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Killer Course 

Learning the art of the kill at a West Virginia sniper school

Tom Fitzpatrick, a burly, tattooed ex-Marine who still wears his hair "high and tight," had long regretted not qualifying for the Corps' elite sniper unit.

The program, which trains soldiers to fire a bullet into an enemy's brain from more than a mile away, discriminates against smokers like Fitzpatrick. Instead, the military taught him to install telephones. But several years later, Fitzpatrick, now a telephone repairman in Omaha, Neb., found a way to unlock his inner killer. He enrolled in "Basic Counter Sniper," a five-day course on deadly force offered by the Storm Mountain Training Center.

Getting into this Andover for assassins in Elk Garden, W. Va. posed no problem for Fitzpatrick.

For his training, Fitzpatrick paid tuition of $495 (recently raised to $695, not including ammo) and furnished Storm Mountain with a background check and a reference letter from his minister (who happens to be his wife's best friend). Then he and a buddy from work piled their guns and gear into a rented Dodge Durango and drove 1,100 miles in 17 hours to Storm Mountain's cloistered 208-acre compound in the Allegheny Mountains.

Meanwhile, Detective Brian Vice of the Moss Point, Miss. Police Department faced greater obstacles before he could join the ranks of would-be snipers. The mayor of Moss Point rejected Vice's request for a scholarship, judging the five-day course an extravagance.

But Vice, 32, who looks like a young Rhett Butler, stuck to his guns, appealing to the town's aldermen. A stirring speaker when he suppresses his natural smirk, Vice argued that Moss Point, facing increased violent crime, desperately needed a trained sharpshooter and already had the tuition money in a police education fund.

The aldermen overrode the mayor, voting unanimously to subsidize Vice's lethal studies.

Leisure time activity

In a country where the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution, where the National Rifle Association cows legislators into voting against common-sense gun control laws designed to keep children from accidentally shooting other children, learning to kill with long-range rifles is considered not only a useful skill for law enforcement officers, but also a legitimate leisure time activity.

The privately operated Storm Mountain Training Center confers what amounts to an advanced degree in high-tech mayhem on gun lovers.

On a rainy Monday morning Fitzpatrick, Vice and five other warrior wanna-bes gathered in Storm Mountain's classroom for orientation. The fluorescent-lit basement smelled like mothballs, the result of a leak that soaked a swath of beige carpeting.

The paneled walls were hung with assorted plaques, photos of war games, and a framed calligraphy copy of the sniper creed. One stanza read: "This is our rifle ... This rifle is our best friend. It is our life."

While many Americans profess a fondness for firearms, treating their guns like family dogs, snipers tend to humanize, even romanticize, their rifles. They buy presents for their guns -- a fancy scope, a new stock, a leather carrying case. They clean them nightly, and lovingly polish the parts.

Beneath an outwardly disciplined, just-following-orders demeanor, their passion for the kill is revealed in poems like Robert W. Baird's "Sniper's Serenity" on the online forum Snipercountry.com.

Stay detached, loose and cool,
Time your breathing, remember the rule.
Get them now, kill them clean,
before they can hurt another Marine.
The first dies quick, the second has looked,
that one dies fast, a third has booked.
Number Three goes down, sight on Number Four,
this one's for my Brothers, Brothers of the Corps.
Even now at home, I remember that scene,
the four of them and a young Marine,
I would do it again, once more with pride,
to protect my Marines, the enemy has died.

Missing the camaraderie

"Being able to send a projectile down range and knowing that I can hit what I'm aiming at consistently is an art ... a way to express myself," explained Danny Basso, a Storm Mountain graduate who now volunteers as an assistant instructor when not running his landscaping business.

Lounging in the back of the classroom, wearing camouflage pants and a hunter green T-shirt that reads: "SILENT SOULS INFLICT 308 HOLES," Basso estimated that he's returned to the sniper school 10 times.

"Most of the guys into [sniping]," he said, "are ex-military who miss the camaraderie and being around people who have the same pride as themselves."

At exactly 0900, each student stood up, introduced himself, and revealed his motivation for taking the course.

Matt Domyancic, a former Air Force Cadet, dreamt of joining the FBI. Quinn Sieber, a stocky firearms instructor from the Wisconsin State Patrol, wanted to pass on sharpshooting skills to his cadets. Fitzpatrick's pal, Paul Circo, a mild-mannered fellow with scant firearms experience hoped to "prove something" to himself."

A shaggy-haired software designer -- whom other students soon nickname "The Postman" (as in "going postal") -- mumbles something about honing his shooting skills. And an emergency medical technician from Florida says he just wanted an out-of-the-ordinary vacation.

After the 12-step-like introductions, Storm Mountain headmaster Rod Ryan marched to a lectern emblazoned with a "No Whining" sign.

A decorated former Army sniper and member of Washington, D.C.'s SWAT team, Ryan opened the school in 1995, offering classes like Security Profiling -- Terrorism Awareness II and Advanced Submachine Gun. His mission: "to help keep police and military guys alive."

Civilians, however, account for the majority of his clients. Asked why he allows civilians to study at Storm Mountain, he replied, "I'm a firm believer that if you are not a criminal that you have the rights described in our Constitution."

The American ideal

Self-described "pro-gunners" routinely defend firearms ownership by citing the Constitution. The Second Amendment clearly grants the right to bear arms, but relates this right to the maintenance of "a well-regulated militia."

Whether America's founding fathers, who lived through a brutal war fought on their soil, intended for private citizens to wield high-powered automatic rifles with impunity is a hotly debated question in legal and political circles.

But not in Storm Mountain's classroom. Ryan launched his lesson by reviewing sniper history, which in the United States dates back to the Civil War. (In England, the British army had established a sharpshooting "Rifle Brigade" by 1800.)

Today's sniper typically operates in tandem with a "spotter" who calculates the distance to the target and the wind velocity (a breeze can alter a bullet's trajectory) and conveys this information to the triggerman. Yet the public image of the sniper as lone wolf, a sneaky predator that picks off sheep in the middle of the night, remains from an earlier day.

"Snipers didn't fit into the American ideal of the 'fair fighting,' standing tall like Gary Cooper in High Noon," wrote Jeff Stein in The Washington Post. In fact, Storm Mountain fretted so much about the snipers' embattled reputation that it added the prefix "counter" to the course's title.

"This guy is not a sniper," Ryan later told The New York Times, when asked about the terrorist in the Washington, D.C., area. "He is just a crazed gunman, and he is giving snipers a bad reputation."

"The press labels every nut with a gun a sniper," complained Kent Gooch, a former Army firearms instructor who shared teaching duties with Ryan.

"Most of us take great offense at that connotation. This is an honorable profession," he argued, as photos of James Earl Ray and Lee Harvey Oswald flashed behind him on a projection screen. The instructors devoted much of the four-hour lesson to sniper strategies.

"If you guys ever come across a woman who is a hostage taker, do not cut her any slack!" implored Ryan. "A woman will make a decision and, by God, she is going to stick to it!'"

And "make your first shot count. Go for the ear, the Mafia has been doing it for years, no mess. Personally, I like the eyes. It's a soft entry point."

To execute with efficiency, Ryan hailed the "head shot." Specifically, he recommended aiming for the medulla oblongata, a chestnut-sized part of the brain located at the top of the spinal cord.

"With a head shot [the target] won't even fart," promised Ryan, "The body's electrical system shuts right down."

A ruddy-faced man with a bulldog build and demeanor, Ryan sometimes sounded as if he were preparing troops for battle rather than enabling adults to play G.I. Joe with long-range rifles and live ammo.

"I don't want to hear in the news that you didn't take the head shot. If you can't take the head shot, get out of this business," he warns. Later he elaborates: "You must look at this as a job. It is a dirty job. People don't want to clean toilets either. But they do -- not that human beings are toilets."

'Just you and the spotter'

Over lunch, cold MREs (meals ready to eat) that looked and smelled like dog food, Tom Fitzpatrick explained the allure of the sniper lifestyle.

In the Marines, he said, "I wanted to be the Rambo, the lone soldier. I'm better in a small team than a large one. That's why I like sniping; it's just you and the spotter. I don't like to rely on people."

Asked why, Fitzpatrick recalls his strained relationship with his father. "My mom and him got divorced before I was born, then my mom passed away when I was 8 and I went to live with my dad. Hunting was the only thing we had in common. I didn't know the guy other than that."

Conversation turned to a chilling training video. In slow motion, sharpshooters were seen blowing the head off a bank robber who had nudged the muzzle of his pistol into the Adam's apple of a terrified hostage.

This image moved some students to wonder whether they had the stomach to take the head shot, but not Fitzpatrick: "I have lots of confirmed kills on animals -- elk, deer, prairie dogs. When I first started hunting, I had remorse. I don't anymore. I think I could look at a human target like a deer with a gun in its hands."

Vice nearly gagged on the wad of chewing tobacco lodged in his cheek. Unlike the others, he knew what it was to shoot another human being. A few years back he was working undercover when a drug dealer put a gun to his head.

"I look him right in the eyes. You can tell everything from the eyes. He broke [eye contact] and I fired first," Vice said soberly. "The only reason I'm here right now is because of a gun, so I guess my kinship with firearms is a little stronger than most."

Green light! Green light!

Turning this ragtag platoon of plebes into sharpshooters vexed Ryan; during the following three days, most students fumbled in the field.

On the firing range, the instructors easily rattled several snipers by screaming in their ears while they try to blast out the brains of a paper thug with one shot. The distracting dialogue got creative:

"Sniper, are you on that target? What's the range? Green light! Green light! Green light! Take the head shot. You are taking too long. There's a snake on your back. Is that your grandfather's rifle you're shooting? What the hell was that? Was that a head shot? Why the fuck did you shoot?"

"Stalking," the art of sneaking up on a target, also confounded the cadets, who must belly-crawl through rattlesnake-infested woods, evade detection and fire two blanks at instructors stationed at least 100 yards away.

To blend in with the bush, the students wore snug, sweaty ghillie suits. These hooded camouflage cassocks are covered in shredded, stringy mesh and adorned with leaves, shrubbery and wildflowers.

The men also smeared camouflage makeup on their faces. Still, few accomplished their objective without being spotted.

"This is not a long-range rifle class. This is a fucking sniper course," Ryan fumed, red-faced. "Look, two friends of mine were killed in Somalia. I cannot lower my standards."

Vice often earned the wrath of instructors for insubordination. Disobeying orders, he helped less capable students survive a stalk, an exercise meant to test each man's mettle. Nevertheless, Vice continued to secretly guide others through the backwoods.

"I was a Boy Scout but I was no boy scout. Always in trouble," he said with a chuckle during a cigarette break by a mountain stream. "The one thing I gain from this is the knowledge and self-confidence to take a person that's not that familiar with a rifle, focus in on him, and help him to achieve what needs to be done."

Mentally stronger

As the temperature climbed above 80 degrees even Vice felt fatigued. He greedily sucked on his canteen, heeding Ryan's repeated warning to drink plenty of water: "Some of you will fall to heat casualty. If you are a heat casualty you will get an IV, maybe two."

The policy stems from an incident a few years ago when a student suffered heat stroke. He was found face down by Ryan's German shepherd, Yogi.

When Fitzpatrick complained of a headache after a grueling two-hour hike, Ryan ordered a mandatory IV. "This is tougher than boot camp," Fitzpatrick griped, as the EMT from Florida jabbed a needle into his forearm.

The course got no easier for Fitzpatrick. On the final exam, he tripped and fell during the graded stalk, damaging the 24 X "Super Sniper" scope on his Savage .308 caliber rifle. He hit only 20 percent of the man-shaped metal targets during the crucial live fire test.

Only Fitzpatrick and his pal Circo failed the course, earning none-too-consoling "Certificates of Attendance."

"I used to want to be a sniper, but after what I've been through, I don't know if I could survive three days on a stalk," moaned a crestfallen Fitzpatrick.

Despite his disappointment, Fitzpatrick contended that the course significantly improved his outlook on life. "It made me mentally stronger," he said later from his home in Omaha, where he was training to compete in a bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred ultimate fighting exhibition.

"When people hooked up wires wrong at work, I used to get irate. But I made mistakes at sniper school that really affected me. Now, if I showed someone something once and they didn't get it, I'll show them again and again. I think patience comes from the stalk, when you work and work and work to get in position for that one shot."

In hindsight, Detective Vice also considered the course beneficial: "I knew how to use a weapon but I didn't know the tactics for deploying it. Now that I've gone through the certification process, if any questions are brought up [after a shooting], I have proof that I'm not some Joe schmo off the street with a rifle."

Still, Vice questioned the wisdom of allowing civilians to take a course "with one purpose and one purpose only: killing a human being. ... In a perfect world, civilians shouldn't be there."

Tom Fitzpatrick, for one, toyed with the idea of shedding his civilian status. Vice invited him to apply for a position with the Moss Point Police Department.

"I'd love to do police work," said Fitzpatrick, who may one day sit for the entry exam. "Then there'll be two snipers in Moss Point. I just have to go back to school and get my certificate."


David Wallis contributes to The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post and the Observer of London, among other publications. He is the founder of Featurewell.com.

  • Learning the art of the kill at a West Virginia sniper school

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