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Through the Scope: One sniper’s experiences, journey to the top

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Snipers have been the focus of envy and the personification of legends in the Marine Corps since men like Carlos Hathcock and Chuck Mawhinney looked down their scopes in the jungles of Vietnam. The recent exploits of Chris Kyle, the retired Navy SEAL who now has the most confirmed sniper kills in U.S. military history, modernized the mystique of the military sniper, but few have had what it takes to join the ranks.

One such man is Cpl. Miles Cooley, team leader for Reaper Two, Scout Sniper Platoon (SSP), Headquarters and Service Company, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. When living with his three siblings in the suburban town of Algonquin, Ill., and not coming from a military family, Cooley did not expect to become one of the top snipers of a Marine infantry battalion.

“I didn’t even shoot much growing up,” reflected Cooley. “I was in the Boy Scouts for some time, but aside from that and playing the drums, that’s all I did.”

Cooley did have an inclination toward the military, however. Starting in middle school he flirted with the concept of being one of the warriors on the front line of the Iraq war, and a few years later, during his freshman year of high school, he knew it would be the Marines.

“My older brother went on to be a Marine, so that was a big influence on the specific branch of service,” said Cooley. “I had intended to join right after high school, but some family complications put that off for a couple of years. Eventually I walked in and signed up for the 03 infantry option, and a week later I found myself in California.”

Cooley stepped onto the yellow footprints at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in November of 2007 and subsequently the School of Infantry – West in February. It was there that Cooley learned something about himself when it came to his role as a rifleman in the Marine Corps: he wanted more.

“While in school I was thinking about attending the reconnaissance briefs, but my instructors talked me out of it,” he said. “I never lost the thought of trying, though.”

Shortly after hitting the fleet, Cooley deployed to Iraq as a rifleman with Company F., 2/1, from January to August, 2009. It was there that he was able to view Marine snipers in action, confirming his desire to become more than a rifleman.

“During our Iraq tour, I talked with some of the company snipers and learned a bit about how they worked,” Cooley said. “I was interested in the way they operated, but moreover they were very motivated and locked on. That’s what I wanted to be.”

Three months after 2/1’s return from Iraq, Cooley underwent screening to join the SSP and attend the scout sniper school at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. He spent nine months in the platoon as part of the security element until he was selected for a seat in the school.

“While you’re in the platoon awaiting entrance to the school, everything you do is graded and evaluated,” Cooley said. “Just being a part of the platoon is both mentally and physically challenging, but the school proved to be even tougher.”

Cooley eventually received a seat at the school in the summer of 2010. While at the nine-week school, he learned various scout sniper techniques like advanced marksmanship, stalking and concealment, tracking and counter-tracking, land navigation and survival skills. With a 30 percent washout rate for each class, Cooley knew he would face intense physical and mental trials.

“You run everywhere you go all day, putting continual stress on the body,” he said. “There is also the possibility that they’ll come to you and kick you out for not doing well enough. Those trials really test you, which all go toward tempering the abilities of the snipers.”

Cooley’s graduation from the school consisted of a 20 kilometer maneuver with notional casualties and more than 60 pounds of gear to the top of the highest peak on Camp Pendleton, where he was awarded the traditional “HOG tooth,” a 7.62mm bullet. According to military legend, there is one destined round meant to kill someone with their “name on it.” Being given this round enforces a battlefield status of invincibility for the sniper. The term “HOG” acronyms the sniper school graduate title of “hunter of gunmen.”

Cooley returned to 2/1’s SSP, deploying to Afghanistan from November 2010 to May 2011. Serving in a combat zone as a scout sniper, his primary function was radically different than that of a rifleman.

“In Iraq we were mainly providing security for convoys, commanding officer meetings and the like,” said Cooley. “In Afghanistan, I went out with teams operating away from the companies, conducting reconnaissance and surveillance of areas they were going to enter.”

The use of scout snipers has skyrocketed since the Vietnam War when they were called upon to counter the guerilla-style tactics of the Viet Cong. Sniper teams were sent out for days on end to track and eliminate the invisible enemy that planted improvised traps and lied in wait for passing patrols. According to Charles Henderson, author of Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills, by the end of the Vietnam War, the benefit of scout snipers resounded so loudly through the Department of Defense that training schools were stood up throughout the branches.

While snipers proved strongly beneficial in recent wars, the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan solidified their battlefield presence as an invaluable necessity in advanced reconnaissance, propelling their use and effectiveness into the 21st century.

“We were basically the eyes and ears of the company for locations they were going to operate in, acting as the forward observers whenever needed,” said Cooley. “We engaged the enemy when necessary, but that isn’t the sole function of a scout sniper.”

Due to their many uses on the battlefield, snipers have been coined a “force multiplier,” an asset that better balances the battlefield in terms of immediate capabilities.

“Each individual sniper is not only one of the best infantrymen of the battalion in terms of skills, but they are also more mature than those of the same ranks,” said Capt. Josh Cox, platoon commander of BLT 2/1’s SSP and a native of Colby, Kansas. “All their skills and experience combined make them the battalion commander’s hip pocket reconnaissance asset, able to perform in a wide variety of roles other than precision shooters.”

Returning from his second deployment, Cooley was assigned to various schools to hone his skills as a sniper. The schools included the urban scout sniper school, where Marines perfect techniques for engaging targets in close-quarters environments, and attending sniper team leader’s course at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

With combat experience as a sniper and his specialty schools completed, Cooley became a team leader for “Reaper Two” and chief sniper for the platoon. As the most experienced sniper, Cooley became responsible for training schedules, running the ranges and ensuring the platoon’s Marines are fully trained.

Recently serving with Battalion Landing Team 2/1, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Cooley was presented with unique training opportunities during the six-month Okinawa iteration. As part of the SSP, he was able to train on aerial platform shoots, amphibious raids and in Okinawa’s Jungle Warfare Training Center.

“The MEU gives us a rare chance to operate not only in different environments, but also with different countries’ militaries,” he said. “We gain a wider outlook on our profession when we adapt to foreign variables outside of the desert-oriented operations that have been going on for the past 10 years.”

Now, with BLT 2/1 rotating back to Camp Pendleton, Cooley is a passionate and dedicated as ever to his job from all he has learned and experienced, something that reflects to the Marines in his charge.

“I joined the platoon July of last year, and I quickly recognized him as one of the best team leaders of the bunch,” said Sgt. John Lynch, assistant team leader with Reaper Two and a native of Coarsegold, Calif. “He demands excellence in everything we do with no room for failure, always remaining tactical during operations. There hasn’t been a time where we’ve failed a mission or have been compromised.”

Sniping will forever remain in Cooley’s blood, eternal as the HOG tooth around his neck. The future is unsure for him, yet the trials he’s endured and the successes he’s accomplished assures him that whatever comes, he will nevertheless excel.

Article by Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright, USMC