By Fred Dickey © 2002
For Penthouse Magazine
The man is kneeling in the tall grass, unmoving as a lizard on a rock. He has learned the finesse of the expert killer, which is not to threaten but to lull. He had been here for hours, since long before the blazing noonday sun rose slowly as a red ball to absorb the night chill. In his face-paint and artful camouflage, he doesn’t exist.
The muscles of his young legs are locked into place without pain. When he moves, rarely, it is in slow motion, like a mime on valium. A drink of water takes minutes from when he reaches for his canteen. A leech is growing fat on the back of his neck, but he ignores it, knowing the creature will balloon with blood, then harmlessly fall off. Insects have worked inside his pants and shirt, but he blocks the itching from his mind. Earlier, he observed a deadly krait from a few yards distant, but the snake crawled indifferently away, two predators taking a pass on each other. He sucks on granulated coffee from C-rats which he holds under his lip like
His eyes are fixed on a point far out in Indian Country, as this battle zone of Vietnam just below the DMZ is called. He ignores all else. A half-mile out in the middle of a rice paddy are ant-like dots. However, when he lifts his rifle and looks through the scope, the figures turn into three men dressed as farmers, apparently headed for a day’s work. But the AK-47s they carry inadequately hidden reveal them as enemy soldiers—at least for a few more moments.
He looks expectantly at his spotter. The other man is absorbed in his binoculars, but senses the question, and answers in a single hushed word. “Clear.” There are no other NVA in sight. He returns his eye to the scope and locks his brain into cruise control. He shifts the instrument from one man to another. They look alike, and all are fair game, but since he will allow himself only one shot, which one? God should be so arbitrary. The scope is filled with the men, but he sees them as objectives, not as fellow humans. He doesn’t look at their faces or their eyes. No point. This isn’t personal. He notices one talking and the others listening. He looks more carefully at the soldier and sees that he carries a pistol at his side. Officers carry pistols. He is the one who will die today.
He settles the crosshairs on the man’s chest—center mass. He estimates the distance…700 meters. His scope is sighted in on 500 meters, so he elevates the rifle slightly. The breeze on his cheek says the wind is about 12 m.p.h. from the left. He moves the barrel slightly in that direction—maybe a quarter inch, but not three-eights. The death moment is now. He suspends breathing and gently tightens his finger. The stock slams into his shoulder, but he holds his head and grip just for a moment. Follow through. Tiger Woods. Michael Jordan. He is that kind of good.
His view suddenly empties. He shifts the scope and sees his target on the ground. Nothing moves except the seeping blood. The other two men look down, then around: stunned, then frantic. They had heard nothing, but know death is keen-eyed and out there somewhere. He could easily kill both, but his own iron rule says otherwise—one shot, one kill.
Chuck Mawhinney, skinny 20-year-old sniper from the mountains of Oregon, and spotter Bob “Sugar Bear” Bryant, a burly black youth from inner-city Philadelphia, turn without a word and start back at a cautious but fast hunched-over trot to the Marine perimeter more than a half-mile distant. It has been a productive day. An average one for the Marine acknowledged as the most successful sniper of the Vietnam War.
Mawhinney is older now, 53, and he walks with a slight limp from a hip gone bad from first carrying 100 pounds of gear through rice paddies during the worst years of the war, ’68 to ‘70, and then from years after of trying to make mountain roads passable for the U.S. Forest Service. He is about six-two and rangy. He dresses in the casual practicality of the mountain man. His skin is leathered and clear. His eyes are always moving, not nervously, but in reaction to every motion, in the way of the lifelong hunter who always gets his deer. He has a soft-spoken sandpaper sense of humor, but he rubs it in gently. He lives in an
Mawhinney had been a teen-age hellraiser—“I liked to fight a little and race motorcycles, sometimes with cops chasing me.” His enlistment was the alternative offered by a probation officer who persuaded authorities to give the wild kid an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I was gonna join the Navy, but when I went down to the recruiting office, I got in the Marines line by mistake. When I asked the gunny sergeant if this was the Navy line, he screamed, ‘You fuckin’ pussy, get out of my line! Get over there with the girls!’” Mawhinney chuckles. “I kinda liked his personality, so I stayed in his line.”
The old sniper is now retired from the Forest Service and has long-since become domesticated. At the moment he is worrying about a pork loin on the barbeque. If he wants a cigarette, he obediently leaves the house, and he watches how many Keystone Lites he drinks. For a quarter-century, his coworkers and neighbors knew nothing unusual about him: Just another good-guy neighbor, a blue-collar fellow with a modest house, a friendly wife and healthy kids. When he and his buddies would get together for beers on Fridays after work, he was the one who said nothing when the talk turned to war bragging.
“You’d get these guys who were in motor pools or supply back in DaNang, and they’d talk about their night missions, and bullshit like that. ‘I was a bad sumbitch,’ and all that stuff. I’d just sit and listen. If they asked me about the war, I’d just tell ‘em I was lucky, I didn’t get drafted.” He is still amused by the ruse.
A few years ago, however, Mawhinney’s years of silence about his war record came to an end in the pages of a paperback, “Dear Mom: A Sniper’s
There’s always a question about such statistics. Who’s counting? In Mawhinney’s case, it was primarily his squad leader, Mark Limpic, now a 56-year-old engineer in
Of the skinny kid who followed his orders, Limpic says: “Chuck was an incredible shot and a guy who knew terrain like a wolf. Helluva Marine. He was the real deal.”
Today, Mawhinney is trying to make the best of the notoriety that he didn’t seek by teaching sniper skills to police department SWAT teams across the country, where he must seem like Ted Williams demonstrating how to hit a curve ball. He’s suddenly in demand because the War on Terror has made heroes out of Special Operations soldiers, and SWAT-team snipers are no longer seen as psychopaths with means. He knows, as does every police officer, that the frontline of that war could erupt on the main street of any town in
Though he hates to leave the mountains, even for a few days, Mahwinney contributes a few weeks out of the year to help the cops. “I’m sure as hell no professor. When all this falderaul about what I did first started, some guy called and asked me to go to a sniper symposium. I had to ask my wife, ‘What the hell’s a symposium?’ Anyway, I don’t lecture, I just plain talk, and the best learning comes sitting around over beers after class.”
Recognition has also brought Mawhinney into uncomfortable proximity with sniper wannabes and hangers-on. He scoffs at the bravado slogans that make the rounds in that shadow world: “The only thing I feel is the recoil.” “You can run, but you’ll only die tired.” “Can you see something like that on the side of a police car?” he asks, and shakes his head.
He tells of being invited to a sniper event in
Mawhinney teaches cops the military skills that worked for him in
The threat of the War on Terror is no melodrama to Mawhinney. He understands sudden death and how easy it is to inflict. “There’s shit that could happen that you don’t see on TV talk shows. Let me tell ya: We worry about planes being hijacked; well, a sniper can get a .50-caliber sniper rifle on the Internet, and dig a spider trap [concealed hole] as far as a mile away from where the planes are parked on the tarmac. He can use incendiary bullets and blow the shit out of about a dozen of those planes. You’d have goddamn explosions going off all over.” He can see it in his mind, and he shakes his head. “We have to have people trained for that bullshit.
“I teach cops how to think like a sniper and a scout. A sniper, when he’s in position, is apart from the main scene, so he’s watching and sizing-up. He’s the intelligence for the rest of the operation. When he settles in, he starts sketching with his eyes.” Mawhinney imagines a scene. “There’s dog shit on the ground. Where’s the dog? What kind is it? There’s a swing set on the lawn. Probably kids in the house. Where? How many? If we move in at night, what yard junk do we have to not trip over?” Mawhinney leans back and rolls the Keystone can in his big hands. “The sniper makes a mental map of the situation and of every detail because people could live or die on what’s he’s seen. That’s a helluva lot harder to learn than the shooting.”
He gives an example from
Mawhinney scoffs at war stories, but if you’re sitting with him in his garage hideaway with a couple Keystones, he can be coaxed to limber up.
He sets the scene: It happened on Valentine’s Day 1969 on the
”I grab my spotter and an M-14 with a Starlight [night vision scope] and go down to the river bank to watch. We pick a place where the river is wider, because that means it’s shallower at that point. We set up in high grass about 30 feet from the bank. About two hours after dark, one guy comes out of the river. No pack, only a rifle. I’m watching him. He looks around, then walks around for awhile. I can hear water dripping off him, that’s how close he is. I don’t shoot. I want to know what he’s up to. Finally, he gets back in the river and disappears. I tell my spotter, ‘This might get interesting.’
“Yep. About a half-hour later, here they come, wading across, a whole string of ‘em. The water’s up to their necks. They got those old green pith helmets on. As the first guy is coming out of the water, I shoot him, then go to the next one, then the next one, then the next. Like shooting fish in a bucket. I have the reticle right on their faces. Every shot a hit. Some would try to duck beneath the water, but what the hell’s that gonna get ‘em? These boys were screwed. They just floated away.” Later, Mawhinney counted the shells in that clip. Sixteen had been used, none wasted. The company enjoyed a peaceful bivouac that night.
It wasn’t all target shooting. The NVA weren’t clay pigeons. In addition to being wounded by shrapnel when another soldier blundered into a booby trap, Mawhinney spent an eternity one morning lying face down in the muck of a rice paddy. “One day, I’m on patrol with the grunts and I get pinned down in this rice paddy. The furrow I’m in is maybe 10 inches deep and some asshole keeps shooting my pack because that’s all he can see. So every time I move, I get hit again. The guy’s in the tree line, maybe 30 feet away. The rice paddy is filled with shit—human--you know, but at that moment, I love shit more than a pretty girl, can’t get close enough to it. He shoots me maybe half a dozen times. I can feel it in my shoulders; hurts like hell. Then, I feel something liquid running down my side. Sure as shit, I figure I’ve been hit. But I have three or four cans of peaches in my pack—I love peaches--and that son of a bitch hit a can. Finally, things got hot for the guy and he left. I just had to stay down tight and wait it out. Probably lasted a minute at most, but seemed like forever.”
He displays a photo of a kneeling figure in the far distance, obviously taken through a scope. “This guy, he’s about 300 yards out. He’s out there acting like a farmer, and at first we figure he’s working, but then my spotter says, ‘Chuck, he’s got a rifle hidden in the grass.’ End of story. Write your last letter, buddy. We were on the perimeter, and one Marine had a camera, so I put the camera up to the scope and turned it into a Kodak moment before I sent him home. When we went out there, we found that he’d been making a detailed sketch of our whole position.”
The spotter’s job was to use binoculars to scan a wider area and be ready with an M-14 or M-16 for “heavy lifting” if they were discovered and rushed. The spotter was also an apprentice sniper. Most, like Bryant, graduated to the sniper role themselves, but some couldn’t take the “scope-shot,” as Mawhinney calls it. “Some guys are fine in a fire fight because it’s kinda anonymous,” he says, “but they just can’t put a scope on one guy’s face and blow it away.”
Neophyte spotters could get you killed, and Mawhinney was not a gentle instructor. “One time it was getting dark and my dumb-ass rookie spotter had the Starlight scope on his M-14, and I didn’t know he’d loaded his magazine with tracers. He opened up on some movement he saw, and it was like a red line pointing right to us. I grabbed him and we ran like crazy while the spot where we had just been blew all to hell. Afterwards, we had us a little counseling session about using tracers from a sniper position.”
We’re sitting in his garage lair, and a couple of neighbors drop by. The Keystones pop, and the laughter becomes freer. After going outside to take a whizz against a cottonwood, he’s open to a request to show his gun collection. He leads the way into the house where his locked gun cabinet holds a place of honor. Next to it is an ornate frame holding a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, a gift from his family. He displays his 20 or so guns the way a skilled carpenter would his tools or a surgeon his instruments. The place of honor is held by a duplicate of his bolt-action Remington .308 which was presented to him by the Corps. The original is locked away at
He’s warmed up, and he segues into gun talk like an insurance guy into annuities. “I used 168-grain match ammo. It’s gotta be match ammo, special made, because every bullet has to act just like the one before. My scope was a 3x9 Redfield. Like a Model-T Ford, now.” He shows how the thick barrel of the gun is screwed into the receiver and “floats” above the stock. He takes a piece of paper and slides it between the barrel and the wooden stock. “If the barrel was solid on the frame of the gun, the jarring would throw it off true. It’s gotta be suspended. We didn’t have these slick variable scopes, laser range finders, or some of the other stuff available to today’s snipers, but we made do.” He did make do.
The memories jump in his mind like popcorn. “Your senses get sharper over there because that’s what you live by. First thing, your eyesight and hearing start picking up. You start keening in on stuff, especially at night. The whole country smelled to me like burnt bamboo. Can’t explain it, but when that smell would change, no matter how small, I’d pick up on it. Here’s something else: people stink. You usually don’t realize it, but you do if your life depends on it, and you know it if someone’s near. Fear even has a smell. For real. If I’d get a feeling something was wrong, I’d get my ass right back to camp. Maybe nothing was out there and maybe I was wrong, but I’m still alive.”
Every step he took was cautious and every glance was suspicious. If a villager happened to observe his hide, he would abandon it. If a large enemy unit passed in the distance, he would refrain from taking a shot because of the fear of being caught by flankers; he would head back to call in an air strike. “If I’m gonna be in a one-sided gunfight, I want the ‘one’ to be on my side.” He didn’t worry about the barking of village dogs. “Hell, a dog over there was a delicacy. It didn’t last long. If a villager had three or four, he was a rancher.
“Sometimes, I could be out there all day and not take a shot, but it wasn’t time wasted. I might go back to the company and tell the C.O., ‘Hey, look, don’t send a squad out there. You’re gonna get into a helluva fight because there’s a whole company of goddamned NVA setting up in that ville, and you go out there in squad strength, you’re gonna get your boys killed.’”
Apart from the particulars of his craft, Mawhinney knows that the main curiosity sniper cops have about him is the killing part. Most of them will never experience that, so one day, standing in front of them is the all-time military grim reaper. Sgt. Buddy Young, 48, a sniper on a regional SWAT team in
The advice he gives comes from his own conscience. “When I pulled the trigger I didn’t feel a recoil, didn’t hear the gun go off, but for some reason, I could always smell gunpowder. I tell these cops that in the split second when you smell that powder, think of the lives you saved, not the one you took.”
Mawhinney believes that today’s police snipers have far more pressure on them than he did because the SWAT shooter usually has to have an instant kill to prevent the gunman from murdering a hostage. That means his target might be nickel-sized at 100 yards. Also, lawsuits follow a sniper shot as certain as the recoil. “Can you imagine a sniper having to explain himself on the stand to Johnnie Cochran?” he asks, and shakes his head at the horror of the thought.
The police sniper intuitively knows that if he misses his shot and kills a hostage, regardless of circumstances, he might as well change his name, sell his house, get a divorce, and move to Arkansas (unless that’s where he’s from). The politicians and bureaucrats will be picking over the carcass of his career while it’s still quivering. However, if a Marine sniper accidentally killed a villager, he would, in reality, be sternly admonished to be more careful in the future.
Twice, recently, policeman Young has had conversations with sniper cops who have had to kill in the line of duty. Neither one was willing to talk about the experience, either because of fear of public censure or of conscience. “I can understand their reluctance,” Young says, “because that’s the reality, and it’s in the back of every sniper’s mind: There can be a heavy price for doing your duty.”
Although snipers have played a role throughout American military history, from Daniel Morgan’s
Dave Grossman is a man who has put military killing under a microscope. Author of “On Killing,” and a retired army lieutenant colonel, he taught psychology at
“As he gets older, he has to learn to be reconciled with his life, to make peace with the magnitude of what he’s done—killed someone’s child whose future is gone because he put a bullet in that stranger’s heart or brain. Learning to live with that is made tougher because you can’t talk it out the way other people do with ordinary problems. Can you imagine going to a community counselor and saying, ‘I have an issue that’s been bothering me—I killed 100 men....’? This is a search for self-understanding that takes a strong man.”
If Mahwinney has bad nights over his sniper past, he conceals it well. “I shot over 300 people. I know that. I can’t sweeten it up and say, ‘Oh, I felt so bad every time I killed someone,’ because I didn’t. In my mind, I didn’t take lives, I saved them. In the field, I’d think, ‘If this one goes down, how many Marines are gonna live because of it.?’ That enemy out there is gonna kill me, if he can. So, if I’m first to the punch, that’s good.” He has no desire to join some other combatants in a pilgrimage back to
In a lot of ways, he loved it. After serving his mandatory year In Country, he re-up’d for two six-month tours. “This’ll sound kinda funny, but I love to hunt. Always have. People can say, ‘Man, we’re going to
Aware though he is of the war-killer’s need to cope, Mawhinney wastes little time on many veterans’ post-Vietnam troubles. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I knew some guys who went to
Mawhinney is at his calmest driving through his beloved