Sunday, January 15, 2006

RAMADI, Iraq — Gazing through the telescopic sight of his M-24 rifle, Army Staff Sgt. Jim Gilliland, leader of Shadow sniper team, fixed his eye on the Iraqi insurgent who had just killed an American soldier.

His quarry stood nonchalantly in the fourth-floor bay window of a hospital in battle-torn Ramadi, still clasping a long-barreled Kalashnikov. Instinctively allowing for wind speed and bullet drop, Shadow’s commander aimed 12 feet high.

A single shot hit the Iraqi in the chest and killed him instantly. It had been fired from a range of more than three-quarters of a mile, well beyond the capacity of the powerful Leupold sight, accurate to 3,300 feet.

“I believe it is the longest confirmed kill in Iraq with a 7.62mm rifle,” said Sgt. Gilliland, 28, who hunted squirrels in Double Springs, Ala., from the age of 5 before progressing to deer — and then to insurgents and terrorists.

“He was visible only from the waist up. It was a one-in-a-million shot. I could probably shoot a whole box of ammunition and never hit him again.”

Later that day, Sgt. Gilliland found out that the American soldier who had been killed by the Iraqi was Staff Sgt. Jason Benford, 30, a good friend.

The insurgent was one of between 55 and 65 Sgt. Gilliland estimates that he has shot dead in less than five months, putting him within striking distance of sniper legends such as Carlos Hathcock, a Marine who recorded 93 confirmed kills in Vietnam.

One of his men,Spc. Aaron Arnold, 22, of Medway, Ohio, has chalked up a similar tally.

“It was elating, but only afterwards,” said Sgt. Gilliland, recalling the Sept. 27 shot. “At the time, there was no high-fiving. You’ve got troops under fire, taking casualties, and you’re not thinking about anything other than finding a target and putting it down. Every shot is for the betterment of our cause.”

All told, the 10-strong Shadow sniper team, attached to Task Force 2-69, has killed just under 200 in the same period and emerged as the U.S. Army’s secret weapon in Ramadi against the threat of hidden improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs.

Above the spot from which Sgt. Gilliland took his record shot, in a room at the top of a bombed-out observation post that is code-named Hotel and known jokingly to soldiers as the Ramadi Inn, are painted the words, “Kill Them All” and “Kill Like You Mean It.”

On another wall are scrawled the words of Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam:

“America is great not because of what she has done for herself, but because of what she has done for others.”

The juxtaposition of macho slogans and noble political ideals encapsulates the dirty, dangerous and often callous job the sniper has to carry out as an integral part of a campaign ultimately being waged to help the Iraqi people.

With masterful understatement, Lt. Col. Robert Roggeman, the Task Force 2-69 commander, conceded: “The romantic in me is disappointed with the reception we’ve received in Ramadi,” a city of 400,000 on the banks of the Euphrates, where graffiti boasts, with more than a degree of accuracy: “This is the graveyard of the Americans.”

“We’re the outsiders, the infidels,” Col. Roggeman said. “Every time somebody goes out that main gate, he might not come back. It’s still a running gunbattle.”

Highly effective though they are, he worries about the burden his snipers have to bear. “It’s a very godlike role. They have the power of life and death that, if not held in check, can run out of control. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

“Every shot has to be measured against the rules of engagement, positive identification and proportionality,” Col. Roggeman said.

Sgt. Gilliland explains that his Shadow team operates at the “borderlines” of the rules of engagement, making snap judgments about whether a figure in the cross hairs is an insurgent or not.

“Hunters give their animals respect,” he said, spitting out a mouthful of chewing tobacco. “If you have no respect for what you do, you’re not going to be very good, or you’re going to make a mistake. We try to give the benefit of the doubt.

“You’ve got to live with it. It’s on your conscience,” he said. “It’s something you’ve got to carry away with you.”

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