Since the Civil War, sharpshooters — now called snipers — are among the most feared on the battlefield. With stealth and concealment as their camouflage, you never know where they might be. Behind Germany, Russia, and even China, the US military didn’t use snipers on a routine basis until the Vietnam War. Today, snipers are commonplace on the silver screen in Hollywood films like Shooter and American Sniper.
“More than shooting, it takes a lot of mental fortitude,” said Jack Carr, who spent 20 years as a US Navy SEAL and led sniper teams in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.
Carr graduated from BUD/s in 1996, the Navy’s SEAL Training Program that typically sees a high rate of attrition, but that didn’t make him a sniper. Before he could be considered for sniper school, he went on his first deployment where he was carefully observed by other officers and senior enlisted officers.
“They want to make sure you have what it takes,” Carr said. “I went to sniper school in 2000. When I went, it was a little different than it is today. It was still based on Vietnam-era sniper tactics.”
They didn’t have the technology that’s in current use, either. A lot of things that can be done by taking a picture now had to be done by memory back then.
“Instead of taking a picture of a target area, we would draw sketches. I’m not that artistic as far as drawing goes, so mine were absolutely awful,” Carr said. “We would do KIM games, as they’re called. It stands for ‘keep in memory. You look at a bunch of items on the ground, and then you cover them back up, and you have to remember them right afterward or later in the day, or after some stressful evolution. That part of it was tougher for me than the shooting. The shooting came pretty naturally.”
While serving in Iraq, Carr led sniper teams in support of both conventional and special operations forces and worked in heavily IED’d areas, which required a lot of thinking on his feet.
“It’s all about creative problem solving,” he said. “The way I trained up to work with a spotter. When it came to actual urban combat and moving into buildings and setting up sniper positions on heavily IED-laden areas, you’re doing mostly urban hide sites, which is almost none of what you did in sniper training, which was mostly in the woods and deserts.”
Carr added that you could be in a hide site for days at a time.
“The local populace can’t know that you’re there, though they are very good at sensing when something is slightly off,” he continued. “The old sixth sense is a real thing. As soon as they figure it out, it’s time to extract or get into a fight.”
Amidst all the stories Carr could tell about his service in the SEAL teams as a sniper, the one that stands out the most is about a shot he didn’t take.
On deployment in Iraq, he was part of a multi-day offensive to retake a city from the Mahdi Militia. The city had been given ample overt warnings that the Americans were coming, and commanders had determined that every military-aged male in the city was now part of the Mahdi Army.
... a mortar impacted and exploded where they had been huddled up just seconds before.
After clearing a block, and amongst the chaos of combat, he noticed a man dressed like other targets in the area. He had the man in his sights, ready to squeeze the trigger, but the potential target wasn’t engaging anyone. Instead, he was distancing himself from the battle, riding away on a bicycle. He radioed the man’s position to blocking forces and moved on. He sleeps well having not taken that shot, though he doesn’t know the man’s ultimate fate.
Later in the same battle, he and his sniper team rallied in the midst of a fight to exchange information before moving out and over a nearby wall. As soon as the last man hit the ground on the other side of the wall, a mortar impacted and exploded where they had been huddled up just seconds before.
Carr’s advice for anyone who wants to become a sniper: “Get focused and start researching which branch of the military makes the most sense for you. Where do you want to go? How do you get there? Is there one path or multiple options to get there?”
He emphasized that anyone who wants to become a sniper needs to go above and beyond what’s expected of them.
“Regardless of which branch of service, I’d suggest you get to your first unit, volunteer for everything, exceed expectations on everything from emptying the garbage to workouts to MOS (military occupational specialty) specific tasks, and to not be afraid to let your senior enlisted leaders know that you aspire to go to sniper school,” he said. “Volunteer to help the snipers train as a new guy and be a sponge. Be quiet and listen, but don’t be silent. If you have ideas, then speak up and add value to the unit! Be a leader! Excel at every turn!”