Gunnery Sgt. Jack Coughlin joined the Marine Corps in 1985, after an injury derailed his dreams of becoming a major-league pitcher. He would go on to become one of the Marines’ elite scout-snipers, and his service included a tour of duty in Somalia. However, he would make his mark during the liberation of Iraq, where he had the chance to pioneer the Mobile Sniper Strike Team concept. Here, he describes one of the many engagements that Marines had with Saddam’s thugs while on the road to Baghdad . – Ed.
A TOWN CALLED HELL
Death was just beyond my windshield. Bullets whanged against metal and shoulder-fired antitank (RPG) rockets zipped toward us. Marines were running and gunning amid the chattering pops of small-arms fire, and machine guns were firing full out, with a heavy, rhythmic stomp. Artillery shells exploded and shook the ground.
On the map, this town was called Az Zafaraniyah. But on that April morning, it was hell for the United States Marines, a raging, brutal firefight that gave this new generation of jarheads a taste of what the Corps had faced on Guadalcanal in World War II, at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, and at Khe Sanh in Vietnam. It was not pretty enough to appear on TV, for our job was to heap casualties on the defenders, fast and with unrelenting force, and force them to withdraw. So time slowed down and I went on a killing spree.
McCoy had been thoroughly ripped that I was not out on the front edge of the attack, dominating the rooftops when the fight started, and he had barked out on the open radio frequency, “Listen, I want Coughlin and his rifle up here right now!”
I grabbed the mike and confirmed that I was on the way. “Good,” the colonel grumbled. “See you soon.” We’d explain after the shooting stopped, but right now there was work to be done.
“Game on, boys!” I yelled. “We’re back in it.”
Our trucks were rolling almost before I finished telling the boys to get cracking, and we went from loafing to combat-ready in a heartbeat. As the two Humvees broke out of line and gathered speed, Officer Bob appeared in the road, waving his arms. Casey told his driver, “You work for me, not him. Do not stop.” His Humvee dodged the captain and kept going.
I, however, wanted a few words with the lad, so I had the Panda pull to a quick stop. The officer rested his hands on the edge of my window and asked, “Where you guys going?”
I pointed north, toward the gunfire. “Right up there. You told me the colonel didn’t need me in this attack. You told me there was not even going to be an attack today.” My voice was shaking with anger as he dumbly nodded his head.
“Aren’t you monitoring Tac-1?” I asked. “Colonel McCoy just personally ordered me up to the front, and he’s more than a little pissed that I’m not there already. I’ll let you explain it to him later. . . Sir.”
The Panda gunned the engine, almost dropping Bob into the road as he stammered something I didn’t bother trying to hear.
ORDERS TO SHOOT ANY THREAT
As our Humvees careened through the narrow streets, I scrubbed my mind clear and loosened my muscles in preparation for combat.
My fingers walked along the length of my sniper rifle, unconsciously checking it for imperfections with a sense of touch as accurate as a concert pianist playing Mozart on a familiar Steinway. The gun’s magazine carried four rounds, and I slid the bolt back slightly and stuck my finger inside the raceway to check for brass.
There was already a round in the chamber. I sighed, content and ready.
Smoke floated into the sky above the flat rooftops of Az Zafaraniyah. Casey worked the radio as our Humvees sailed down a street of low-walled homes already pockmarked by bullet strikes, and he let India Company know we were coming up behind them. We were in a precarious position, because we were not directly affiliated with any of the platoons or companies, and we could easily become targets if we showed up unexpectedly on their dirt. “If anybody poses a threat to you, you kill them,” McCoy had ordered his combat teams right before the attack. Violent supremacy would rule this day, and there was a chance that we might get zapped by our pals.
THE BAGHDAD TWO-MILE MARATHON
We stopped at a gate, at which a couple of Amtracs were firing like crazy, jumped from the trucks, and grabbed our gear. I would carry only my rifle, the sniper logbook, a pistol, and four quarts of water. Casey toted a low-power handheld radio, maps, water, and his own weapons. Then we had to break up our team. We picked Tracy and Newbern to come with us. The other guys would provide support with the guns on the Humvees. Everyone picked up a twenty-round box of the precision-made ammo to feed my rifle. At a hundred yards, those special bullets would hold within a one-inch circle; at a thousand yards, within a circle ten inches in diameter. The average human head is about twelve inches in diameter.
The guys in the Amtracs could tell us little about what was going on, other than that there was a lot of shooting, so we cautiously stepped around them and entered the city. Newbern took point. I came next, then Tracy, with Casey hustling along to provide rear security and radio communications. I could hear him telling India Company that we were heading for the rooftops. It was the start of an unofficial marathon that came to be known as the “Baghdad Two-Mile,” an event that will never make it to the Olympics.
As soon as we were in the clear, we broke into a gallop for the built-up north side of the road leading to the bridge and rushed inside a two-story building that the India Marines had just cleared. We pounded through the darkness and up the stairs into the hot sunshine that blazed down on the roof. No wind at all. Great shooting weather.
A two-foot wall encircled the top of the small building, and I pulled a cinder block over to a corner and sat on it, arranged some gear on the top of the barrier, and pushed the rifle into a sturdy position. Then I locked into a tight shooting posture and glassed the area, looking slowly north of our position and blinking away the sweat that stung my eyes. The MOPP suit was flaming hot.
A MATTER OF PROFESSIONAL HONOR
My scope was drawn to a small blue-tiled minaret that rose above the surrounding brown buildings, where I saw a flicker of movement. Somebody was hiding behind a wall high above the street, an enemy fighter in civilian clothes with an AK-47, and I saw him peer down into the maze of streets below. The bastard was doing the same thing I was doing—looking for targets. I had found an enemy sniper, so this instantly became a matter of professional honor: I’m better than you, rat.
Moving fast, to get him before he could open fire on the Marines, I painted a quick laser on his position, dialed in exactly 343 yards, and planted my crosshairs right on his chest. All the while, my mind was unconsciously wheeling through the sniper’s mantra of S — Slow, Smooth, Straight, Steady, Squeeze—and the rifle seemed to fire on its own. My bullet bored perfectly into his chest, and its heavy mass penetrated his major blood-carrying organs, rushing and destroying tissue. That created a hole that is called the “permanent cavity,” and then the bullet expanded, sending small, jagged fragments spinning off in erratic paths that shattered his organs. Had to hurt. I watched him slump into a fetal position. Although his body might twitch for another few seconds, this guy was dead.
I was in my zone. The protective presence of Casey, Newbern, and Tracy around me, and the advancing Marines and armor down in the streets, allowed me to concentrate totally on being a pure shooter, an ethereal feeling of being untouchable and able to reach out and control the destinies of other men.
McCoy was off somewhere ramrodding the entire battlefield, with enough radios to talk to anybody on the planet. The company and platoon commanders were making sure where the rifles were pointing, platoon sergeants were hollering orders, and fire team leaders were pushing Marines into exact positions and kicking butts to make them run faster. Casey had binos at his eyes and a radio glued to his ear to guide our little team. Tracy and Newbern were in nearby protective positions. These were all well-trained military personnel who understood the grand plan of battle unfolding that morning as we bashed into the river town. The great dance was in full swing.
I didn’t have to worry about that shit. I was merely a destroyer of men.
I pulled the bolt back and reloaded, oblivious to what was going on around me. That was someone else’s job, and if I needed to know something, they would tell me. As Casey later explained, “Unless I absolutely had to get into his zone, I left him alone. You don‘t want to mess with a man’s zone, especially when he’s killing people and doing good things.”
My eyes seemed to magnify things even without using the scope. New smells drifted to me over the rooftops, and my hearing gathered all kinds of sounds while my brain filtered out the noise and turned down the volume, distinguishing one type of explosion from another or the whine of a passing bullet. Things seemed to slow down, and the adrenaline helped me move and think five times faster than normal. It is an inexplicable feeling that comes to warriors in the heat of a fight, and it has been described since the dawn of man. It is a cliché, it is mystical, and it makes no sense at all, but, by God, it is true.
Four minutes after I took out the sniper, Daniel Tracy called, “Boss, I got something out to the northwest.” He verbally walked me across the rooftops, like a stranger in town giving directions to another stranger. See that funny-looking building with the blue flower box? Up above that, the open window with the green curtain? Look left to the doorway. I found the gunman Daniel had spotted, did a range check, squared up on the target, which was crouched half-seen 411 yards away, fired, and watched my bullet strike home and efficiently do its grim job at the far end of its parabolic flight. Another enemy soldier lay dead. I reloaded.
SEEING THE ELEPHANT
Casey was a different man. All of the apprehension and curiosity that preceded his first firefight were gone, replaced by the calmer mien of someone who had smelled the smoke, heard the bullets, and knew what do to. In the warrior’s world, we called dramatic change “seeing the elephant.” Once you saw it, you never forgot it. He listened to the position reports over the radio as India Company’s grunts continued clearing the west part of the city. “Let’s go,” he ordered, stuffing his maps into his pack. “We stay up here any longer, the fight will pass us by.”
We hurried downstairs, hollering, “Friendly coming out!” to prevent some skittish Marine grunt from lighting us up. India’s commander had been so obsessed with training his boys to fight in an urban environment that some people had thought him a bit of a nutcase. But now the training was paying off as they worked efficiently, house by house, through this dangerous warren of homes, shops, and buildings. It was nice to be within their security bubble, for death could be lurking in the sewers, on the roofs, or in the bushes, and the grunts were constantly yelling to keep track of each other in this urban abyss.
Out in the street, mortar shells were detonating ahead of us, and India’s Amtracs moved up the road, flanked by Marines on foot. At each window, they drew figure-eights with the muzzles of their M-16 rifles, shooting quickly at any suspicious movement within. Individual fire teams handled different levels of buildings. To go around a corner, two men would set up, with one kneeling in front and the second resting his hand on the shoulder of the first. When the hand squeezed the shoulder, both men would pop around the corner with weapons ready to shoot. India had practiced the techniques for hours on end, and their attack moved inexorably forward with a smooth fluidity despite the continued incoming fire.
A CARPET OF GUNFIRE
We jogged down the road, moving from one squad to another, dashing across open intersections as bullets whizzed and smacked around us. The bad guys were laying a carpet of gunfire.
There are definite things to look for when choosing a building for a sniper overwatch position, but we didn’t have time to run the checklist. We just needed to get up on a roof somewhere, fast, and set up a killing field. A hundred yards down the road, we found a likely spot and dashed upstairs, but by the time we got there, the battle had already moved past. We needed to jump farther and faster, so we pounded back downstairs and rejoined the fast-paced assault.
We were sweating profusely in our MOPP gear and panting with exertion by the time we found a good building 350 yards down the road and had an India rifle squad clear it for us. Up to the roof we went, where we picked up a passenger, Italian photographer Enrico Dagnino, one of the Jackals. They had unfettered access to this battle, and Enrico wanted to follow us. Fine, we told him, take your pictures, but just do what we tell you, and you might live long enough to see them published. He did not explain that he had bounced from war to war for years and had seen more combat than any of us.
Anti-tank rockets were swooshing all over the place, exploding overhead and raining shrapnel; the rattle of enemy small arms and machine gun fire was increasing, and the return fire from the Marines was deafening. The boys took security positions in the corners of the roof, and Casey contacted the battalion headquarters to let them know we were moving across organizational boundaries.
LIKE PAPER TARGETS IN A CARNIVAL
Once again, I settled behind one of those low walls that ran the circumference of the roof, got the rifle in place, checked that I had a full load of ammunition, and took a look around. Three minutes later, I spotted a guy atop a two-story building who was firing an AK-47 and had an RPG strapped across his back. This dude definitely had to go. According to the laser, he was 550 yards away, and in this cluttered urban environment, somehow there remained a clear shooting lane between us, an open visual channel that yawned between the buildings from me to him. I hit him three inches below his throat and watched him sink onto the roof like a deflated balloon. The jackass had gone up there alone, with no security, and allowed his attention to be diverted elsewhere, away from the direct threat to himself.
I jacked in a new round without removing my eye from the scope, and quickly found another target in the open. The soldier was standing atop a chicken coop on the tin roof of a garage only 230 yards away, so close that his form almost filled my scope. He had his rifle in his shoulder and was popping away at Marines, so I blew him away. It was as easy as shooting a paper target in a carnival midway. A bright red flash washed over his face when the round hit him in the mouth, and his head snapped back as if he had been tagged with a heavyweight boxer’s left hook. The backward momentum snatched the rifle from his hands and knocked him not only off his perch but also clear off the tin roof. The body was limp when it hit the ground.
MOBILE SNIPER STRIKE TEAM
I reloaded, took a deep breath, and swept the area again, finding nobody else to shoot. I was still in my zone, emotion suppressed, brain engaged, my actions virtually robotic. My concept of a Mobile Sniper Strike Team—wheels to get to the area of action, then roaming at the front of the advancing forces, guarded by an experienced security team—was getting a thorough workout. My reach was hundreds of yards in front of the advancing troops, and I was sowing disarray and confusion. The idea worked!
Seven minutes after we bagged the guy on the garage, as we were getting ready to leave this building and move forward again to leapfrog the battle, an enemy soldier wearing the snazzy tan uniform and red beret of the Republican Guard walked into the middle of a street, almost as if he were on parade.
From only 324 yards away, I spent thirty seconds examining him in detail and waiting to see if anyone else would join him in the open. He was calmly walking around as if he, instead of me, were the king of the world, and in his right hand he carried an AK-47 that looked almost new. Then he turned around, and that was his death notice, for it appeared that he might be leaving. I had the crosshairs precisely between his shoulder blades, and my bullet sent him slumping to the ground like Jell-O falling out of a mold.
Coughlin would continue to serve in Iraq, returning home in May, 2003, with thirty-six confirmed sniper kills. He received the Bronze Star with Combat Distinguishing Device for his service during the liberation of Iraq. He retired from the Marine Corps in 2005 after twenty years of service. Shooter, by Gunnery Sgt. Jack Coughlin, USMC (Ret.), and Capt. Casey Kuhlman, USMCR, with Donald A. Davis, is available from St. Martin’s Press, 304 pp., $15.95.