The view from a US sniper hide in Sabari district, Khost province, Afghanistan. Photo by Sergeant Richard Ward.
At about 3 a.m. on Aug. 17, four men scrambled from the open door of an armored vehicle, ran to some bushes along the side of an unfinished road, and laid down in the dirt and darkness. The prone figures were still as the drivers idled and then revved the truck engines, resuming the convoy’s northward journey. The sound of the vehicles drifted into a low rumble, and then silence, but the men in the bushes remained motionless. A few minutes later, one man finally gave the signal to move. Only then did the small group quickly, quietly scramble up the side of a mountain, picking their way over jagged rocks toward the summit of a ridge.
The men were members of a US Army sniper team: one commander, one machine gunner, and two snipers. From a “sniper hide” at their destination – one of the innumerable ridges with commanding views of the road – they would conduct the day’s mission: hunting Afghan bomb emplacers.
The snipers’ location had been chosen with care. American surveillance assets – including manned and unmanned aircraft, an observation blimp, and various towers with cameras – had extensive views the valley surrounding the Sabari district center in Khost province. But the insurgents had somehow figured out that a particular stretch of road tended to be a blind spot for the Americans. Consequently, the rebels liked to plant IEDs after a US patrol passed by the area, and when that same unit (or another one) came back down the road, it would hit the roadside bomb. But on this day, the Americans would be waiting. The soldiers had even warned reconnaissance aircraft to stay out of sight and hearing, to better lure the bomb planters into the open.
The main element of the patrol was led by First Lieutenant Jordan Weiss. His 3rd Platoon of Bravo Company, 1/26th Infantry was conducting a mission up the road to capture a pair of “High Value Targets” (HVTs): alleged Taliban financiers who funneled money into the Afghan insurgency through rich donors in the Arab world. In addition, the US forces had received a tip on a weapons or explosives cache rumored to be hidden in the area. According to the plan, the patrol would conduct the HVT grab and make a thorough search of a nearby village for the cache, while the snipers overwatched the road to spring an ambush on anyone who attempted to set a trap for the returning patrol.
Finally in place in the sniper hide on the ridge, Specialist Benjamin Taylor watched the road through the scope of his rifle, while Sergeant Richard Ward looked through a spotting scope. Meanwhile, Sergeant First Class Nicholas Kenrick posted security and coordinated communications with the platoon’s main element, and Private First Class Jonatan Jaldin, a machine gunner, looked out for any individuals moving toward the sniper team’s position. If anyone approached the small group, the nearby platoon or any number of air assets could be called upon for quick support.
The men watched, and patiently waited. These stretches of quiet concentration can last the better part of a day, and the men were prepared for boredom. Taylor, a 22-year-old on his first sniper deployment, doesn’t “think there is a better job in the army than being a sniper,” but even he admits that it can get dull.
“It does get boring because we don’t really move a lot, whereas everyone else is walking, seeing new terrain, and we’re overwatching the same area,” said Taylor. “And we have to sit there for hours, even if it’s crappy weather.”
They didn’t have to wait long this day, however. Two hours into the mission, at about 5 a.m., Taylor and Ward saw two men approach the side of the road from the direction of a nearby village. It was just light enough to ditch their night vision gear, and the soldiers could see that one of the men was “carrying something wrapped up in a scarf.”
The “two dudes were acting suspicious,” and they were near the site of a previous IED emplacement, according to Taylor. The Americans watched from about 720 meters away as the men talked, moved up the road to “check on something,” then moved back down to the original spot. A local farmer left his qalat, stopped 10 meters from the pair, and said something. After exchanging words with the newcomer, the men moved farther down the road, a respectful distance from the farmer’s residence.
The two Afghans then “did a little digging with their hands,” squatted, and one individual handed something to the other man. At some point the scarf came unraveled, revealing a yellow, cone-shaped object with a rope attached to its top.
“I instantly knew that was an IED,” said Taylor. “There was no way it could be anything else.”
The object turned out to be a “cowbell IED,” a cone-shaped charge that would funnel the blast from 40 pounds of explosives toward its intended target.
As the snipers readied to fire while calling in updates to their platoon leader up north, one of the emplacers left the road and stood off 800 meters from the site, while the other insurgent continued to set up the bomb. He placed rocks around the cowbell charge to hold it in place and point it at the road, before covering it with a bush. Finally, the man pulled out some wires and began connecting them to the yellow cone. Taylor readied his shot.
He knew his DOPE (Data of Previous Engagements). The snipers had taken practice shots at various ranges to determine what their “Mil hold” was for the given range. “Mil” is a degree of angle; because gravity will cause a bullet to drop over long distances, snipers have to adjust by pointing the weapon at a higher angle than a straight shot to the target. They make this adjustment by calculating the distance to the target and moving the crosshairs up to the proper elevation on a set of horizontally stacked stadia lines or dots within the scope. With the correct vertical adjustment at the right distance, the bullet will arc and drop right into the target.
Taylor was 550 meters away. He double-checked his DOPE. He readied to pull the trigger. If the shot was successful, it would be the first kill of his career.
“I think you’re going to hit the rock,” interrupted Ward. The sergeant had previously warned Taylor that he might not have enough clearance at his chosen angle, and he could skim a piece of the ridge about five meters in front of them.
“No, I think I got it,” replied Taylor.
“I don’t know ….”
“I’m pretty sure I got this.”
Taylor held his breath, waited a beat, and pulled the trigger. The gunshot made no noise beyond a short burst of air and a muffled crack – the weapon was suppressed. But that was followed by the sound of a ricochet.
He’d hit the rock, throwing off his shot.
On the side of the road below, the insurgent looked up, dropped everything and ran.
Taylor swore as he racked another round. At the same time, Ward sighted his rifle and attempted a shot with his Barrett .50 caliber rifle. Inexplicably, it jammed, and now it was Ward’s turn to swear. The insurgent had left the road, and was running northwest toward a qalat near the site of the suspected weapons cache. But the fields were muddy, and the man was wearing sandals, both of which slowed him down.
“We can’t really run that fast through those fields, and we wear boots,” said Taylor.
Specialist Benjamin Taylor (far right) discusses his first sniper kill with Staff Sergeant Joshua Pless-Mosley (far left) and First Lieutenant Don Pate. Click image to view. Photo by Bill Ardolino for The Long War Journal.
The specialist drew down on the runner and fired again. The shot missed slightly wide, just over the man’s left shoulder. Taylor racked a third round. He adjusted his aim a hair to the right, held his breath, and pulled the trigger again. The rifle made its suppressed bark. At that instant, the insurgent turned his head to look backwards, and the bullet caught him in the forehead a millisecond later, killing him instantly. The body crumpled into the field.
“He’s down!” said Taylor and Ward simultaneously.
“Nice job,” added Ward. “Nice shot.”
The dead insurgent’s partner had gotten away, immediately ducking behind the cover of some trees from his cautious position 800 meters distant.
Soon after, the main element of the platoon returned down the road to do Battlefield Damage Assessment (BDA), collect the body, meet with the village elders about the dead man and the insurgent who’d gotten away, and search the cache site. They found it – a single IED with an initiator switch – and the soldiers had successfully captured the HVTs earlier in the patrol. The day’s tally: two captured IEDs, two “high value” detainees, and one dead bomb emplacer.
As the American patrol assessed the scene around the body of the dead insurgent, perhaps a hundred villagers came out of their nearby qalats to watch. The Kiowa attack-reconnaissance helicopters returned to the area to make low loping passes, as their pilots scanned the crowds for men with rocket-propelled grenades.
“When something like that happens it’s basically the biggest show in town,” said CW2 Bobby Guffey, one of the Kiowa pilots. “So the whole village comes out, stands on line, and watches.”
First Lieutenant Weiss, the platoon leader, met with village elders to ask questions about the insurgent cell. Their reaction was routine.
“[The local elders had the] same reaction they’ve had the other four times we’ve killed guys – they do their best ‘disbelief’ impression,” later summarized Captain Aaron Tapalman, commander of Bravo Company 1/26th Infantry. He went on to paraphrase a typical conversation with village elders:
“‘You were mistaken, this is a good man, he would never do the things you
accused him of.’
‘No, he was putting in an IED.’
‘You are mistaken, he was a good man.’
‘No, I’m telling you, he WAS PUTTING IN AN IED, so we shot him.’
‘Okay, you are right, he was a bad man.’
The insurgent was quickly determined to be a resident of the village; identification had been aided by the angle of the shot. Though the powerful .300 Winchester Magnum round fired by the sniper’s rifle had made a ruin of the insurgent’s head, the man’s face remained discernible.
Snipers have a somewhat different perspective than other types of soldier; while they typically stand off hundreds or even thousands of meters from a kill, they also usually get an intimate and immediate glimpse of their grim handiwork through the rifle’s powerful optics. And in case Taylor didn’t get enough perspective through his scope, he was later present when the medics conducted an autopsy of the body, in his other role as an assistant combat lifesaver in the first aid station.
Despite this, the young specialist wasn’t bothered by any moral misgivings or the carnage of his first kill.
“It’s honestly part of the job,” he explained with a shrug. “Because it’s either [the insurgent] lives and he goes on to kill one of our guys, or we remove him from the equation and … I don’t have to worry about my guys getting messed up on IEDs. We’ve already had a lot of [Traumatic Brain Injuries] and shrapnel [injuries] from those.”
“I sleep very well at night,” he added.
The specialist’s first recorded sniper kill would enter the books at 550 meters with a new Army weapon called the XM2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle, “a beautiful rifle,” according to Taylor. Although he was angry and “disappointed” that he’d skimmed the rock and taken three shots to get his man, he was satisfied with the result.
“It felt great getting rid of one of the guys trying to hurt our guys,” said Taylor. “Maybe that will stop them from emplacing more IEDs. That’s what I hope for, anyways.”
Three days later, on Aug. 20, Taylor acquired his second confirmed kill: he shot another insurgent bomb emplacer at a spot six kilometers away from the previous engagement. Only this time, his fellow soldiers nabbed the man’s partner as well. Corporal Andrew Otero and Private First Class Von Bolante shared credit for the other kill.
One of the insurgents killed on Aug. 20 turned out to be a popular local mullah from another village a few kilometers up the road. All three dead insurgents are suspected to have been part of the same roadside bomb cell. The Americans had closed the blind spot in their reconnaissance assets.