(Editor's Note: This is the final installment of a four-part series on the U.S. Army Sniper School at Fort Benning, Georgia. For previous articles in the series, please see the links below.)
FORT BENNING, Ga. -- At first glance, the U.S. Army Sniper School may seem like a reality TV elimination show akin to "Survivor." Of the 46 candidates who entered the course in August, only four remained by the end of week five.
For the remaining students, though, there were no comforts in the form of television producers or catering tents during the course. And the sniper candidates still had to face their most daunting challenge -- a culminating exercise that would test all of the skills they had learned over the past six weeks.
WEEK SIX: ALTERNATE FIRING POSITIONS
In week six, students were taught to engage targets from less-stable platforms or positions, since the majority of engagements they will encounter as snipers will not occur while in prone position.
"Snipers rarely can engage targets from a prone supported position in combat situations," said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Doolittle, sniper school operations noncommissioned officer. He added that snipers must use alternate positions and must utilize whatever is around them to create the most stable position possible.
Among other weapons, students shot the M2010 Winchester Magnum rifle on ranges up to 1,300 meters. They also shot the M9 pistol and the M107 .50-caliber sniper rifle.
WEEK SEVEN: EMPLOYMENT PHASE, FIELD TRAINING, SNIPER PRACTICE
In the final week of school, also known as the "employment phase," students planned and executed their mission after receiving an operations order. The first day covered urban infiltration and hide setup. Candidates observed battlefield information and countered sniper operations.
Students then moved into the woods to build a "subsurface hide," digging holes in the ground and meticulously camouflaging them.
To complete the culmination exercise, students marched to specified areas and were tested on skills that included stalking, target detection, range estimation and shooting.
On the last day of the course, students were given a time-limited road march to the range to conduct a "final shot," since snipers must be able to move quickly, carry a rucksack of equipment, and be physically able to perform their missions after extended marching.
To conduct the final shot, students were given two rounds and one target. Once they located the target, they calculated and determined the range to it and engaged the target. A first-round hit was worth 100 points, a second-round hit 50 points, and a miss, zero. These scores went to determine the honor graduate and "top gun" points for graduation.
On Sept. 22, out of the 46 sniper candidates who began the course at Fort Benning, only four remained to graduate.
Sgt. Stephen Ray, Sgt. Dale Taylor, Spc. Charles Gifford, and Sgt. Nathan Vencil sat together. The four Soldiers were now qualified as both Army snipers and spotters.
Ray graduated No. 1, or "Top Gun" in the class. An Oklahoma native, Ray is from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas. During the training, Ray said that it was always in the back of his mind that he would make it to the next phase of training.
He said that after he was given notice that he would be attending school, his platoon's leadership went out of their way to ensure he had several chances to develop his shooting skills. This helped set him up for success in being able to pass the first challenge at sniper school, he said.
His mentioned his biggest challenge during the course was stalking. He overcame the difficulties by learning from his mistakes and by applying what he had been taught.
"The training in sniper school is hands down the best I've received in the Army," Ray said. "All of the instructors are driven to train you to be the best sniper you can be. They want you to succeed and will do everything they can to help you do so while simultaneously maintaining the highest of standards. Instructors will spend as much time as needed to help ensure we grasp the concepts being taught."
Ray said the best advice he can give Soldiers interested in being a sniper is to excel at their current job.
"Someone aspiring to be a sniper needs to stand out among his peers," Ray said. "A Soldier needs to excel at his job and put himself in a position that will allow him to pursue the chance to go to sniper school."
When Ray returns to his unit, he plans to teach his Soldiers what he has learned.
"I will do everything I can to prepare my Soldiers who wish to attend sniper school," Ray said. "If a Soldier has been appropriately trained on the tasks he will face at school, it will significantly increase his chances to pass sniper school successfully."
Gifford, 28, from Sequin, Texas, believes being an Army sniper is the epitome of being a Soldier. He said he wanted to be a sniper since "playing army" as a kid, and said he knew within the first week of sniper school that he would graduate.
During the training, he said the only time that he was in doubt of passing was during the rapid fire exercise during Hurricane Irma.
"You have to adapt to the weather behind the gun," Gifford said.
He credits his previous unit for training him until he was ready. His goal now is to take the knowledge he has back to his unit.
"Don't come here unless you are prepared," Gifford said.
South Chicago native Taylor said that he felt accomplished and relieved to graduate. He said the stalking exercises were the hardest because of the heat and humidity. He advised that that the secret to passing is not getting frustrated.
Soldiers who are interested in attending sniper school need to be resilient, Taylor continued. He said he prepared at his unit by taking every free day to train. He waited six years for his sniper school application to be approved.
"This class was unusual," said Staff Sgt. Brian Moran, one of the 11 instructors at the school. "Normally, 48 to 52 percent of the students graduate."
Last fiscal year, 310 students attended sniper school and 140 graduated.
"About 90 percent of the time, it's mental fortitude that determines whether a student will fail or succeed," Moran added.
Even though only four of 46 graduated this class, Moran said he's still happy that a new group of excellent snipers can go back to their units and hopefully change the prevailing thoughts about snipers by being proactive, seeking opportunities to train, and continuing to better themselves in their craft.
He added that Soldiers interested in being a sniper should know that the job is 95 percent observing and reporting, with 5 percent shooting.
"It's not the movies, you don't shoot people daily, and there are no pats on the back for doing a good job," said another instructor.