(Editor's Note: This is the second article of a four-part series on the U.S. Army Sniper School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Links to past articles in the series are below.)
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- For the candidates who made it to week two of the U.S. Army Sniper School at Fort Benning, Georgia, their greatest challenges where just beginning.
Students in their ghillie suits were dispersed throughout the wooded hills and hid under leaves and branches. Instructors with high-powered optics were trying to locate them. If part of a student's body became exposed, or if he became impatient and moved suddenly, his position was given away. When that happened, the student failed.
There was plenty in the woods there to make a Soldier uncomfortable enough to move and give away his position. There was the heat, for starters. And there was also an array of mosquitoes, ants, and other insects that could crawl into a Soldier's eyes or onto his face to make him squirm. But all of that had to be ignored for those Soldiers to pass the test.
Moran remembered, as a student years ago, he crept closer and closer toward a target: a driver of a truck, who was positioned some 600 meters away. Dressed in camouflage and a ghillie suit, and holding his high-powered rifle, he had been hiding under a pile of grass, stealthily crawling only five feet an hour, trying to remain undetected. When he had crept within 250 meters of his target, he fixed the crosshairs of his scope and pulled the trigger.
"Stalking requires close attention to detail of both the changing vegetation and light conditions through which a sniper moves," Moran said. "Stalking also requires a high tolerance for discomfort."
Sometimes snipers must be able to identify targets of opportunity, so another part of the training during this time was target detection.
In target detection, snipers must dissect their area of operation through observation, using their naked eye, binoculars, and rifle scope.
Snipers are trained to be able to get close enough to the enemy and take him out with one shot for one reason: to save Soldiers' lives.
Moran added that the stalking and target detection exercises for the remainder of the week are the most significant disqualifiers. Many students fail during this portion of the course.
"Most of the students who are dropped from the sniper course have failed because of their lack of discipline," Moran said. "Students must pay attention to the smallest details in every subject of the course ... and grasp the training concepts taught here at our school.
"In extreme weather conditions, some students lack the necessary attention to detail," Moran said. "And for others, they come to the class without the proper preparation.
"With every class, I'm hopeful that we won't have anyone fail," he said. "It's realistic to assume that some or all of student candidates may not have gotten the required training they should have gotten at their units before coming to our course here. However, students can return to their units, retrain and reapply to our school again."
Twenty-five students failed during week two.
Also during the first couple of weeks, students learned to do reconnaissance. Groups of three or four would simulate being deep behind enemy lines. They nestled behind shrubbery in a densely forested area where they couldn't be seen.
In this exercise, students had to be patient, often lying perfectly still for hours at a time. When they moved, they crawled slowly and stealthily. Meanwhile, with their binoculars trained on a target, they would watch for enemy movement.
"The sniper team's secondary mission is the collection and reporting of battlefield information," said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Doolittle, sniper school operations non-commissioned officer.
"A highly effective team can move into an area, remain undetected, and report enemy movements, equipment, and patterns of life," he said. "If need be and trained to, the sniper team can also call in artillery on enemy positions to disrupt or kill the enemy."
Moran said it was one of his mentors that helped him understand what it means to benefit and help shape a unit from a reconnaissance and sniper perspective.
He chose to become a sniper, he said, because he feels that it is a vital service to the Army. But also, he said, he thinks the role of the sniper is misunderstood.
"Snipers are force multipliers," Moran said, explaining that a few good snipers can sometimes swing momentum on the battlefield.
"This is why I chose this profession," he said. "I wanted to be a force multiplier.
"Snipers don't just shoot," he continued. "Snipers are detail-oriented, can accomplish a task with little or no support, and can help every commander at every level if they are given the opportunity. Put faith in your snipers, and they will get you the results you need, and much more."
In the third week, students learned data-gathering strategies to engage targets at unknown distances. They were also taught the basics of sniper marksmanship.
Week three was a mix of classroom instruction and range time with 90 percent spent on the range. Students conducted standard Army physical training in the morning along with their instructors. After breakfast, they moved to a range for a day of firing where they were taught sniper/spotter dialogue.
Burroughs Range has some rolling terrain but is mostly flat. Both sides of the range are lined with trees to help separate range lanes. The firing line is worn down with no grass, exposing the red Georgia clay. The range is about 400 meters wide and about 950 meters long. There are several old burnt-out cars and a couple of old tank hulls that litter the range. These vehicles serve as markers to help students determine the distance to targets.
The targets that students fired at were man-sized, 20 inches wide by 40 inches tall steel targets. There was an audible "ding" heard when bullets hit the targets.
Targets were placed on the range from 300 meters to 800 meters, were painted white, and had either a number or letter so that the instructors could tell the students what to shoot.
The entire week was daytime firing, and students fired between 80 to 120 rounds a day.
On the range, a group of four to six students was assigned to a sniper/instructor. Sniper/instructors were "on glass" looking through a spotting scope at the targets and telling them what targets to shoot.
They coached the students on marksmanship fundamentals and instructed them to make adjustments in their rifle sightings after missed rounds, due in part to varying weather conditions. Instructor mentorship was critical.
"The instructors I work with now are some of the most professional individuals I've had the opportunity to work with," Moran said. "They are knowledgeable in every aspect of the job and enjoy talking about work in their off time. They are always thinking of ways to better the course so we can send the best-trained snipers back to their units."
Moran and the majority of the instructors have engaged and killed multiple enemy targets as an infantryman.
"Whether as an infantryman or as a sniper, the act of conducting a lethal engagement is a severe one that cannot be overemphasized," said one instructor.
In Moran's first duty assignment, he served with the 75th Ranger Regiment. With that unit, he deployed six times, including three times as a sniper. After leaving the 75th Ranger Regiment to stand up a sniper section at 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, Moran served as the reconnaissance platoon sergeant. After that, he began teaching.
"I enjoy the independence that is often required for the job, and relying on a small group of select individuals," Moran said.