and a lone donkey bayed into the abyss. The sniper was dead.
That was our first week on Planet Afghanistan. Twenty more to go.
Ben Anderson is an award-winning filmmaker (“Holidays in the Axis of Evil,” “The Battle for Marjah”) and writer who has been covering the war in southern Afghanistan since 2007. An updated version of his book, “No Worse Enemy,” is out now in paperback, and he recently released a new film on Vice.com titled “This is What Winning Looks Like.” Follow him on Twitter, @BenJohnAnderson.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a native of Boston, is president of Georgetown University’s Student Veterans Association and a former Marine. He served on active duty with the First Battalion, Sixth Marines, from 2007 to 2011 and participated in two deployments to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter, @tmgneff.
The original post at NYTimes.com can be found here.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff was contacted and provided approval for this post.