About ten years ago, an employer of mine had an odd request: I needed to delete an aspect of my military career from my professional biography because it might “offend” a potential client or partner. Recon Marine, infantry Marine, service-disabled veteran . . . those were a boon.
But “Scout Sniper,” one of the greatest accomplishments I had as a Marine — that had to go.
Sadly, that kind of slight is not uncommon for some of our nation’s most elite warriors.
“Murderer,” “assassin,” “heartless”: The modern sniper is an oft-maligned and largely misunderstood individual, and Hollywood has played a part. For too long, it’s wrongly portrayed snipers as troubled men struggling through a lonely life, anguished by their memories of too many “murders.”
The new biopic American Sniper, while taking artistic license and departing a bit from the book of the same name, attempts to shows a real sniper in an honest light — as the serious, patriotic professional he is.
Chris Kyle was not just a SEAL, or just a sniper. He was a loving husband, father, and patriotic American fighting man who volunteered for a very difficult and extremely dangerous job to best protect his brothers in arms. He was not, as some have suggested, a “hate-filled killer.”
Chris was, by all accounts, a very charitable man who readily helped those in need. Nor was he arrogant: “Chris was genuine and was not attached to the glory regaled upon him as a hero,” Marine sniper Rudy Reyes says of him.
Yet, naturally, sniper training and service is often the high point of a career at arms, as it was for me. After joining the Marines and serving in various roles for over a year, I finally passed the Scout Sniper screening test, and attended and graduated from Scout Sniper School. After attending Urban Sniper School in 1993, I then had the honor of serving as a Marine Corps Scout Sniper as a part of Operation Continue Hope in Somalia in 1994. Serving as a Reconnaissance Marine brought me the opportunity to attend a number of military schools, and the title of Marine Sniper is the one of which I’m most proud.
The U.S. Marine Corps defines a Scout Sniper as a “Marine, highly skilled in field craft and marksmanship, that delivers long-range precision fire on selected targets, from concealed positions, in support of combat operations.” A sniper’s goal, and the quality that makes him dangerous, is the ability to operate undetected while delivering precision fire. Regardless of the service, all military snipers are trained in the same basic fundamentals of fieldcraft, patrolling, land navigation, and marksmanship. And there are dozens of other skills a sniper must master to graduate from a U.S. Armed Forces sniper school, too — it takes a lot more than simply shooting well.
Sniper school — which begins a sniper’s career, and to which he can return to be trained as an urban sniper, high-angle sniper, sniper-team leader, etc. — is academically rigorous. Precision long-range shooting in difficult conditions requires a person who can think quickly and clearly, making demanding mathematical calculations and considering multiple variables. The attrition rate for the eleven-week Marine Scout Sniper Course averages around 50 percent, similar to other top sniper programs. Such courses are arguably some of the most difficult military schools to successfully complete and, in any service, graduating from a top-tier sniper program is a major accomplishment. Interservice rivalries can always be intense, but all snipers share a common bond of having suffered and survived some of the most difficult military training there is.
Only the most driven volunteer for the job. The prospect of living and sleeping in harsh conditions, being bitten by bugs, relieving yourself in a bag, working in small teams without the security of your heavily armed brothers, is hardly attractive for even the most hardened military veteran. So snipers constitute a very small group of professionals. As of November 2014, there were only 400 operational Scout Snipers out of the 185,000 U.S. Marines — just about 0.2 percent of the force.
They are an elite group of professional, skilled warriors. But how does the job affect the men who do it? Make no mistake: Looking through a magnified rifle scope and killing another human being is a difficult job. It’s a burden many snipers bear long after their service is completed. But contrary to what many believe, snipers are not mindless murderers or killing machines. They’re intensely dedicated professionals willing to do a very difficult, extremely dangerous job with the goal of protecting others.
There is a distinct difference between having the capacity for violent action and being a violent person. Professional snipers deal that violence with great precision and serious intent — again, to protect their compatriots and others the way no one else can.
While it is difficult to dispute that combat can have lasting negative impacts for some, service also provides many a platform for success. Just look around our ranks: Chris Kyle was a dedicated family man, author, entrepreneur, and charity supporter, who died tragically while helping others recover from the scars of war. Former Marine sniper Taylor White is now a professional artist in Hawaii. Sniping “gave me the confidence to become my own master, to apply every ounce of my creativity into my work,” he says. “Once you’ve crawled a mile through a frozen, muddy ditch, everything is easy.” Rudy Reyes is a well-known and successful media personality who’s appeared on Ultimate Survival Alaska and numerous other television series and movies. Jerry Hull is a now an author and certified counselor with a psychology degree. (His latest book is Forgotten How to Live.)
That’s but a few individuals who represent the larger community of snipers who have served their country or continue to do so today. We are parents, teachers, authors, artists, and dedicated, patriotic Americans. The desire to help our brothers and sisters in arms does not stop with the end of active service. A group of Marine Snipers and Reconnaissance Marines recently founded the R & S Foundation, which aims to provide assistance to those in need and those still struggling with the lasting effects of combat.
Many of them do need the help. The prominence of American Sniper, by portraying one of the finest from our ranks, does a service to snipers everywhere. In fact, it’s a rare moment when Hollywood will get the complicated lives of these crucial professionals basically right. If only it happened a little more often.
— Chris Mark is a former Marine Scout Sniper and Reconnaissance Marine who is pursuing a doctoral degree in information assurance. You can read his blog at GlobalRiskInfo.com.