Killer course: a school for civilian snipers

The would-be warriors at Storm Mountain's Sniper School, not far from where a killer stalks human prey, don't all have their sights set on the same target.

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, Nebraska, 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, West Virginia, just a few hours drive from the stalking ground where, at presstime, nine innocents have been picked off while going about their daily routine, posed no problem for Fitzpatrick. He paid the 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, Mississippi, 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, calling the five-day course an "extravagance." But Vice, 33, who looks like a young Rhett Butler, stuck to his guns and appealed to the town's aldermen.

A stirring speaker when he suppresses his natural smirk, Vice argued that Moss Point, faced with 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.

***

In a country where the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution, where the National Rifle Association regularly cows legislators into voting against practically any gun control laws, learning to kill with long-range rifles is considered not only a useful skill for law enforcement officers

but a legitimate leisure-time activity. The privately operated Storm Mountain Training Center confers on gun lovers what amounts to an advanced degree in high-tech mayhem.

On a rainy Monday morning, Fitzpatrick, Vice, and five other warrior wannabes gather in Storm Mountain's classroom for orientation. The fluorescent-lit basement smells like mothballs, the result of a leak that soaked a swath of beige carpeting. The paneled walls are hung with assorted plaques, photos of war games, and a framed copy of the sniper creed in flowing calligraphy. One stanza reads: "This is our rifle... This rifle is our best friend. It is our life."

While many Americans admit to 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 all the parts.

Beneath an outwardly disciplined, just-following-orders demeanor, however, 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.

 "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," explains Danny Basso, a Storm Mountain graduate who now volunteers as an assistant instructor when he's 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 estimates that he's returned to the sniper school ten times. "Most of the guys into [sniping]," he says, "are ex-military who miss the camaraderie and being around people who have the same pride as themselves."

At exactly 0900, each student stands up, introduces himself, and reveals his motivation for taking the course.

Matt Domyancic, a former Air Force Cadet, dreams of joining the FBI. Quinn Sieber, a stocky firearms instructor from the Wisconsin State Patrol, wants to pass on sharpshooting skills to his cadets. Fitzpatrick's pal, Paul Circo, a mild-mannered fellow with scant firearms experience, hopes 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 wants an out-of-the-ordinary vacation.

After the 12-step-like introductions, Storm Mountain headmaster Rod 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 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, make up the majority of his clients. Asked why he allows civilians to study at Storm Mountain, he replies, "I'm a firm believer that if you are not a criminal, you have the rights described in our Constitution."

Self-described "pro-gunners" routinely defend firearms ownership by citing the Constitution. The Second Amendment clearly grants the right to bear arms, but it connects this right to the maintenance of "a well-regulated militia." Whether America's Founding Fathers, who lived through a brutal war fought on our 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 classrooms. Ryan launches his lesson by reviewing sniper history, which in the U.S. dates back to the Civil War. (In England, the British Army had established a sharp-shooting "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 (since a breeze can alter a bullet's trajectory) and conveys this information to the triggerman.

Yet the public image of the sniper as a lone wolf, a sneaky predator who picks off sheep in the middle of the night, remains from an earlier day. "Snipers didn't fit into the American ideal of '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 sniper's embattled reputation that it added the prefix "counter" to the course's title.

"This guy is not a sniper," Ryan recently told The New York Times, when asked about the Northern Virginia-area terrorist. "He is just a crazed gunman, and he is giving snipers a bad reputation."

 

"The press labels every nut with a gun a sniper," complains Kent Gooch, a former Army firearms instructor who shares teaching duties with Ryan. "Most of us take great offense at that connotation. This is an honorable profession," he argues, as photos of James Earl Ray and Lee Harvey Oswald flash behind him on a projection screen.

The instructors devote 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!" implores 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 hails the "headshot." Specifically, he recommends aiming for the medulla oblongata, a chestnut-sized part of the brain located at the top of the spinal cord.

"With a headshot, [the target] won't even fart," promises Ryan. "The body's electrical system shuts right down." A ruddy-faced man with a bulldog build and demeanor, Ryan sometimes sounds as if he is preparing troops for battle rather than enabling adults to play GI Joe with long-range rifles and live ammo.

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

***

Over lunch, cold MREs (meals ready to eat) that look and smell like dog food, 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."

Asked why, Fitzpatrick recalls his strained relationship with his father. "My mom and he got divorced before I was born; then my mom passed away when I was eight, 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 a chilling training video. In slow motion, sharpshooters can be 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 moves some students to wonder whether they have the stomach to take the headshot, 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 chewing tobacco lodged in his cheek. Unlike the others, he knows what it is to shoot another human being.

A few years back, he was working undercover when a drug dealer put a gun to his head. "I looked 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."

***

Turning this ragtag platoon of plebes into sharpshooters vexes Ryan; during the following three days most students fumble in the field. On the firing range, the 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're 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 headshot? Why the f*** did you shoot?"

"Stalking," the art of sneaking up on a target, also confounds 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 wear snug, sweaty ghillie suits. These hooded camouflage cassocks are covered in shredded and stringy mesh and adorned with leaves, shrubbery, and wildflowers. The men also smear camouflage makeup on their faces. Still, few accomplish their objective without being spotted.

"This is not a long-range rifle class. This is a f**king sniper course," fumes Ryan, 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. Against 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 cigarette break by a mountain stream. "The one thing I gain from this is the knowledge and self-confidence to take a person who'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 heat stroke. He was found face down by Ryan's German shepherd, Yogi.

When Fitzpatrick complains of a headache after a grueling two-hour hike, Ryan orders 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 24 X "Super Sniper" scope on his Savage .308 caliber rifle. He hits only 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," moans a crestfallen Fitzpatrick.

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's 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 show someone something once, and they don'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 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 Shmoe 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." "In a perfect world," he says, "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," says 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 many publications including The Washington Post, where an early version of this story appeared in 2000. He is the founder of the Featurewell syndication service.