WASHINGTON, DC – Sniper instructors tell their students that their duties should come as second nature, especially when it comes to taking another man’s life. If you asked Navy SEAL Lt. j.g. Michael Sandino, an Iraq war veteran and sniper, if he thought he was a killer or assassin, he would scoff at the idea. His efforts are focused on the teammates’ lives that he saves, not on those of enemies that he takes. The mission precedes all, including his identity.
Sandino is an alias used by one West-Coast based SEAL team sniper to protect his identity and future missions. At the same time the alias allows him to tell the NSW story, his story.
“I deploy to do a job for our country,” Sandino said. “We have successfully accomplished the missions that we set out to accomplish and that is something that is absolutely necessary to ensure the continued freedom of the United States.”
SEAL snipers undergo a robust training pipeline designed to provide candidates with the tools and skills necessary to successfully maneuver behind enemy lines, gather reconnaissance or put bullets down range in expert marksman fashion. Having the right candidates with dissecting experiences and interests is helpful.
“Sniper was the primary qualification that I was interested in pursuing when I came in the Navy. I grew up hunting, fishing and doing outdoor activity back home,” Sandino said. “Sniper work was work that I felt like I was well suited to do, so I requested to go to the school and was lucky to be allowed to attend.”
Depending on where SEALs are stationed and when classes are available, students attend training at Naval Special Warfare Center’s Advanced Training Command (ATC) in San Diego, or Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center in Edinburgh, Ind. Training includes a two-week photo intelligence course (PIC), four weeks of scouting/stalking training and a six –week shooting course.
According to Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Thomas Shea, leading chief petty officer of ATC’s west coast sniper cell, photography skills learned at this specialized course are nothing like you’d see on display in a Sears portrait studio.
“PIC is learning how to use the technologies of the computer system, how to take a picture, how to integrate that into a digital file, how to submit your reconnaissance information and push it forward to another unit,” Shea said. “It takes some effort and time in order to do that.”
PIC is like the calm before the storm. After successfully completing PIC, shooting proficiency of each sniper candidate is evaluated using a 200-yard test and a test for marksmanship on the M-4 rifle. Both tests qualify SEAL sniper candidates for scout reconnaissance and sniper courses.
The M-4 qualification test is a grouping test that requires students to shoot a certain amount of bullets in one area of a target. If students can group their bullets in one area, they move on to the second qualifier, which is a marksmanship test. According to Shea, the M-4 test is very difficult and cause of course attrition.
“What it proves to us is that he can hold a group of shots. So that lets us know that this guy can at least be trained further,” he said.
A scout reconnaissance and sniper class will start with about 40 men fighting for 32 slots. After the M-4 and marksmanship tests are complete, an average of 11 students is usually sent home. However, if a student passes the tests, he reaches the point of the course where a sniper candidate is motivated and rewarded by displaying patient perfectionism and level headed decision making in order to stay in the two courses.
“We teach them how to hide and how to be patient,” Shea said. “We teach a sniper how to use all of his tools, so he can’t be detected and ultimately, to take that shot and get out of there without getting caught. Those are the things that make you a sniper.”
Shea said that a sniper has to display fortitude and vigor, operate and move under the cover of his surroundings or night. For these silent warriors, patience is more than a virtue, it is a survival tool and way of life – especially when snipers are forced to stay completely still for hours or even days at a time to avoid discovery, waiting for the right moment to deliver that one shot.
Sandino agrees and believes the recreational hunting he did while growing up helped him successfully complete the course.
“I think part of the mindset is similar, as far as the patience required to successfully participate in hunting and sniping,” Sandino said. “You have to be patient as a hunter and you have to be patient as a sniper. The biggest difference is hunting is a recreation and the work that we do is mission oriented. The patience that’s required for sniper work exceeds that.”
Part of the patience Sandino references is achieved through mental management, which is a critical skill honed during training.
“The instructors and students are taught methods to control both the physiological and cognitive effects of stress and adversity,” said Cmdr. Eric Potterat, Naval Special Warfare Group 1 command psychologist. “Specifically, the focus is on learning and reinforcing techniques to minimize the human stress response and to optimize their mindset and ultimately, their performance. Some of these mental training techniques entail focus and concentration, visualization, breathing and heart rate control, compartmentalization and emotional control.”
Mental management also includes emotional control, which is paramount in suppressing Buck Fever, or the nervous excitement felt by an inexperienced hunter as he approaches his game.
“What we do is give the guy so many scenarios, that by the time it becomes real, his body doesn’t know the difference between the thousand hours he spends in training, to this one second in time where he’s actually pulling the trigger on a live target,” Shea said. “So with more training and more experience, all the Buck Fever dies away.”
Sniper training also demands versatility. SEAL snipers learn a great deal about technology and must be trained to expertly use four different weapons systems.
“We have a different feel for what we want our snipers to do,” Shea says. “The Army course is a two gun course, the Marine Corps course is a one gun course. But we have a four gun course. The other service courses are eight weeks long. Our courses are 10 weeks long, to incorporate the different tactics that we’re trying to teach, plus the number of gun systems that they have to learn. They have to meet the Special Forces common qualification standards, and then exceed it, if you will, to get the guys up to a level where we want them.”
Once a sniper meets his qualification standards and passes all of his courses, he can receive more training from NSW Group 1 Training Detachment (TRADET), where advanced training in technology, land and urban warfare are available.
“We’re a pretty dynamic cell,” said Chief Special Warfare Operator James Byrne, leading chief petty officer of NSW Group 1 TRADET sniper cell. “We tailor the training to the guys who are coming to TRADET.”
Byrne says that TRADET’s sniper cell also augments other TRADET departments, such as the land warfare department, by facilitating training scenarios that will help further enhance the SEAL sniper’s skills.
While a sniper’s skill set is vast, the one proficiency he has to take with him and apply to his everyday life is discipline. In the book “On Killing,” a study of techniques the military uses to overcome the powerful reluctance to
kill and how killing affects soldiers, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman asserts that no matter what, a sniper must always maintain his discipline, even while he’s at peace and there is no war.
Sandino agrees with Grossman’s statement and recalls how he maintained vigilance and discipline after a monumental event in his operational career – the day he killed his first bad guy.
“The first kill that I had was actually on a machine gun,” he reflected. “The drive to continue to work and accomplish the dismantling of an insurgent network – the drive to take those guys down remained the same without having a significant effect on my self-discipline or focus.”
Self-discipline, mental management and training have combined to keep snipers like Sandino alive and have helped send bad guys to their graves. In recent years, the sniper has become revered as one of the most vital battlefield specialists – and for good reason. Sandino and his peers are expert marksmen, intellectual, resourceful, patient and they practice common sense. The sniper is a master of his craft – both in training and on the field of battle, where his ability to make decisions must be quick and exact. His mental toughness and maturity help him manage the psychological toll associated with deliberately delivering death.
With growing concern from increased air strike civilian casualties in southern Afghanistan, snipers are playing an increasingly critical role there. Weighing collateral damage caused by air strikes and the cost-effectiveness
of sniping, the stock of men like Sandino is on the rise.