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GyGsMailbag: Killer Course...

July 13 2000 at 11:32 AM
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  (Login Dick Gaines)
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Killer Course

By David Wallis
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday , July 13, 2000 ; C01

ELK GARDEN, W.Va. –– Tom Fitzpatrick, a burly, tattooed
ex-Marine who still
wears his hair "high and tight," had long regretted not
qualifying for the
elite sniper unit of the Corps. The program, which trains
soldiers to fire a
bullet into an enemy's brain from more than a mile away,
excludes smokers
like Fitzpatrick. So the military taught him how to install
telephones
instead.

But several years later, Fitzpatrick, now a 30-year-old
telephone repairman
in Omaha, found a way to ease his regret. He enrolled in "Basic
Counter
Sniper," a five-day course on killing offered by the Storm
Mountain Training
Center.

Getting into this Andover for assassins in the Allegheny
Mountains posed no
problem. Fitzpatrick paid tuition of $495 (not including tax or
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 secluded 208-acre
compound.

Meanwhile, Det. 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 too costly for the town's coffers. But the
31-year-old Vice,
who looks like a young Rhett Butler and harbors ambitions for
the
governorship of Mississippi, 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 sitting
in a police
education fund. The aldermen overrode the mayor, voting
unanimously to
subsidize Vice's lethal studies.

Would-Be Warriors

On a rainy Monday morning Fitzpatrick, Vice and five other
hopeful warriors
gather in Storm Mountain's classroom for orientation. The
fluorescent-lit
basement smells like wet wool and mothballs, the result of a
leak that soaked
a swath of beige carpeting. The paneled walls have been hung
with assorted
plaques, photos of war games and a framed calligraphy copy of
the sniper
creed. One stanza reads: "This is our rifle. . . . This rifle is
our best
friend. It is our life. We must master it as we master our
lives."
At 0900 hours, each student stands, volunteers his name and
reveals his
reason for taking the course. Matt Domyancic, a former Air Force
cadet and
all-America linebacker, dreams of joining the FBI; Quinn R.
Sieber, a stocky
firearms instructor from the Wisconsin State Patrol, plans to
pass on
sharpshooting skills to his cadets; Fitzpatrick's pal Paul
Circo, a
mild-mannered fellow with scant firearms experience, declares:
"I want to
prove something to myself." A shaggy-haired software designer,
soon nicknamed
"The Postman" by other students, mumbles something about honing
his shooting
skills. And an emergency medical technician from Florida says he
just wants
an out-of-the-ordinary vacation.

After the 12-step-like introductions, Storm Mountain headmaster
Rodney D.
Ryan marches to a lectern emblazoned with a "No Whining" sign. A
decorated
former Army sniper and member of Washington, D.C.'s SWAT team,
Ryan and a
partner opened Storm Mountain in 1995, offering classes such as
"Security
Profiling--Terrorism Awareness 2" and "Advanced Tactical
Submachine Gun." His
mission: "to help keep police and military guys alive."
Civilians, however,
account for the majority of his clients, and Ryan brags that he
could teach
"a monkey" to shoot.

Ryan starts his lesson by summarizing sniper strategies: "If you
guys ever
come across a woman who is a hostage-taker, do not cut her any
slack! A woman
will make a decision and by God, she is going to stick to it!"
And: "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."

In briefly reviewing the profession's history (which dates back
to the Civil
War in the United States), he points out that the sniper's
lone-wolf image
has changed since the Vietnam War. Nowadays, snipers operate in
two-man
teams; the "spotter" calculates the distance to the target and
the wind
velocity (a breeze can alter a bullet's trajectory), and the
"shooter" must
effortlessly pull the trigger on command. To execute the enemy
with
efficiency, Ryan hails the "head shot." Specifically, he
recommends aiming
for the medulla oblongata, a chestnut-size part of the brain
located at the
top of the spinal cord.

"With a head shot [the target] won't even fart," promises Ryan.
"The body's
electrical system shuts right down. He'll fall like a sack of
potatoes."

A ruddy-faced man with a bulldog build and demeanor, Ryan
sometimes sounds as
if
he's preparing troops for battle rather than enabling adults to
play army
with high-powered 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."

Human Targets

Over lunch, cold MREs (meals ready to eat) that look and smell
like Alpo, Tom
Fitzpatrick explains the allure of the sniper lifestyle.

In the Marines, he says, "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." When 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 turns to the chilling training video shown right
before lunch.
In slow motion, sharpshooters are seen blowing the head off a
bank robber who
nudges the muzzle of his pistol into the neck of a terrified
hostage. It
forces some students to question whether they have 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 gags on the wad of Copenhagen lodged in his cheek.
Unlike the
others, he knows what it feels like to shoot another human
being.

A few years back Vice was working undercover when a drug dealer
tried to rob
him. "He put a gun to my head. I look him right in the eyes. You
can tell
everything from the eyes. He broke [eye contact] and I fired
first," Vice
says 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."

The Stalk

Turning this ragtag platoon of plebes into sharpshooters vexes
Rod Ryan;
during the next three days most students fumble in the field.

On the firing range, Ryan and his instructors easily rattle
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 gets 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 [expletive] did you shoot?"
"Stalking," the art of sneaking up on a target, also confounds
the cadets,
who must belly-crawl through the rattlesnake-infested woods,
evade detection
and fire two blanks at instructors stationed at least 100 yards
away. To
blend in with the bush, the student snipers wear snug, sweaty
ghillie suits.
These hooded camouflage cassocks are covered in shredded,
stringy mesh and ado
rned with leaves, shrubbery and wildflowers. The men also smear
camouflage
makeup on their faces. Still, few accomplish their objective
without being
spotted, irritating Ryan.

"This is not a long-range rifle class. This is a [expletive]
sniper course,"
he fumes, red-faced. "Look, two friends of mine were killed in
Somalia. I
cannot lower my standards."

Vice often earns the wrath of instructors for insubordination.
Disobeying
orders, he helps less capable students survive a stalk, an
exercise meant to
test each man's mettle. Nevertheless, Vice continues to secretly
guide others
through the backwoods.
"I was a Boy Scout but I was no boy scout. Always in trouble,"
he says with a
chuckle during a 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."

As the temperature climbs above 80 degrees, even Vice feels
fatigued. He
greedily sucks 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 heatstroke. He was found
face down by
Ryan's German shepherd, Yogi. He remains in a coma, Ryan said.

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

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

Only Fitzpatrick and his pal Circo fail 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," frets a crestfallen
Fitzpatrick,
his eyes red.

One Purpose Only

Despite his disappointment, Fitzpatrick contends that the course
significantly improved his outlook on life.

"It made me mentally stronger," he says later from his home in
Omaha, where
he is training to compete in a bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred,
ultimate
fighting bout. "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, Vice also considers 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 questions the wisdom of
allowing
civilians to take a course "with one purpose and one purpose
only: killing a
human being."

"There were only two cops in class," he notes. "They are not
going to put on
that school for two cops. We learned something and took that
back to the law
enforcement community. And the odds of the five others taking
that
information and doing something illegal are astronomically low.
But in a
perfect world, civilians shouldn't be there."

Tom Fitzpatrick, for one, may not be a civilian much longer.
Vice invited him
to apply for a position with the Moss Point Police Department.

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

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

 

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