Touch of an Angel
At another time, on another battlefield, my radio call sign had been “Gabriel,” because the archangel and I have a lot in common. Legend says Gabriel’s trumpet will sound the last judgment. I do the same sort of thing with my rifle.
In 1993, I was the sergeant in charge of a Marine sniper section with Task Force Somalia, and on the evening of January 6, General Jack Klimp barked, “Gabriel, the 10th Mountain CP [command post] says they are under attack. Grab a couple of your boys and go check it out.” I took a three-vehicle convoy bristling with machine guns through the north gate of the Mogadishu stadium, turned right for about thirty yards, then hung a sharp left on the 21 October Road, the main drag through the tattered capital of the famine-gripped country. Resting between my knees was a M82A1A Special Application Scoped Rifle (SASR), a .50 caliber beast of a weapon that weighs more than twenty-eight pounds and fires an armor-piercing incendiary tracer bullet that can punch a big hole through a sheet of steel, and an even bigger hole through flimsy flesh.
Dusk had not yet settled over the city, so the temperature still simmered in the nineties, and children who resembled the walking dead begged for food as we passed. Some three hundred thousand people had already starved to death in Somalia, and many more would die as long as the feuding warlords chose to violently expand their fiefdoms rather than feed and protect their people. When I saw flies crawl on the face of a dead child, it was easy to hate the vicious fighters who were causing such slaughter.
We called the ragtag militia “Skinnies” and “Sammies.” It is natural for a Marine to denigrate the enemy, because it helps dehumanize them. The Germans were “Krauts” in the big wars, the North Koreans and Chinese were “gooks” in Korea, and in Vietnam the enemy was “Charlie.” We had to call them something and didn’t want to think of them as real people, for that might make us hesitate for a fatal moment. The old saying “Know your enemy” does not apply in such cases, for some things are better left unknown.
I had alerted my boys to be ready for a fight because once out of the stadium we never knew if someone would shoot at us. There were always snaps of random gunfire sparking around Mogadishu, but the entire route to the command post of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, about a hundred yards off the 21 October, was quiet. The gates of the walled compound swung open as we approached, and we were welcomed by a colonel who apparently had been expecting the whole damned Marine Corps to come charging over the hill. Instead, they got me and about ten other guys.
The 10th Mountain, a strong division with thousands of combat troops, was spread out all over and beyond Mogadishu and had left only a few security troops to protect their headquarters, in the heart of a city that seethed with unrest. Nevertheless, other than some chipped plaster on the outside walls, I saw no sign that any dangerous firefight had taken place.
The colonel didn’t know he was dealing with a Marine sergeant, since we never wore rank insignia in combat situations, so he treated me as an equal. He escorted me up to the third floor of the command post building, and I put up a hand to shield my eyes from the glaring sunlight. Only six hundred yards away were three long warehouses that our intelligence sources said were packed to the rafters with weapons of the warlords. As long as the guns stayed inside, there was no problem, but if the militiamen decided to come out and play, they would be more than this group of cooks, bakers, and candlestick makers could handle.
A lot of people were hurrying around those warehouses, busy movement with nothing getting done, for they were not taking things in and out. Every so often, they would steal a glance over at us. Although there had been no more than the occasional harassing shot so far, I believed that these guys were doing more than just passing through the area and that the situation had the potential to worsen. I told the colonel I’d be right back, and my Marines and I sped back to the stadium, racing to beat the approaching darkness.
General Klimp, the commander of the Marines in Task Force Mogadishu, had been receiving similar reports from other intelligence sources, and by the time I got back to the stadium headquarters, his staff was already laying plans for how to deal with the situation brewing around the warehouses.
Ever since arriving at the stadium on the last day of 1992, American forces had been out patrolling the dangerous streets and taking guns away from thugs. The orders were to let them surrender, but dealing with these maniacs one by one was a slow business. Klimp figured that if they were converging on the warehouses, we could bag a bunch at one time, so he gave orders to surround the buildings, not let anyone in or out, and blare a Psy Ops message over loudspeakers throughout the night telling the militias not to fight and to surrender at dawn. With any luck, they would disobey.
Klimp then told me to establish an overwatch position, and I once more hustled my boys back through the streets and back into the 10th Mountain compound. By the time night fell, I was on the roof with three other snipers, a couple of guys with M-60 machine guns, and a forward air controller, known as the FAC, to coordinate helicopter gunship backup when the ground troops moved in at dawn.
I found a spot between an air-conditioner duct and the three-foot-high parapet that surrounded the roof and squeezed into a tight sitting position, my boots and butt making a solid three-point stance, elbows on knees and eye to the 10-power Unertl telescope on the big SASR rifle, which rested on a pad across the parapet. I had a marvelous field of view, and the powerful scope brought everything into such sharp relief that I felt I could reach out and physically touch the men moving around the warehouses. Measuring with our laser range finders, we jotted out green range cards to show the exact distance between us and every building, window, and pile of junk behind which an enemy might hide.
As night finally came about 7:30 p.m., a snipers’ nest manned by some of the best marksmen in the Marines had been created above a potential battlefield. I checked my weapon one more time—one big .50 caliber round in the chamber and five more in my clip—then slipped on my night vision goggles. If something happened, I had no intention of letting it devolve into a fair fight.
Few things in nature are as punishing as an African storm that tries to convert the parched land into a swamp in only a few hours. The scalding heat of the day vanishes in an instant, it is difficult even to breathe because so much water is falling, and the rain chills the bones and rapidly lowers the body temperature. Just such a storm swept in from the Indian Ocean about an hour after nightfall. Our carefully prepared snipers’ “hide” began to feel more like an icy swimming pool, and we took turns going inside to get a cup of hot coffee and stay dry for a few minutes. One of my boys tore the canvas top from a Humvee and ripped it into crude shelters, but there was no real escape from the pounding rain. We were miserable.
Worse, the sheets of rain degraded our night vision goggles and left us blind to what was going on around the warehouses, although we could hear people shouting and motors turning over. The Skinnies were making mischief.
Dawn, the demanded time for surrender, approached. Our missile-carrying Cobra helicopters were inbound, guided by the FAC, who was working the radios beside me. We had not slept at all, and as the rain tapered off, we threw aside the canvas covers and stood to our guns, while our goggles showed blurred images of an incredible scene. A bunch of gunmen were in positions of cover, and the Skinnies had rolled out a couple of T-52 tanks and a big radar-guided antiaircraft weapon, a ZSU-23/4, which had four 23 mm cannons and is known as a “Zeus.” If the choppers arrived on schedule, that thing could blow them out of the sky. “Abort! Abort!” the FAC screamed into his radio handset.
We had wanted a fight, and it looked like we would get one, but we still gave them a final chance to surrender. As the loudspeakers shouted the warning, I heard General Klimp speaking calmly into my headset. “Gabriel, can you take out that Zeus without hurting anybody else?”
“Yes,” I replied, forgetting to add “sir.” I was curt because I was busy, firmly locked into a rigid sitting-Indian position with my body square behind the rifle, and with my scope sighted on the ammunition feed tray of the ZSU. If ordered, I would disable the big gun. The Cobras had come to a halt and were hovering just behind our building, their rotor blades thudding like a mad drummer. The Zeus gunner heard them, too, and began cranking his weapon up to aim directly over our rooftop position in order to catch the arriving choppers when they popped into view.
As usual, just before combat, life slowed down for me. It is as if a viewer is fast-forwarding a movie and then suddenly clicks to slow motion. My eyesight sharpens; I can hear the slightest sound but can tune it out if it is not important. Even my sense of smell is heightened. I believe that a really good sniper not only has muscle memory developed by years of constant practice but also has some special unknown gene in his body chemistry, because I was operating more on instinct than on training.
I looked carefully past the feed tray and examined the magnified image of the gunner seated between the two pairs of mounted cannons. He wore a dirty T-shirt and some kind of cutoff trousers, with flip-flop sandals on his feet. I had a good line.
“Take the shot,” said the general, and I fired, taking the big kick of the recoil as my rifle thundered. The heavy round punched through the metal feed tray, then slammed into the gunner like a bowling ball going a hundred miles an hour. The last I saw of him, he was flipping upside down over the back of the seat, thin legs splayed in the air, and barefoot because he was blown right out of his sandals.
My shot started the battle and brought an answering blast from another Zeus. Its big rounds chewed at the concrete, green tracers laced the dawn sky, and we dove beneath the parapet for cover. That was only a momentary reaction. My spotter shouted, “You gotta engage or he’ll tear this building apart! Stop him, Jack!” Chunks of cement exploded around us as the quadruple cannon rattled nonstop. I had rolled over like a turtle, still in the cross-legged position, and my spotter grabbed my collar with his left hand to help yank me up straight again.
Fighting had erupted all around the perimeter of the warehouses, and the din was incredible, but all we were concerned with was that Zeus. I came over the parapet again with that green shit flying all around and shells smashing the building. I opened up at the very center mass of the Zeus, killing this gunner, too, and my armor-piercing bullets tore the weapon apart.
The tanks were next, and my boys took down every Skinny who tried to climb aboard them. In case anyone was already inside, I reloaded and put three bullets into the hulls where a gunner would be, then three more into the driver’s positions. Our two machine gunners poured fire into the militiamen and around the perimeter; our grunts took care of anyone they saw with a gun. Then I began searching for, and finding, what are called “targets of opportunity.”
The Marine Cobra helicopters rose up and joined the fight, coming in right over our heads and unleashing a deafening typhoon of missiles, cannon, and snarling machine gun fire on the warehouses. Their rotor blasts threatened to tear us off the building, and their spent brass showered down on us, steaming hot. Then a couple of Marine tanks lumbered into the area and added even more firepower. The cease-fire command came only about four minutes after I had made the first shot, and the absolutely devastated area fell silent. Flames ate at the warehouses, and columns of smoke blackened the morning sky.
Then, off to the right, another Skinny with an RPK light machine gun jumped into a window and opened up on the grunts below. My spotter looked quickly at the range card we had sketched earlier, saw that the window was exactly 623 yards away, and called the shot. “Target One—Alpha 623!” he called, and three snipers put the guy just a little above the crosshairs of their scopes to allow for a bit of an arc at that distance. We all fired at the same instant, and the guy was torn apart when our three rounds simultaneously exploded into his chest, shoulder, and stomach. The grunts rushed in to clear those buildings, and another cease-fire was ordered.
I pushed in a fresh five-round clip and scanned the area carefully. A tall, strangely well-groomed man was on the balcony of a nearby building, waving to militiamen gathered below. I locked onto him but, under the rules of engagement, did not fire, since he was not a direct threat and the men below were only milling about. A “technical,” a truck with a machine gun mounted on the back, drove up, and gunmen congregated around it. I didn’t know whether this guy was a warlord, but he sure seemed to be organizing a counterattack. I reported the situation and was told that if the gate to that compound opened, I was to take him out.
People around the man began pointing and gesturing my way, and when the man on the balcony turned, he saw a big SASR rifle and the large eye of my telescope pointing straight at his nose. He dropped his hands slowly and went inside, leaving the men in the courtyard below as a leaderless mob. This fight was over.
The 10th Mountain compound had a mess tent, and the cooks, bless their hearts, had been busy at their stoves while the fighting raged outside the walls. After the long night in the rain and the ferocious battle, my boys and I were starved, and I loaded a plate with potatoes, eggs, and some awesome links of sausage. We had stood down, but my adrenaline was still pumping and my combat senses were still sharp. The taste buds were wide-awake, and I shoveled in the food. My fellow snipers and I yelled insults at each other, and everything was in vivid color.
The colonel who had welcomed me came into the tent. He was one of those big dudes, a six-foot-something who looked sharp in his creased battle-dress uniform with a pistol on his hip. He swaggered to our table and looked with disdain at the stack of food disappearing into me, a man who had just finished killing a bunch of people. “How can you sit here and eat like this?” he asked.
“I’m fucking hungry,” I replied, detecting a problem. A hush settled over the mess tent.
“Well,” said the colonel with a rather theatrical sigh, “I guess that’s the difference between us.”
I stand five-nine and weigh 165, but I never back down from bullies. I rose from the bench and moved into his personal space. “No. The difference between us is that I don’t squeal for help when somebody shoots at me.”
The colonel huffed, and his eyeballs bulged with surprise. “Who the fuck are you, anyway? What’s your rank?” He still had no clue, pulling this chickenshit routine right after we had saved his ass.
I had been through too many fights in too many places on this planet to take any shit from this guy, colonel or no. Hell, he had probably been shuffling papers at his desk a few nights ago when I was out on foot patrol in the rain with the French Foreign Legion. “My name is Gabriel,” I said, smirking. My senses were quivering again, my muscles tense. I knew my boys had my back if an Army-Marine brawl erupted. “And my rank is none of your damned business. You got a problem, take it up with General Klimp.”
The first sergeant stepped between us before anyone threw a punch. The colonel left, we finished our meal and returned through quiet streets to the stadium. Instead of chewing me out, General Klimp signed the papers awarding me a Navy–Marine Corps Commendation Medal for my work that day.
The Army colonel had been wrong to believe that snipers, who are specially trained for years not to let emotion get in the way of the job, do not have human responses. We just don’t let anyone see them.
It was later that evening when my body, exhausted from the lack of sleep and the exertions of the day, told me it was time to be alone. I found a shadowy storage room deep beneath the stadium, sat on a wooden crate, and allowed myself a private, two-minute nervous breakdown. During combat, I never doubt what I am doing, but it does get to me later, and I shook like a leaf as I sat there and reviewed the carnage I had caused that day.
There had been a lot of shooting out there, but I carried the big gun, and I had put holes in tanks, technicals, armored vehicles, and people. I was credited with eight confirmed kills and probably got more than that, but numbers never matter. I remembered each target vividly, seeing them again just as I had with my scope when I blew away their last moment of life. These regular little sessions with myself are as close as I come to thinking of the enemy as individual human beings who might have families and dreams and identities of their own. Today, they were trying to kill Americans, so I had no choice but to do my job before they could do theirs.
I was not wallowing in some trough of melancholy or depression, for these moments are merely chances to let my brain catch up with what my trigger finger has been doing. After a few minutes, the shaking subsided, and with my self-examination done, I got my shit together and went back to work.
Copyright © 2005 by Gunnery Sgt. Jack Coughlin, USMC, and Capt. Casey Kuhlman, USMCR, with Donald A. Davis