Day of the sniper: The story behind 'the million-dollar shot'
June 4, 2009
The four-man sniper team hardly dared to breathe. For two days and nights they had waited for the right situation, and it was finally here. To Sgt. 1st Class Brandon McGuire, it seemed that all his prior experiences, such as serving on the 82nd Airborne Division's marksmanship team, as a sniper and reconnaissance platoon observer, and shooting sniper weapons for a scout platoon, had prepared him for this exact moment.
"I even managed to talk an explosive ordnance detonation unit out of their sniper rifle since they didn't know how to use it," laughed McGuire.
Taking aim one last time, McGuire calmly squeezed the trigger of his Barrett .50 caliber, Sniper Weapon System.
A platoon sergeant in the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, McGuire had deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom nine months earlier and was stationed at Forward Operating Base, Iskandaryia.
Four days before his mission, McGuire's platoon had been ordered to the western sector of their area of operations to locate and destroy an enemy mortar team. Insurgents were firing shells into the city of 300,000, wounding civilians and destroying property-compromising faith in McGuire's unit to protect Iraqi citizens.
"Losing trust in us to take care of the situation could prompt the locals not to help us anymore, and that only makes for more enemies," said McGuire. "This was also a mission we welcomed since it was a crucial one and not what we called a 'Groundhog Day,' which is a regular, everyday patrol."
During that mission, two of McGuire's Soldiers had been wounded by an improvised explosive device, one critically. The road they were on had been the backdrop for numerous attacks on Americans, which prompted McGuire and his platoon leader to decide that enough was enough. After medically evacuating one Soldier to Baghdad and the other to their medical unit at the FOB, they began formulating plans to end the problem once and for all.
Heading to a location with many vantage points they called the "tractor factory," McGuire assumed his post in one tower while his platoon leader headed for the other. Although it was night, they had an excellent view of the road in question, and a wall around the factory provided protection for their vehicles. Windows were quickly camouflaged and a platform built for the sniper weapon system, an Improved Target Acquisitioning System.
"Best of all, no one knew we were there," added McGuire.
Because dismounted radios could not reach back to the battalion tactical operations center, a communications platform was also assembled. "Commo," according to McGuire, was their best weapon, in addition to individual Soldiers retrieving information. Combined observation reports provided excellent clues to enemy behavior and operations. And because they were usually outnumbered during missions, contacting the TOC and aircraft for additional help was their lifeline.
Keeping with the revered military tradition of carrying a special good luck item with his military gear, McGuire had packed away a family picture. His hope was that should he be kidnapped, realizing he had a family might earn him some leniency from potential captors.
For the next two days and nights all eyes focused on the road that had been declared "black," meaning no one was allowed on it unless they had route clearance. His crew of four to five Soldiers rotated every so often, but McGuire stayed in the tower, occasionally taking time to sleep and eat.
"You have to sleep sometime or you become ineffective," said McGuire. "And to pass the time we played this game called, 'If.' Everybody takes turns making up a fantasy about where they would most like to be right now. The obvious answer is home and family, so that's not allowed. We wanted to hear about sensational places with good food and company to go with it. The other rule was that everyone had to take their time describing these scenarios to make the hours pass more quickly."
Sunrise on the third day brought McGuire and his crew the objective they had been stalking. The target was walking on the canal, which ran east and west of their position. They watched his suspicious behavior (which included digging an item out of the canal's embankment), for more than an hour. Verifying it was a mortar tube, McGuire contacted the battalion TOC and requested permission to engage.
Receiving an affirmative answer, the team quickly arranged the spotter's scope while McGuire set up behind the SWS. The range finder indicated the insurgent was over 1,300 meters away, a precarious distance for even the best of snipers. And a high wind required the crew to perform wind calculations. Despite the problems, McGuire's "cool" attitude prevailed. Too much was at stake to fail now.
"You only get one shot," said McGuire. "That means you have to keep your self control because if you miss, your position is uncovered. I also reminded myself that if I was successful, my Soldiers, as well as other Americans and the people we're trusted to protect, would finally be safe."
McGuire's sights bore down on the target for another hour as he carried his tube up and down the canal banks. Because it was a rolling terrain, the target kept dropping in and out of sight. Several times McGuire had the insurgent's head in focus, but didn't believe he could shoot accurately with so much distance between them. He was also unsure about the wind and their calculations, and keenly aware of the adrenaline pumping through his body.
Suddenly, the target area McGuire desperately wanted appeared. The "triangle measurement," from the throat down to the upper chest, was now in plain view. Hearing the spotter yell, "Fire!" McGuire squeezed the trigger. He was immediately consumed by smoke from the weapon's powerful outburst in the small building. Scrambling to re-engage, McGuire already knew it would be too late. There was only a cloud of smoke where the insurgent had been.
McGuire's spotter maintained his visual and was yelling, "Tango down! Tango Down! He's gone!" McGuire had accomplished the impossible. Though the target was nearly a mile away, he had successfully made what came to be known throughout his unit as the "million-dollar shot."
"They even put that in my record," laughed McGuire.
A few seconds were squandered for high fives and congratulations, but the team quickly turned their attention back to the mission area. They realized the wind had been a blessing, masking the sound of the shot. No other insurgents would be able to learn their location.
The battalion TOC was quickly notified and a request made for the Iraqi army to retrieve the body. A firefight on their arrival made it impossible for the Soldiers to recover the target. A local official identified the insurgent a few days later.
"We weren't sure what happened to the mortar tube, but about a week later we captured a truck with a similar one, so maybe that was it. More importantly, after our platoon's engagement, there were no more mortar attacks on that road," said McGuire.
While the "million-dollar shot" earned much praise for McGuire and his sniper team, he insists the driving force for their success was their injured battle buddies and other Americans hurt on the road.
"Camaraderie is what keeps your Soldiers together and at their best," said McGuire. "Platoon GIs become lifelong friends. You share so many experiences together which you can never explain to someone else; they would never get it. However, you always have your fellow Soldiers to go to."
Renita Foster works for the Fort Monmouth, N.J., Public Affairs Office.