My time in the military taught me a lot of things. It taught me a lot about myself, it taught me a lot about the world, it taught me how to kill people, and it taught me that I’m not afraid of death. It also taught me that I most definitely don’t want to die, but when that time comes I won’t be afraid of it. It forced me to grow up in a real hurry, which now at 30 years old I’m well aware of the fact that I needed because as a 20 year old boy I had no direction and a lot of dumb ideas that seemed smart at the time. I learned just how fragile human life is, how easily and quickly it can be lost, and I saw the resiliency of people who should have been killed by their wounds but hung on to fight with everything they had in their bodies to survive.
The reason that these thoughts have been on my mind lately is because of a Hollywood movie trailer, that being American Sniper. Now I was never a sniper, I never trained as one, and I don’t claim to be one. But what I did do was spend a lot of time with snipers, and faced a lot of similar situations and tough decisions as they did. As one of two machine gunners in my platoon we would often go on missions with small sniper teams to conduct overnight operations to seek out and eliminate bad guys who thought the cover of night would save them. These were affectionately known as “Small Kill Teams”, or SKT’s. The sniper team was there to wait for a specific target, and we were there in case the (you know what) hit the fan. A snipers strength is that they can go unseen and kill an enemy from over half a mile away and disappear. When they can’t just disappear our machine guns would create a path out of the hiding spot and back to safety.
The sniper teams that we worked with were very good. VERY good. And most of the time when we were assigned to an SKT it meant that we’d at least get a couple of hours of sleep because we weren’t needed. But not always. And one mission in particular comes to mind. On this mission, both machine gunners, myself and the other machine gunner, a fiery Puerto Rican kid who was my age and one of my best friends went along together. I had just finished my watch and was going to lay down on the cement rooftop to try to sleep for a few hours when my buddy came over to wake me up because something was happening. Instead of the couple of targets that we were waiting for to show up so the sniper could do his job and get us out of there, three truckloads of bad guys showed up, exactly 22 of them in all. This posed a problem. They were clearly bad guys, but if one sniper took a shot at them he might kill one or two, and it would take the other 20 about five seconds to figure out where we were which would then place us in a very precarious situation. As an SKT we had 5 men with us. There was a slightly larger outpost with more soldiers posted there several blocks away, but this situation was moving quickly. They had stopped their trucks there but they weren’t staying for long so our options were to let them go on their way and possibly ambush other Americans, or do what we could with what we had, which was two machine guns, a sniper rifle, and two other guys with M-4’s. We decided we had to engage them and hope to either kill them all or hold them off long enough for the other soldiers to get there to help.
So the plan we came up with was something like this; the sniper was going to take the first shot and then my buddy and I were going to open up with machine guns and inflict the maximum amount of damage in the shortest amount of time possible. Now this is a hell of a thing. We were on the roof of a house watching a group of 22 bad guys that had no idea we were there. We used our optics, watched them, could see the expressions on their faces, the laughing and joking, and we watched them knowing that in a moment or two we were going to kill them. Our platoon sniper made sure we were ready, and squeezed off his fist shot which was a devastating kill shot, and then my buddy and I opened up with our machine guns. We were firing at a very rapid pace, but you can still see clearly what is going on where the bullets are hitting. As expected, it was chaos for a few seconds until the bad guys realized they were being ambushed and then they reacted as one would expect. That being taking cover and trying to fight off the ambush. According to our rules of engagement we were restricted from firing at targets unless they initiated contact against us, or they could be positively identified as enemy fighters. They were positively identified as enemy fighters by driving trucks with ISIS flags on them and being heavily armed with weapons, and then when they started shooting back at us their fates were solidified. They all had to die since we had no way to detain them.
We sat on our rooftop and eliminated all but one bad guy. The bad guy that got away was shot, but had managed to crawl around a corner so he was no longer visible. Bringing this back to the movie commercial I saw it just made me think about the decision of when to take a life and when to let it go. Those individuals had no idea that we were there, but they had clearly identified themselves as enemies of ours and letting them go would have certainly resulted in fighting them later. I had over 30 friends get killed in Iraq, and over 75 more get Purple Hearts for wounds from fighting, and I feel good about the fact it’s possible that my actions may have contributed to helping a few of my friends come home alive that may otherwise not have. But living with the decision of stealing unsuspecting human life, regardless of who it is, is something that will always be in my head.