I was in my office conducting an interview when the call came in. When I answered, I could barely make out the caller due to static and breaking up of his sentences. Finally, after repeated questions that reminded me of having to try and call in fire missions in Vietnam on an antique PRC-10, I alerted to the fact that the caller was a Sergeant French, using a SAT phone, calling from Baghdad!
I had been working on my latest sniper book, Crosshairs on the Kill Zone, and had been jumping through journalistic hoops with the Marine Corps in an uphill battle to find and interview Marine scout snipers in Iraq. Due to the fact that the initial invasion had happened just weeks earlier, security was extremely tight and I had been told by public affairs officers from Camp LeJeune to Quantico to Headquarter Marine Corps that no one could talk to me or anyone else. But I kept climbing the PR ladder until I finally struck pay dirt. The Commandant’s office authorized the interview and the call finally came.
Sgt. French advised that they would call the next day on the Sergeant Major’s personal SAT phone, and I would be speaking with one of his top scout snipers in 3/7, Sergeant Joshua Hamblin. That interview revealed the following incredible, danger-packed, harrowing two-week sniper adventure.
CARNAGE CREATED FROM ATOP A ROOF
“Our job was to provide reconnaissance and surveillance, and when necessary precision fire in support of the operations. We knew our job, but we never realized just how effective we could be, and how much carnage a pair of snipers could create until the day we crawled onto a rooftop at the Al Rashid Military Complex near Baghdad. We, the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, had entered Iraq from Kuwait, traveling north in HMMWVs as fast as the terrain allowed. In my vehicle I carried an M16 for suppressive fire, and my M40A3 sniper rifle for precision fire. I kept my sniper rifle right next to me in case it was needed. Whenever we came up to a road block, I was able to engage the Iraqis manning the roadblock with, as they say, “precision fire.” That means lining them up and knocking them down.
WE NEVER MISSED OUR TARGET
As we moved through Iraq, we were attached, or “punched out” to various companies in the battalion for stalking out and doing observation and reconnaissance missions along the way. Sometimes the companies would have to stop
for a few days and, while doing so, the scout snipers’ mission was to move out ahead and watch the population for suspicious activity. In one area we saw no Iraqi soldiers, but plenty of young males of military age with short haircuts. It was obvious that these guys had discarded their uniforms and were trying to blend into the population, but there wasn’t much we could do about it right then. The “rules” called for us to ignore those who weren’t armed or did not attack us. But if we saw an Iraqi who was armed, we were to take him down. So, any Iraqi with an AK was a target, and we never missed.
Eventually, after fighting our way north through villages, towns, roadblocks and ambushes, we began drawing missions to support special operations raids that were looking for Baath party members and former members of Saddam’s regime. We did this by covering the raiding party with our sniper teams to protect them as they did building entries.
ENCUMBERED BY CUMBERSOME GEAR
All of this time we were fighting the elements, and it was miserable. Dressed head to foot in heavy chemical suits, we could barely breathe while carrying our gear, wearing Kevlar vests and helmets, plus weapons and ammo. We had to adapt as we went because no one had fought for an extended period like this, with all this gear, for this long.
But worst of all was the lack of rest and the filthy conditions. There was no water for bathing, so whenever we found water or a broken pipe, we took time to wash down. As for sleep, we usually were lucky to get two hours of sleep before we were punched out to work another mission. It was not unusual to go two days or more without sleep. In these cases we ran on pure physical discipline and will power.
We basically worked two types of operations—one in the bush and another on buildings. In the bush operations we set up hides, using camouflage and concealment, and observed the population for targets or threats. In the built-up areas, we hopped up on rooftops to provide covering fire or area denial missions, where we denied the area to the
enemy by covering it with direct fire.
WE REACH THE AL QAEDA CAMP
We finally made our way into the facility of Salmon Pak, where we had expected to meet a lot of Iraqi resistance. This is the location of the al Qaeda terrorist training camp, with the fuselage of an airliner for training hijackers. But instead of fierce resistance, we found destroyed buildings and burned out hulks where the air cover had done its job.
There were scores of empty vehicles, empty fighting holes, and more young men with short haircuts, but no fighting.
We continued north and, unlike some of the areas that were open desert, this was the Tigris River valley, which was lush with vegetation. This provided us with much more suitable camouflage and a much better environment to conduct operations in. But it was really now starting to get hot. We found ourselves taking more breaks just to air ourselves out. You would take off your chemical suit and just be drenched underneath. It was as miserable as having your own personal sauna bath that you wore—and couldn’t get rid of.
A week after leaving Salmon Pak, while striking toward Baghdad and living on only two hours of sleep a day, the word came down that we could get out of our chemical suits! This was the most welcome news we had had in a long time. Finally we could work in our desert utilities and fight like normal Marines. It felt like the weather had cooled by several degrees, and was a major turning point in the war for us.
POSITIONING AT AL RASHID MILITARY COMPLEX
As we neared Baghdad we began running into more minefields, and we could hear a lot of shooting going on, plus a lot of artillery. Then as we approached the Al Rashid Military Complex, we could see breaches in the wire, and more mines scattered around, but still did not run into any significant resistance. It was as if no one was there, but might come back if we hung around for a while.
Taking over the complex, we set up positions to defend the place against a counterattack. Then, I and my partner, Sergeant Owen Mulder, were assigned an area of responsibility to set up a scout sniper position on a one-story house on the northeast side of the complex. This was what is known as an overwatch position, which allowed us to observe the approaches to that area from that direction. The farthest engagement range appeared to be about 750 meters.
Though there were two companies at the complex, one on each flank about 150 meters away, the area we covered was totally up to just me and my partner. Between us, Mulder held his M40A1 sniper rifle with the standard issue Unertl 10X scope, and I had an M40A3 sniper rifle with the ANPVS-10 day and night sight. The ANPVS-10 is a third-generation night image intensifier with daylight capabilities. We could work the position night and day, which is exactly what we would find ourselves doing.
We got up on the roof at night and I turned on my night scope. Mulder had night vision goggles, so we both could see the streets to our front in a clear ghostly green panorama. For American forces, our night vision capability was second to none, and gave us a giant advantage over troops not similarly equipped.
“I GOT TARGETS”
After two hours, we spotted a pickup truck approach, stopping about 400 meters short of coming into the military complex. As we watched we could see that the truck had a bunch of people in the back. Then, watching closely, we saw them begin jumping out of the truck, each carrying an AK. My pulse began to race.
“I got targets,” I said to Mulder.
“Yeah, let’s go for it.”
Immediately I decided to take a shot, and as I did I could see the driver jump out and go around the back of the vehicle. I lined him up in my sight and squeezed the trigger. He went down like a sack of potatoes. Mulder sighted in and fired too, and another Iraqi went down.
We just began lining up targets as fast as we could and taking the shots. As we did, other soldiers tried to drag the bodies off, but when they did we took them out too. It was like a shooting gallery. The more shots we took, the more targets seemed to appear. The adrenalin rush was indescribable. But training and discipline kept us pacing ourselves throughout the shots, taking over where runaway excitement wanted to rule. Spot a target, sight in, squeeze, watch the shot, work the bolt, pick another target. Over and over.
ALL WAS QUIET AGAIN IN THE KILL ZONE
Then the next thing I saw was the Iraqis dragging bodies into the pickup truck, then driving around the corner out of sight. All was quiet again in the kill zone. I looked at my watch. About an hour before sunrise. Nothing happened until after the sun came up. The Iraqis knew by then that trying to move at night would do them no good. In fact, to even up the odds a bit, they would have to move in daylight so they could see as well as we could. This would be another major mistake on their part. They simply did not understand the capability of a well-trained and equipped sniper team.
We observed the street for about an hour. Then I spotted two individuals enter our field of view, trying to cross the street. One was carrying an AK. Good enough.
“You got these guys?” I asked.
“Got ‘em. You taking out the guy with the AK?”
I estimated the range. 450 yards. I led him slightly and fired. He went down, but he wasn’t killed immediately. His partner took off and didn’t come back. The first guy stopped moving about thirty seconds later. Our rules of engagement called for us not to shoot anyone who was not armed or did not pose a threat. But if they carried weapons they were bought and paid for. Also, if we had a suspicious vehicle that came and went several times, we could engage it as well.
About ten minutes after that a truck pulled out of one of the side streets. Then fifteen minutes later the same truck came back with the same guy driving, followed by a second truck. Each was carrying seven or eight guys in the back.
“Watch these guys. They’re probably armed.”
THEY JUMPED OUT, ARMED WITH AKs
Then, as we watched through the scopes, both trucks stopped and the riders all started jumping out. Each had an AK.
My partner and I didn’t even have to say anything to each other. I took the closest truck and he took the far truck. We started shooting people. As fast as we could work the bolts and acquire targets, we squeezed the triggers and an Iraqi went down.
One was dropping right after another, just dropping like flies. We ended up shooting every one of them—all thirteen—right there, except one guy who managed to get into one of the trucks by shoving the dead driver out of the way and trying to back out of there. But we fired at the truck and I couldn’t believe what happened next. For some reason we hit something critical because the gas tank exploded in a ball of flame, just like in the movies! I thought that cars and trucks blowing up when you shot at them was just Hollywood, but this one did exactly that.
The truck was still moving, so we both shot through the driver’s side of the cab. Two 175-grain boat-tail hollow points blasted through the thin sheet metal of the cab and killed the driver as it coasted around the corner. He would cook in silence, just out of sight, for many minutes.
So now we have sixteen bodies littering the street, plus a burning wreck and an abandoned truck, all due to two snipers. It looked like a major battle had been fought there, but it was just Mulder and I, and we hadn’t even fired a full box of ammo yet. The amazing scene of a vehicle blowing up would happen two more times over the course of that day.
Later in the morning, as I watched the street through my scope, I saw an Iraqi soldier turn the corner and begin walking toward us. He was in full uniform, wearing a helmet and vest and carrying a sidearm. It was as if he was just showing up for work that day and didn’t know we were there. He began walking toward us along a row of light posts. As he passed each post I set the scope on him and began following and watching as he lessened the range.
About this time an old man came out from one of the houses alongside the road and began gesturing at him, trying to tell him to get out of there. But the soldier didn’t seem to understand what he was trying to say and kept coming. Mulder and I kept shifting our attention from the soldier to the old man, and back again. It was like watching a comical movie, like “hey, get out of here. They’ll kill you!” and the soldier saying “Who? Who’ll kill me? What are you talking about, old man?”
CIVILIANS WATCH A HORROR SHOW
Finally, as I watched the soldier shrug his shoulders one last time, I squeezed the trigger and could see the vapor trail of the bullet. It flew straight and impacted him in the center of the chest, like watching a movie in slow motion. I could see the dust fly off his shirt, then saw the expression on his face of pure shock.
He was completely surprised. He looked down, then slumped over and fell to the ground. It was my best shot and I could see everything. The bullet path, the impact, the expression on his face. It was perfect. He tried to crawl out of the kill zone, but it was too late for him. He only moved for a few feet, then became very still.
The local civilians were very interested in what was happening, and watching all the action became an amusement to them. After each episode of firing and dropping soldiers, the civilians would come out, look around and laugh and smile, then look over toward the base and wave at us. It seemed almost like they were spectators at a sporting event.
By this time there’s seventeen bodies laying out there, with two shot-up pickup trucks, with one still smoking and smoldering. It was like a scene out of a Rambo movie, but it was real. And here were all these people just lined up on the side of the street looking at the carnage like it was a day at the market.
“SUICIDE BY MARINE”
Just then a white pickup truck pulled out of a side street, and in the back was a typical terrorist with a black ski mask and black clothes, holding an AK. The truck turned and began speeding toward us. He was obviously a Fedayeen and was hell bent on “suicide by Marine.” As the truck careened down the road, with this guy holding on for dear life, I raised my head to look at him at the same time he looked up at me. I went back down on the scope and worked to keep on target as the pickup truck bounced along the road. I found a lead angle, aimed high and took the shot. It was a dead slam hit and he went down in the back of the truck. We didn’t get a chance at a second shot at the driver because he turned away and raced around a corner out of sight. But the guy in the black pajamas was down and finished.
We continued to watch vehicles move in and out of the area, always trying to memorize them to see if they were repetitious. It seemed there were certain color vehicles that were used by the military and we started learning what to watch for. Most were Toyota light colored pickup trucks. We began to notice that the trucks were making runs into a nearby neighborhood carrying stuff in the back of the trucks going in, then coming out empty. It became apparent that they were doing a supply run, stocking a strongpoint with weapons and ammo. It was time to put a stop to this.
The rules of engagement were that you could shoot a man with a weapon, or a vehicle carrying weapons by shooting the tires out or otherwise disabling the vehicle. One red Toyota car had made one too many trips and was now on the hit list.
A BALL OF FLAME
On the fourth time we saw the car, Mulder and I opened up. Mulder hit the driver and I hit the back of the trunk. Then the whole damn thing exploded! The whole trunk blew up in a ball of flame, then the car coasted around the corner. A few minutes later all hell broke loose as a trunkload of RPG rockets cooked off. We looked at each other as we listened to the distinctive “whoosh...bang....whoosh... bang” sound of the rockets igniting, taking off in odd directions, then exploding as they made contact with buildings, streets and anything hard.
It seemed like two 175-grain bullets had started a small war out there. By this time it dawned on us that we had not received any return fire during the engagements. We were in total control of the position, and there was nothing the
Iraqis could do about it. If they tried to show themselves to engage us, we killed them. They had no chance to set up, locate us, then put fire on us in the time it took for us to see and shoot them. Plus we had cover and a much better long-range capability. We were trained Marine snipers and they were overzealous fanatics with little marksmanship training. There was no comparison. It was like the old joke of “don’t attack that hill, it’s a trick. There’s two Marines up there.”
Any time we saw an individual with a weapon to our front, he was history. But we did receive incoming fire from the flanks and couldn’t do anything about it except hope we didn’t get hit by “collateral damage.”
The line companies couldn’t control all the individuals they were having contact with and several firefights were erupting on both flanks as Marine units ran into pockets of well-armed Iraqis. Rounds flew everywhere from those actions, and many flew right over us. Though we had total control of the area to our front, we had no control of what dangers lay to each side.
HURT A MARINE—DIE!!!
While we were there one of our snipers from the Scout Sniper Platoon, Sergeant Aaron Wintterle, who carried a Barrett .50 Special Applications Scoped Rifle, was manning a vehicle check point with one of the line companies when an Iraqi suicide vehicle approached. As Wintterle trained his .50 SASR on the vehicle, it exploded. A piece of shrapnel hit him in the face, breaking his jaw and putting him out of action. Immediately his partner, L/Cpl. Jacob Heal, who was a new guy under training, jumped on the weapon and spotted one of the Iraqis who was involved trying to run back down the road. The Marine took aim and lit him up, blowing out his chest.
Meanwhile back at the Al Rashid Military Complex, rounds came past us from the sides, along with RPG fire and explosions as close as fifty meters away. This became the routine throughout the day as sporadic fighting continued on the flanks. But our job was to keep our front secure. Every time we found an armed man we took him out. When we saw armed trucks, we took them under fire as well. It was really weird to spot a pickup with a .50-caliber mounted in the back, then shoot the driver and gunner, then watch the truck just keep going like it’s driven by a ghost.
When we saw weapons inside a car or truck, we engaged both the passenger and the driver. Our method was simply “whoever spotted the weapon first called the shot.”
“I got RPG rounds. I’ll take the driver. You take the passenger.”
The other guy then would take out the passenger at the same time. This was the great thing about having two sniper rifles there, since we could fire on two targets at the same time.
Our body count continued to climb throughout the day.
ADRENALIN-PACKED SUPER SNIPERS
We were up six days before we got away from the roof and got four hours sleep. This was counting the three days movement through Salmon Pak, then the three days on the roof. Then it was back to the same position. Then we were up for another 72 hours constantly, moving or staying on the scope. Watching and shooting. We were running on pure adrenalin. It got to the point where if an Iraqi entered our area, they took off their shirt, pulled off their white T-shirt and waved it like a truce flag until they got out of our area, then put their shirt back on. The word was out, and no one wanted to come into our kill zone to die for Saddam anymore.
Still, we continued to watch and wait. We took turns, an hour on the glass, an hour off the glass. Though it was fatiguing, we stayed alert. The adrenalin and the anticipation that anything could happen any second kept us on the keen edge of awareness. In fact, I was so pumped up on adrenalin that I could have stayed up for a week.
By the time we left this position, I had seventeen kills and Mulder had fifteen. Thirty two total kills in one spot!
OLYMPIC STADIUM—FINAL DESTINATION
With the main part of the Iraqi resistance now crushed, we entered Baghdad proper and pushed in toward the city center. As we moved down the highways and streets, we could see vehicles on side streets that had been taken out the day before and were smoldering, and had rounds still cooking off. We ran into sporadic firing, both small arms and RPGs, but we aggressively moved through anything we came up against and pressed on. Our final destination was the Olympic Stadium.
The Republican Guards had told everyone that the Marines would kill everyone, and that we would eat them or some such nonsense. But when we moved through neighborhoods and people saw that we treated them well, and that we had finally run the Republican Guard off, they came out in the hundreds of thousands and began cheering us, dancing in the streets.
Still, even after we achieved positions at the Olympic Stadium and began to consolidate, we received sporadic incoming rounds. It was becoming obvious that it would take a long time to totally pacify Baghdad.
For two weeks we continued to do our surveillance and target acquisition missions, then pulled out to set up a more permanent base camp. By this time most of the Iraq I Army had thrown their weapons down, and basically said, “Okay, you win.”
Mulder and I would not see a more target rich environment than what we had at the al Rashid gate.
Craig Roberts is a USMC Vietnam veteran who served in 9th Marines as an automatic rifleman and sniper. He is a long-time contributor to SOF, and is co-author of America’s Combat Snipers, and Crosshairs on the Kill
Zone: American Combat Snipers, Vietnam through Operation Iraqi Freedom, published by Pocket Star. 384