Nonfiction | June 01, 1998
Four days before the UN Security Council resolution will turn Desert Shield into Desert Storm, the team waits for the scouts on the south side of a dust-covered washout deep in the Iraqi desert. Their operation is illegal but necessary. Hays, the storekeeper, a thin man with pinched, worried shoulders, slumps against a rock. It is hot, 102 degrees. Across from him, the shade reaches out, but because the team’s pale desert camouflage best matches the bright, sun-bleached rocks, he must sit in the sun. The radioman tells him the temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, as he does every hour, whether Hays needs the information or not. Humidity can slow a bullet down, but today the humidity is negligible. The wind speed is seven knots–light for the desert.
The rifle lies across his thighs. A beige cloth sticks out of the muzzle as protection against the sand and dust. Sand fleas move through the hairs on his wrists and under the collar of his shirt. He reaches into his pack for more insect repellent, dabs some on his neck. The lens hoods on the scope are down, and Hays closes his eyelids, too. Sweat runs down his forehead and stings his eyes.
The scouts return. They’ve located an Iraqi observation post a little over a kilometer away. The guys say, “He’s just up there smoking cigarettes. They left this guy on a perch.”
The CO looks around. “What’s he have up there?”
“A radio and machine gun.”
The CO tightens his lips. “Hays,” he says. “Splash the target.”
Hays opens his eyes. For the first time, he is ordered to kill a man.
I got my first rifle when I was ten. It was a .22–a gift from my dad. He was the kind of man who could just look at a gun and tell what’s wrong. He’d glance over, say, Son, the bolt’s not locked down. And I’d think it was, but when I checked, sure enough, it wasn’t all the way locked down. Or he’d say, The shot’s right low–you’re pulling.
My father was in charge of auto parts distribution in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, and he was often gone. I knew when he was home he didn’t want to waste a lot of time teaching me how to shoot. He wanted to get out in the woods. So, I practiced.
One thing I did was take a toothpick and tape it to a garbage can. I’d start walking backward until I couldn’t see the toothpick anymore. Then I’d take one step forward and shoot it.
We hunted all over the wild country near our home in Sebastian County, Arkansas. My dad always seemed to know where the birds and squirrels were, though in truth he didn’t care much for squirrel hunting. He didn’t find it challenging. He preferred quail hunting. I thought squirrel hunting was sporting because the squirrels could hide in the trees.
One day, my dad showed me that deer hunting wasn’t so sporting. We were out bird hunting. I remember some snow remained on the ground, just in patches. He held up his hand and motioned for me to turn around. And I did, and there was a six-point buck about fifty yards away. I stood there for a second. The deer stood there looking at us. Then it ran off into the brush.
I said, “Wow, that’s pretty.”
He said, “See why I don’t hunt deer?”
I didn’t, so I said, “No.”
“Could you have hit that deer?”
“Sure, Dad. It’s as big as a barn.”
He said, “I rest my case.”
And that’s the last we said about it.
The bolt-action single-shot .50 caliber M88 that Hays carries was designed in 1988 by Wes Harris, then master gunsmith at G. McMillan and Company of Phoenix, Arizona, to meet specific Navy requirements. It was titled “a special application sniper rifle.”
The weapon has an effective range of 2000 meters (1.2 miles). With tactical optics, it weighs in excess of thirty pounds. According to G. McMillan’s technical manual, the M88’s purpose is to “provide the user with a system capable of a high probability of a destructive first round hit on identified point targets.” Hays’ instructors at sniper school called it the ultimate in overkill.
Hays rests the weapon against his shoulder and takes a small plastic case out of his shirt pocket. He removes earplugs and screws them into his ears, muffling exterior sound. He flips the switches on the scope that release the lens covers and scoots over to a low rock that has an unobstructed view to the northeast. He folds out the gun’s bipod and places its feet on the rock. According to the scouts, the target is about a kilometer away. He levels the weapon. Crouching, he moves his right eye to its sighting distance. Because the scouts’ directions are good, he finds the man almost immediately.
The man has his observational post in the sharp mountains. He holds a military crest, a ridge line below the actual crest of a hill. He has an excellent view of the low valley spread before him, but he is not silhouetted against the sky. Though a low row of sandbags lies in front of him, his head and chest are well within the reticle of Hays’ scope.
He is armed with what looks to Hays to be an American made M60 machine gun. Above his head, he has fashioned a sunscreen by draping a beige cloth over two prongs stuck into the sandbags behind him. The sunset casts the red sandstone into a deeper red.
Hays adjusts the split-image focus which is the range finder. Green numbers in the lower center of the sight compute the distance as Hays turns the dial mid-scope. The man’s M60 leans against his shoulder. Because the image shimmers with the heat waves, Hays uses the sharp lines of the gun barrel to join the upper section–the man with a concave wrap on his head–with the lower, his shoulders and the hands that rest passively on his weapon. When the two halves meet, Hays sees the range is 1219 meters.
The man turns his head in Hays’ direction. For an instant, they look at each other. Hays does not move. The man’s eyes remain unenlightened. On his ledge, from that distance, he cannot see Hays. The man puts his head down left and away, lights a cigarette. Then he returns his gaze to the eastern horizon.
We met in high school. I’d been playing football, had been injured, and I decided to take the band bus. I looked around and saw her sitting in the back, and I said, Goddamn, that is a good-looking woman. She was a majorette. So I got up and went back to where she was sitting. I sat down and more or less just told her, By God, we’re going together.
She was a perfect mother and a perfect wife. On a Friday night, we were out dancing, and I noticed a twinge in my left knee.
The morning after, my knee quit. I fell on my face. I couldn’t stand.
The doctor said, “Looks like you have some serious cartilage problem here. We’ll scope it. Two hours, you’ll be back.”
An in-outpatient deal. We scheduled the operation for a Thursday. She was caring for me, perfectly wonderful. They took me into surgery and six hours later I came out of surgery.
Six hours later, I’m in the recovery room. And my wife is standing there, but she is dressed differently. I made a mental check to see when she could have done that. I didn’t know at the time–that it had been six hours.
“Well, there was a problem,” she said.
I said, “Hi, Honey. You look awfully nice. What do you mean ‘problem’?”
“The doctor says you’ll be unable to walk for a while.”
I thought, two or three days. “Well, that’s no big deal,” I said.
“Here he is. He’ll tell you.”
The doctor explained that at some point I had my knee cap crushed, and that while most of it healed, some bone chips got between the two bones and acted as an abrasive. They chewed the bottom off of this bone and the top of this bone. He said I wouldn’t be walking for six months to a year.
When he was done, my wife leaned over, gave me a kiss, and said, “By the way, I’m going out.”
That’s why she was dressed up.
Something happened when that doctor said I was going to be gone, unable to do anything. What I think is she snapped right then and there. She blew a fuse.
It wasn’t a full year after that, maybe eight months, she said she was moving to New Orleans, and she was gone for good
I was completely devoted to her and our kids. I always built everything around that premise. That was the way I was raised. That was the way my parents were raised. And then, out of nowhere, this curve hit me.
The team carries three types of ammunition for the M88: armor-piercing DUs, “whitey petes,” and exploding ballistic tipped. Since Hays only takes out targets at a great distance, he does not need much ammo. They carry one box of each type, each box containing twelve rounds.
Because naturally occurring uranium contains only 0.7% of the fissionable U-235 isotope, the process of extracting fissionable U-235 for commercial and military applications creates the nuclear waste, depleted uranium (DU). This is the principle ingredient of the DU armor-piercing round. DU is two-and-a-half times more dense than steel and one-and-a-half times more dense than lead. The density of DU makes it possible to have a smaller bullet, with less air drag but the same mass as a larger round. The DU concentrates phenomenal weight onto a single point–more initial shock, more destruction. For example, the DU liquefies steel on contact and forces the molten steel out in its wake.
The white phosphorous round, “whitey pete,” is primarily used for munitions and fuel. Phosphorous is packed around a titanium spike, and then the entire bullet is covered in a protective skin. As the projectile travels through the barrel, its protective material wears off, and air friction ignites the phosphorous.
The ballistic-tipped round explodes on contact. The lead compresses a core of high explosive. This compression creates the heat which is the catalyst for the explosion. The ballistic requires less accuracy–even in a close hit, the shrapnel will kill or wound the target. For this reason, the Geneva Convention outlaws this round–more potential suffering. No one discusses the illegality of the round with Hays. The ballistic is necessary, like being there before the war starts is necessary.
The armor-piercing round is the most accurate of the three rounds the SEALs carry. After this first shot, Hays will take every other shot with a DU. For this shot, though, because he is nervous, he uses a ballistic.
My father called me about plumbing problems, and I went over. He met me outside. He took the grate from the side of the house and climbed into the crawl space. I handed through the toolbox and followed. We crawled along, ducking the girders and the joists. He led with the flashlight. I brought along the tools. I noticed we were passing the bathroom, but I only got suspicious when we passed the kitchen at the north end of the house. Finally he gets down into the far corner and rolls onto one elbow.
I said, “Dad, why are we here? We’re not here to fix the plumbing are we?”
“Son, what are you going to do?”
“About what?” I asked. I really didn’t know what he was talking about.
He said, “About your life.”
He laid the flashlight down and its light kind of faded off into the dark corner of the house, and all at once, I saw that he was exactly right.
He said, “I’ve already talked to your mother, and we would be willing to take on the kids.”
He’d been in the Navy and he recommended ships.
Hays supports the rifle butt with his left hand. The sweat has all but stopped dripping from his forehead, and he is glad for his eyes, but both his hands are perspiring. He knows he can make the shot, but he is nervous. All the man has to do is pick up the radio. Hays wants to make sure that if he misses, or the bullet just goes through a lung, it will take the man anyway. He gestures toward the ammo box containing the ballistic rounds.
A gunner’s mate hands him one. Hays puts the ballistic in his left hand and places his right hand, palm up, on the bolt handle. He rotates the bolt out of lock-down and slides it back.
He shifts the ballistic round from his left hand to his right. The round is nearly seven inches long and weighs one pound. He brings it up close to look at it, one last check for imperfections, and then, without thinking, he blows on it–purely ritual.
Because he doesn’t trust using the bolt to fit the bullet, he pushes it with his thumb, feeling it along the way, easing it into place. The shell’s case head clicks when it meets the chamber. Hays slides the bolt forward and locks it down. Then he taps the bolt handle to make sure it is locked down.
Hays has his left leg folded underneath him. His right leg is stretched out. He lifts his weight off the left. His movement is almost imperceptible. He rises. The rifle barrel comes down.
Since I’d completed two years of college and had a degree, I went to APG school. About the second week, Chief Petty Officer Pate calls me into her office. Pate was a hawk-nosed warhorse, a grade-A ball buster. And a wonderful woman. She taught me how to be a petty officer and a hell of a lot about what it means to be a human being.
She said, “So, Hays, what do you want to be?”
Well, that’s a good question. I mean, if I could be anything. And that’s how it felt to me, being in the Navy at that time. The world was ahead of me. So I’d given it a little thought. I said, “I want to be God.” Pate looked like she didn’t get it, so I said, “I want to be the guy they call.”
She nodded. “You want to be a storekeeper.”
I didn’t know what that was, but later I saw she was right. I thank her for that.
My first assignment was on the fast frigate, USS Fanning. Later I transferred to the St. Louis.
The scope is infrared capable and has Twilight Vision. It can detect wind speed. But Hays does not use the wind sensor because the wind at the rifle is not as important as the wind at the target, and for that he reads the mirage.
Hays’ scope does not have mechanical adjustments for Minutes of Angle and windage that would allow him to shoot dead-on in the crosshairs because, should the scope go out of whack in the field, it could not be accurately reset, and the weapon’s accuracy is Mission Critical for the SEALs. If the weapon cannot be counted on, then Hays will not be Mission Critical either–which means he can get sent into dangerous situations because he is expendable. Still, more important for Hays is that he have confidence that the weapon will perform the way it always has. Therefore, the vertical range line and the horizontal windage line of the scope’s reticle are calibrated with green marks for the DU round, white marks for “whitey pete,” and red for ballistic. Hays eyeballs his adjustment with the red marks. He is the only variable, and he does not vary.
The ship I was on, the USS Saint Louis, a 557-foot LKA, was in Sasebo, Japan. They were decommissioning the ship and parceling out the people. And me being the rate I was, an SK, I could pick anywhere in the world. I thought, I’ll go to the supply center in San Diego. So that’s what I did.
A week or two later my captain called me over.
I took my little notepad. “Yes, Sir. What can I do for you?” I figured he wanted cigars. You see I could get anything–anything.
He said, “Hays, how would you like to be attached to a SEAL team?
I said, “What do you mean attached to a SEAL team?
“They need a storekeeper.”
“Where is it?” I asked. “Not Little Creek is it?”
“Coronado,” he said “Two to three months max. They’re short a storekeeper.”
I said, “Great, I’ll do it.”
I packed my bags and a week later I was on Coronado. I found out that the previous storekeeper would sometimes take two or three days to fill an order. That’s particularly a problem with the SEALs because they’re used to getting what they want when they want it. Twenty-four hours is the rule.
So when I got there, I knew that the first thing to do was teach the team that I could do anything. If they got confidence in me right off the bat, I’d have the battle whipped. They’d all come to me and say, We need this.
Maybe my third day, the captain of the base, a type A personality cubed, called over and said he wanted Stinger missiles.
I said, “Sure. I can get you anything you want.” But I thought, Jesus, Stingers.
But I’d be damned if wasn’t going to get them. Now, I’d been to Stinger school. I knew they had them at Pendleton.
I called them, said, “I’ll send a helicopter.” Whatever it takes to get that captain what he wants, I’ll do. I’ll send a plane.
They said, “You’ll have to come yourself.”
“All right, I’ll be there.”
I ended up getting an old gunship, a Huey, to pick me up and take me over to Pendleton. Had to sign all this shit. I couldn’t believe how carefully they controlled those things. We’re back by two in the afternoon. Went over to the captain’s office.
He figured I was going to make some excuses. “Where did you want them delivered?” I asked.
He looked at me. I could tell he was surprised. “You got the Stingers?”
But that was my job. They ask for it. I get it. That’s the way to be a storekeeper.
There was only one time I didn’t get something in twenty-four hours. A SEAL comes in. He’s enormous. He asks for boots.
“Sure,” I said. “Right away. What size?”
He put his foot up on the counter. Size fifteen. That was the only time I didn’t get something in twenty-four hours. Goddamn it, that pissed me off. I don’t like to let someone down.
The ballistic-tipped bullet needs contact with a sturdy bone structure to explode. In humans, bone ossification is completed about the age of twenty-five. The last bone to ossify is the breast bone, the sternum. The target looks about twenty. Hays would like to take a sternum-to-spine shot, but the man faces due east. The bullet will be coming from the southwest at approximately a thirty-degree angle. He decides his trajectory should meet the target just below the man’s right pectoral muscle. In sniper school, he learned that any torso shot with the .50 will neutralize a soft target from the shock alone. Still, he has never seen that, and he knows a good shot requires an exact target, not an approximation. Hays believes he can make out a shirt pocket. This is where he wants the bullet.
The acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 meters per second squared. His scope has been bore sighted at 1000 meters. With the M88’s muzzle velocity of 2660 feet per second, the scope compensates for a drop of approximately ten feet at 1000 meters. Through the scope, Hays sees this as dead-on in the crosshairs; one thousand meters is his zero distance.
From Hays’ zero distance he elevates the crosshairs for the additional 219 meters. He uses the red calibrations on the reticle to adjust his Minutes of Angle for this added distance. The crosshairs settle on the man’s ear lobe. Then Hays compensates for the man’s elevation, which he approximates at 100 feet. Hays knows that a bullet’s curved path is dependent on the angle of opposition between the bullet’s velocity and earth’s gravity; therefore, he sights high. He moves the reticle from earlobe up and left of the frontal lobe. The man inhales cigarette smoke deeply, glad, perhaps, that the shade has stretched out to meet him.
When I was on the USS St. Louis, I was traveling around, winning marksmanship competitions. I had a specially built stainless steel Colt .45 Mark IV and, of course, I used an M16 rifle, too. To improve, I ordered the classified manuals on sniping–I could order whatever I wanted as storekeeper. I read them, though they mostly confirmed what I already knew. But they did give me more information on mirage.
When I was transferred to the SEAL team, I went where they went. One day, they flew from Coronado to the Navy firing range at Pendleton, and I was with them. They went out to take turns with a type of rifle that I’d never seen before. It was an M88, and they were shooting at something you couldn’t even see. Anyway, I ribbed them a bit.
I said, “You need a scope to hit that?”
A gunner’s mate had just missed. He said, “You’re so good, grandpa, you take a try.”
The other guys laughed.
The CO said, “Go ahead, Hays. Show these girls how it’s done.” I think he knew I could shoot.
I asked what the zero was, and he told me. So, I get down on my stomach and sight. It was a type A1 silhouette–a black outline of a man on a white background. It was near a sign that told the distance, over a thousand meters. And I saw that the problem they had was the mirage. I read it and fired. The CO said it was a hit.
I said, “I know,” cocky. I sure didn’t say anything about the pain from the recoil, because there’s not much that humbles a SEAL, and it’s great to shut those guys up.
They were there that day to find a guy for sniper school, for a sniper for Iraq. I didn’t know that. I was only there on cross-assignment. They were supposed to cut me loose. And I was too old. And I didn’t have the right psychological makeup–I was too logical. But I had to take that shot, to prove that I could do it.
Rising heat waves cause mirage. Late afternoon mirage is worse because the sun’s heat, absorbed all day long by the desert, is released. While mirage can sometimes make a target appear to be where it is not, read correctly, it can tell the sniper where the target is, and what the weather is doing at the target.
Because the man is isolated, he is an easy read. His image shakes with the rising waves–he is “scared.” Behind him the mirage of the hill, a mirror image of the hill, reaches up and skates off to the north. The hill is scared in the same way as the man, with shimmering waves crossing both. The left side of the mirage flickers in and out, vanishes. From this, Hays sees that the wind comes from the left side, moving from south to north. The man’s image skates left, too. He sits in a crosswind. From the angled ascent of the mirage, Hays estimates a ten-knot wind. The bullet’s thirty-degree approach cuts Hays’ ten-knot adjustment in half. He brings his sight just left, over the man’s shoulder.
The man has not finished his cigarette, and Hays does not want him to. When he finishes the cigarette, he may do something sudden. Hays knows; he used to smoke.
There were twelve people on the team. Of course, no one was allowed to wear insignia. There was a radioman–RM, Second Class Petty Officer. He was in charge of talking to the people in Scotland, the guys looking at the satellite pictures. That was his job.
We had at least four or five gunner’s mates, and they ranged in rate from Third Class Petty Officer to First Class Petty Officer. They carried M60 machine guns. They were in control of all the weapons except my rifle.
Two guys from Operations. They were big guys. On a ship, Operations specialists are primarily concerned with radar. They’re the guys who write on those acrylic boards backward. Here, one of them was a painter. But actually, in the end, everyone got to paint.
Two CHT guys. On the ship, they would be plumbers and take care of the CHT tanks. Why see them out there as warriors? Well, there again, they had the build, the mentality.
We had a boiler technician. On the ship, his job was to take care of the boiler, obviously. On the SEAL team his job was to kill people. That was his job.
The rest of the team was comprised of boatswain mates. In the Navy, the boatswain mates are full-time drunk and disorderly. And these guys could shoot. Not as good as me, unfortunately.
Our mission was to paint. We got into a position about a mile away, depending on the size of the target. The laser was a box about a foot long, two inches wide, with a scope. The aircraft flew at thirty thousand feet, above the clouds. From there they dropped their missiles and bombs–the laser-guided ones. The aircraft would be past the target before the things even hit.
But we were there. We were putting down very specific radar information, just for those bombs.
It takes two men. One lights up the target. Usually he’s lying down with the bipod set up. The other guy has an infrared reader. The guy with the IR sees what the radar’s on and then he says, Stay right there. Even though the painter can’t see the laser, he stays right on what’s in his crosshairs.
The bombs go only to the reflected signal, and we make it big with a spreading device, an aperture in the box.
We radio that we’re set up and in position. They acknowledge the transmission. We wait. Then, we get a call that the missile’s launched, or the bird’s in the air, how long it will take to be there, and what direction it’s coming from. Then we paint the target. After a little while, it blows up. And it was amazing because we would be painting a target, pretty close by, and the thing would just blow up. There was no whine from those bombs. We didn’t see them. It would just fucking blow up.
The operation of the M88’s bolt automatically flips the safety back. Hays’ also acts automatically. With a swivel of his thumb, he arches the safety forward.
I knew it was illegal, but I justified it because our mission was to paint specific critical targets. Really important targets. Not scud missile sites, or something. Germ warfare, chemical warfare plants, beginnings of things like nuclear power plants that can be used to make plutonium. Really critical shit that they wanted destroyed first strike. If they went in and carpet-bombed the targets, they were going to kill hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t need to die. By painting, we were certain of hitting what we wanted to hit.
But as I lined up the shot, the thought that it was illegal didn’t cross my mind. The thought that I shouldn’t be there didn’t cross my mind. The thought that this guy was going to die didn’t cross my mind. The only thought that went through my mind was, I can’t let this SEAL team down. I would be devastated to let them down.
Hays’ index finger touches the trigger at the center of the pad where his whorls peak. He exhales. He inhales. He is not concerned with remaining still. He concentrates on his projected trajectory. He concentrates on reaching out to his target. Because anticipation might cause him to flinch, he empties his mind of the future, of the inevitable, retina-jarring recoil. He exhales half his breath and holds–just for a moment. The trigger has a single step, smooth-as-glass pull. Twenty-two milliseconds pass before the firing pin falls upon the primer.
At the blast, he is surprised. The bullet spirals out of the barrel as he takes the recoil like fluid into his chest. Involuntarily, he shuts his eyes against the impact.
The bullet leaves the muzzle of the M88 at over twice the speed of sound–a penetrating sound, in this case, which kicks up dust in a ten-foot radius around Hays. Everyone holds their hands over their ears except the spotter, who has plugs in his ears and watches the target through binoculars. Some of the team, those who stand in the sound wave’s expanding path, feel the vibration in their gut. The sound spreads out and echoes off rock and the opposite bank and the surrounding hills. It echoes in their ears.
Meanwhile, the bullet’s boat-tail is reducing air drag and allowing the bullet to retain optimum velocity. Involuntarily, Hays opens his eyes. The bullet meets the target in one and six-tenths of a second. The man is not surprised. He is unaware, because the bullet meets him in silence.
The major destructive force of a small caliber bullet is the result of the permanent wound channel–the tubular path the bullet makes as it passes through a body. Because the sniper wants one shot to achieve his objective, he might choose to induce unconsciousness and eventual death with a hit to the vascular organs such as the heart or liver, or by cutting major blood vessels, such as the groin’s femoral artery or the carotid arteries in the neck; however, a target might retain consciousness and muscular control for up to ten seconds. Therefore, a sniper prefers a hit on the spine–the higher the better–and best yet, a brain stem shot which requires hitting something about the size of a golf ball that sits at the base of the cranium. Snipers leave nothing for chance. They care only for accuracy.
Yet for Hays, it is not the permanent wound channel that causes his target to splash.
The second way a bullet affects a soft target is through temporary cavitation, which is the result of the shock wave, the moving molecules that are the projectile’s wake. It is this shock wave produced by all bullets which will cause a full beer can to explode, but leave an empty one sitting peacefully. The wake of the liquid is forced outward by the impact and bursts through the tin can. Because most human tissue is flexible, the shock wave causes only a temporary inflation and cannot generally be counted on for destruction.
However, since the shock wave is proportional to the kinetic energy of the projectile, which is a reflection of its velocity and its ability to retain that velocity–its mass–the prodigious shock wave that accompanies Hays’ .50 caliber ballistic does not allow the tissue to retain its flexibility. Instead, the tissue absorbs the energy of the .50, expresses it through velocity, is forced outward like wake, and does not come back. The target goes splash.
This is what happens to the man: His chest splashes; his spine dents the lead; the high-explosive core compresses; the heat acts as catalyst; the solid powder turns to voluminous gas; the lead bursts outward.
The sound wave follows–crosses the washout, passes up into the hills and over the perch, to be lost in the distance forever.
Hays snaps the lens covers down on his scope. He twists his earplugs out and places them in their case.
Hays does not cross the washout with the SEALs. The SEALs go up the hill first to make sure there isn’t anybody hiding. Then they make a hand motion for Hays to come up. He goes up and stands on the edge of the site. There isn’t a sound. He can tell they are amazed. He thinks, these guys are badasses–for-real badasses, and not a word crosses their lips. He knows the assumption is, you have done this, you are proud of it. Hays thinks that the man looks like a big animal has come in and destroyed him–like his spine has been taken out, like something reached in and took it out of him, laid it off to the side. And there is a strange smell. He knows it is the smell of death, plain and simple.
There is no way to clean him up, so they leave him.
They move away from the washout, meander north. The red glow in the west sinks. The stars appear more brilliant with the passing moments, moving with the darkness from east to west. The cold comes. They walk three or four miles. The SEALs have their night vision, Cyclops, on. Hays does not have one, so he follows behind, tracing their silhouettes against the desert rock. The wind picks up and then dies. For Hays, the air smells clean, empty, even though he smells his own body odor and the insect repellent heating on his neck
When they stop, they just stop for a rest. He opens his pack and eats some MRE–Meals Ready to Eat. He stows the rest.
The CO motions, and they cluster for the briefing. Hays stays on the outskirts. He wants to seem like he is part of the group. He isn’t really; his only job is to shoot. The CO talks about where he thinks they should be at the end of the next day. Then he asks the team how they think the day went.
“Well, the old man can shoot,” one says.
Some others agree. Hays doesn’t move. He does not say anything.
Afterwards, he moves off and takes a cleaning kit from his pack. He opens the rifle’s breech and takes out the bolt. He has a mirror, like a dentist’s mirror, that he places in the breech. Then he shines a red light down the barrel. He looks at the mirror and the reflected light to see if there is any crud. There is. There always is. He pokes a brush through two or three times, then he puts down the rod, slips a patch in the slot, soaks the patch with Break-Free, pulls it through. It pulls out, twisting along with the rifling. He looks at the patch. He checks the barrel again with the mirror and the red light.
In all, Hays takes nine shots and has nine confirmed kills. He is perfect. The war ends.
Seven years later, the Navy calls him. They ask if he would like to come back and teach marksmanship. He won’t do it. At thirty-nine, he’s back in college completing a psychology degree–not on the GI bill. He doesn’t want any of that. His oldest daughter will attend university in the fall. His son has begun at military school. His youngest daughter is competing in cheerleading competitions. All is well. But that is not why he won’t take the Navy’s offer. His vain hope is that time will push his memory to the vanishing point. He no longer wishes to see so far.
Mirage is real. The light from an image bends as it passes through different air densities. Hays’ dreams are real. Neither is the thing it reflects, but both indicate where that thing is. Many people will dream of moments of fanatical concentration. Hays dreams repeatedly of the man smoking his cigarette, the man inhaling, perhaps because Hays is smoking again, too. Then he looks for the lack of surprise in the man’s eyes. For some reason that is important to Hays, that the man didn’t know it was coming. But as he watches, the image starts to skate away. That is generally when Hays realizes he is viewing the man through a scope, that its reticle is superimposed on the man’s image: crosshairs that for years were made from a black widow’s silk webbing. In this, engineers followed nature. Hays followed those who believe that through the intellect we might become sublime. Hays has no natural killer instinct. From over a kilometer away, there is no need. Instead, Hays calculates the distance, elevation, wind velocity and direction. What he does is all intellect. And in a sense, his action is sublime, in that it is perfect. And it is through perfection that we find our closeness to God.
Still, it is an ugly purpose. And for Hays, in his dreams, he will forever be reading the mirage, not for some small hope of absolution, but in order to calculate the shot.
When I squeezed the trigger, it was like there was a different person there. I wasn’t being me. I was more or less the guy who could get you anything you want. I could work miracles. And I carried that well. I think I did really good at that. Then they put me into killing people, and that’s not my bag. But they asked. And I agreed.
It was when I was flying home that I decided to give up all my guns. My father had died recently. He wouldn’t have understood my reasons. He’d say the gun is just a tool. And he’d be right. Still, I got home, I took my son to the gun cabinet and said, “All these are yours now. You take care of them.” The Mark IV, the over-under, all of them.
And he said, “I’ll take care of them, sir.”
I never told my son what my job was over there. A storekeeper, I tell him. He knows what that is.
The thing is, sometimes I feel if I had not taken that shot at Pendleton . . . I think that right there was a turning point in my life. Or at least, that’s the way I’ve chosen to accept it, that I had no choice in the matter.
Let me put it this way, I don’t want to see any of my old colleagues, anyone I was on the ship with. I’m not going to go to any reunions. I’m trying to forget it. I want to start over with square one. Because if what I’d thought before was true–that my entire life had led up to and was completed with the Storm–if the last shot I took was the climax of my life, then the rest of my life is an anti-climax, and I don’t want to look at it like that. I don’t want to look at my last shot as the high point. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not the high point.
I deserve to have a better memory than that.
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