Authors: Nicholas Irving,Gary Brozek
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Military, #History, #Afghan War (2001-)
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The sound of my pager cut through the fog of my sleep. I sat up, bone weary and achy, and slipped into my combat precision pants, adjusting the kneepads as I hopped toward my boots and other gear. Grabbing my rigger’s belt with one hand and shrugging into my combat shirt with the opposite arm, I felt for the magazine pouches I’d clipped on. As the rest of the members of my Third Ranger Battalion squad made their way down the hallway for the mission brief, I felt the fog lifting. It was go time, and the adrenaline rush cascaded down my legs, making them hum with low-voltage electricity.
I took my usual spot in the ready room, second row to the right of the screens, and adjusted my elbow pads. My spotter, Pemberton, took his place beside me. We nodded at one another and smiled, acknowledging an unstated fact of our current life in Helmand Province. This was shaping up to be as up-tempo as it gets.
man. It’s like freakin’
The old movie that Bill Murray was in about being caught in a time warp. Waking up every day to the same thing over and over again. I was more of a fan of
but I knew what Pemberton was going on about.
Call it the luck of the draw, good timing (or bad timing, depending on your perspective), but three days in, this was definitely shaping up not to be one of those usual deployments where you spend your time going to the gym three times a day, hanging out with the guys, and thinking about all the things you’re missing out on back home. We had no time for that kind of overthinking. Even in that first week, we’d gotten into a good rhythm. We’d get back inside the wire just as the rest of the guys were getting up, prep and clean, and then sleep the day away before getting the call for that night’s operation.
That early into a three-and-a-half-month deployment, our minds had adjusted but our bodies hadn’t. I sat there waiting for the team leader to start the briefing. I rubbed the flat of my palms into my eye sockets, hoping to clear my vision and produce some kind of moisture that would prevent my lids from scraping my eyeballs every time I blinked. Vision, for a sniper especially, was crucial, particularly since we were continually operating at night. Utilizing the cover of darkness did more than help us evade the Taliban; it helped us avoid the punishment the heat and the altitude handed out. Still, the body has its rhythms and cycles, and being active during the night still had us slightly off balance.
Fortunately, the briefing lived up to its name—it was over in a matter of minutes. We went over the terrain—we’d be operating in fairly open and level ground. We also got a capsule summary of the target—a high-value member of the Taliban who was instrumental in supplying a nearby bomb- and improvised explosive device (IED)-making depot. In order to hit this objective, we were going to have to insert on an offset—about five clicks to the north of the village where our intel told us the target was hiding out.
What no one had to tell Pemberton and me was that we were riding a bit of a winning streak. With the exception of one, the rest of the operations had gone off without a hitch, and though we were the only sniper pair among the forty men in the platoon, we were proving our value. The atmosphere in the ready room reminded me of my days in high school playing football back home in Maryland. Even then I was kind of a secret weapon. I was no monster standing over six feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds—neither then nor now. I was a little guy, a speedster to an extent, but someone whose primary skills were stealth and the ability to stay cool when the shit hit the fan. This was war, of course, and not a game, but the parallels were there in my mind and in that room. We were meshing as a team. The early-season jitters had been reduced if not entirely eliminated. We wanted to see action, and we’d proved ourselves capable of taking it to the enemy with precision. Confidence is one thing; cockiness is another. No one in that room crossed the line beyond a quiet assurance that we were going to get this done, and we were all going to be back in a half-dozen or so hours, joining the nonsleepers in watching a movie or playing some Xbox games.
I can’t say that the same we-got-this-no-need-to-worry-’bout-it attitude existed with the short-timers. When you could count your days left in-country on two hands, when the countdown was real and not just something that floated ahead of you like some fuzzy ghost of an object in your night vision, that’s when your thoughts were like those proverbial cats that avoided being herded.
Also, I never expected to become the Third Ranger Battalion’s deadliest sniper when that three-and-a-half-month tour of duty ended. All my life I’d dreamed of one day joining the military and fighting to defend my country. That I achieved some notoriety is partly due to luck and timing, but it is mostly due to the fact that I received extraordinarily good training.
In a lot of ways, I was the least likely candidate to become the guy who became known as “the Reaper.” I heard a lot of stories about me and my exploits. As is true in lots of branches of the military, myths and legends grow. I had to laugh the time I heard that someone had attributed more than seven hundred kills to me. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to have made that kind of contribution to helping keep my comrades-in-arms safe, but it’s important to keep things real. Thirty-three is real.
That’s why I wanted to write this book and to share with readers my experiences. The first time I heard myself referred to as the Reaper was after an operation not so different from the one that I just described. I liked the name and took pride in it, but in the late hours after first hearing that name, I thought about some of the things I’d done and experienced that brought me to the point where I’d earned that recognition. As I said, I was in many ways both the least likely and someone who seemed destined to make it as a sniper. I come from a military family, I’d read books and watched films that celebrated the exploits of past military heroes, could name every weapon used in our country’s wars, yet I struggled with some physical limitations that nearly saw me not get out of basic training. I also made my share of newbie mistakes—including nearly taking on a U.S. tank that I mistakenly thought was an enemy Iraqi vehicle, and pushing the magazine release instead of the trigger the first time I fired a weapon in anger on the battlefield. I also sometimes struggled with the authoritarian nature of military life and committed a few youthful indiscretions.
As a young person I’d romanticized war and as a young adult I’d witnessed its harsher realities. In the pages to come I share stories that reveal that the Reaper is far more complicated than a name and a number. In doing so, I hope that I can pay tribute to the men I knew who lost their lives and the countless others who made the ultimate sacrifice. As I said, I was fortunate that my time deployed to Iraq and more especially in Afghanistan in 2009 coincided with a period of heightened activity. Success is a matter of opportunity being seized. Though I’ve been credited with those kills, I know that I wouldn’t have a story to tell if it weren’t for a whole bunch of other people who made sure that when I was placed in that situation, I could perform. To them and to so many others who came before and whose contributions I have no way of knowing, all I can say is thank you.
The test we faced that third night working in support of Charlie Company, First Platoon, in Kandahar was not the first one and it wasn’t going to be the last. In fact, long before I rose through the army’s ranks to become a direct action sniper, I was constantly faced with challenges. To one degree or another, that’s probably true of most people in just about any walk of life. Except that for me, so much of it took place in a short period of time. I enlisted right of out of high school in 2004 and then served in various capacities with the Third Ranger Battalion after getting through the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP)—machine gunner, machine gun team leader, grenadier, team leader, designated marksman, sniper, sniper team leader, and master sniper.
During the three-and-a-half-month period from May of 2009 through August of that year, when I tallied more than thirty-three kills, I was about three months shy of turning twenty-four years old. On and off, I’d been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2005; I married in 2007; and I’d gone through more schools and training programs than somebody who’d gone the other route and attended college as an undergraduate and then as a graduate. I like to think that I learned a whole lot, and I’m sure I did, but while it was all going on, I felt like I was a rock rolling downhill, gathering momentum, tearing up a few things around me, and accumulating a few things that stuck to me. Some of it was painful; some of it was fun; and like anybody who’d been rolling along like that, I was feeling a bit dizzy.
As you can imagine, especially during that period that earned me the nickname “the Reaper,” I didn’t have a whole lot of time to sit back and reflect on everything that had happened to me that put me in that hot zone. I knew that it was the luck of the draw that had us seeing so much action.
A lot of guys at Fort Benning told us when they learned that we were being deployed to Kandahar that we needed to be prepared to be bored out of our minds. I was also fortunate that I was with Charlie Company, First Platoon. After all, that was the unit that I grew up with in battalion. I knew most of the guys I was going to be assigned with. We’d been deployed together before, and they were really, really good guys, squared away. In some ways this was going to be different. I had rank now and I’d be one of the men planning missions, giving briefings. I felt prepared for that, but I also knew that with leadership came responsibility. You don’t serve in the armed forces without having a sense of responsibility for your fellow soldiers, but this was going to be at a different level. I wasn’t always the most responsible kid and I liked to have a good time still, and I told myself that I wasn’t going to change too much.
You’re always on edge predeployment. When word came down that we were going to Kandahar, we all met the news with a mixture of relief and curiosity. The Second Ranger Battalion was currently over there, and their guys were reporting back that things were very quiet. A few missions. Not really getting shot at.
I should clarify something. The sense of relief I mentioned. That was mostly what we told our wives and girlfriends. I told my wife, Jessica, that this was going to be a boring deployment, probably my last one. I’d be away just a few months and then we’d figure out the next steps. Afghanistan sucks. You hardly ever see anybody; they all live hidden in the mountains. Kandahar is a city. Don’t worry.