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Autobiography of One of the Deadliest Special Ops Snipers
By Nicholas Irving, Gary Brozek
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Nicholas Irving
All rights reserved.
They Call Me the Reaper
The test we faced that third night working in support of Charlie Company, First Platoon, in Kandahar was not the first one and it wasn't going to be the last. In fact, long before I rose through the army's ranks to become a direct action sniper, I was constantly faced with challenges. To one degree or another, that's probably true of most people in just about any walk of life. Except that for me, so much of it took place in a short period of time. I enlisted right of out of high school in 2004 and then served in various capacities with the Third Ranger Battalion after getting through the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP)—machine gunner, machine gun team leader, grenadier, team leader, designated marksman, sniper, sniper team leader, and master sniper.
During the three-and-a-half-month period from May of 2009 through August of that year, when I tallied more than thirty-three kills, I was about three months shy of turning twenty-four years old. On and off, I'd been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2005; I married in 2007; and I'd gone through more schools and training programs than somebody who'd gone the other route and attended college as an undergraduate and then as a graduate. I like to think that I learned a whole lot, and I'm sure I did, but while it was all going on, I felt like I was a rock rolling downhill, gathering momentum, tearing up a few things around me, and accumulating a few things that stuck to me. Some of it was painful; some of it was fun; and like anybody who'd been rolling along like that, I was feeling a bit dizzy.
As you can imagine, especially during that period that earned me the nickname "the Reaper," I didn't have a whole lot of time to sit back and reflect on everything that had happened to me that put me in that hot zone. I knew that it was the luck of the draw that had us seeing so much action.
A lot of guys at Fort Benning told us when they learned that we were being deployed to Kandahar that we needed to be prepared to be bored out of our minds. I was also fortunate that I was with Charlie Company, First Platoon. After all, that was the unit that I grew up with in battalion. I knew most of the guys I was going to be assigned with. We'd been deployed together before, and they were really, really good guys, squared away. In some ways this was going to be different. I had rank now and I'd be one of the men planning missions, giving briefings. I felt prepared for that, but I also knew that with leadership came responsibility. You don't serve in the armed forces without having a sense of responsibility for your fellow soldiers, but this was going to be at a different level. I wasn't always the most responsible kid and I liked to have a good time still, and I told myself that I wasn't going to change too much.
You're always on edge predeployment. When word came down that we were going to Kandahar, we all met the news with a mixture of relief and curiosity. The Second Ranger Battalion was currently over there, and their guys were reporting back that things were very quiet. A few missions. Not really getting shot at.
I should clarify something. The sense of relief I mentioned. That was mostly what we told our wives and girlfriends. I told my wife, Jessica, that this was going to be a boring deployment, probably my last one. I'd be away just a few months and then we'd figure out the next steps. Afghanistan sucks. You hardly ever see anybody; they all live hidden in the mountains. Kandahar is a city. Don't worry.
In truth, I was pissed for all the reasons stated above. I wanted to get into as much stuff as possible. That's what I'd been spending all these years busting my ass off preparing to do. You become a sniper; you want to shoot. You want to do your job. So, along with the anxiety I was feeling, there was some disappointment and frustration. It didn't help that all around the base we're hearing from some other guys who'd been assigned to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Wilson as well as others in Kandahar that we better take our Xboxes and our PlayStations, and we'd better load every hard drive, zip drive, and any other kind of digital storage device we had with plenty of movies.
A few days later, I was sitting in our old Mercury Grand Marquis inside the brown gate that surrounded the Third Battalion's secret compound at Benning. Jessica was in tears, just a river of them flowing. I felt helpless to really reassure her, and that made me mad at myself. Add that to being frazzled with all that comes with being deployed, all the worry and wonder I had about my new role, and our good-bye was not rom-com worthy. I cried a bit, and felt bad that the two of us had been Stateside together only a few months.
I have to admit that I wasn't always the most pleasant guy to be around when I came back from deployment. Prior to this upcoming deployment, my company and I had been working out of Baghram Air Force Base in support of SEAL Team Six. While at Baghram I'd worked with another Ranger sniper by the name of Pete who really showed me the ropes. He had been in the sniper section for some time and served as the sniper platoon sergeant.
When I'd come back to Georgia, it was like I was in a new world. It always felt like that, but it didn't help that while I was gone, Jessica had rearranged the whole house. I knew that I shouldn't be pissed about that. After all, she was looking for ways to make things better, to help her pass the time waiting, but still. It's hard to flip the switch back to being normal Nick after being downrange. Out in the field, you want to keep everything the same. Keep the routine going.
I knew that I had to flip the switch again. Go back to being that other Nick, the guy who, to be honest, over the five-plus years I'd been in the army, was the easier one to be. So, as I'm standing outside the car hugging Jessica, it is like a scene from a sci-fi movie. She's standing there holding on to me, and a faint, ghostlike image is separating himself from her, already with the other guys on the compound ripping and running around getting all their stuff together, hearing that C-17's engines revving up and idling. Then I really did walk away, giving Jessica one more wave before immersing myself in my other life.
An hour later, I'm settled in. The Ambien-induced sleep had a hold on me, and twenty-three hours later I was in Afghanistan. Bleary-eyed and dry mouthed, I stepped off the transport into a kind of heat that Georgia can't produce—a dry, searing version in which every ounce of moisture has been wrung from the air.
I liked that introduction to this other life. It signaled that the slate was wiped clean. This was not the States. When I looked around as we offloaded and then loaded to make our way to the FOB, nothing seemed at all familiar. Gone was the lush spring landscape of Georgia. No matter where I looked I wasn't going to find a paved road, a white picket fence framing the driveway, and the cluster of mailboxes at our apartment complex, no whine and whirr of insects. Just the heat and the smell, a mixture of hay and manure. This is where the other Nick, the one who'd become the Reaper, could call home. I didn't need reminders of my real home that would get my memory working. I was entering my workplace, and I didn't need any more distractions.
I also liked that Pemberton and I were being housed in an area that was fenced off from the rest of the base. All the troops were in our own kind of walled city, cement Jersey barriers, metal gates, shipping containers, what seemed miles of chain-link fence and concertina wire. If this was going to be a boring deployment, at least we had a nice setup. Pemberton and I found our private rooms in what resembled a simple aluminum two-story apartment building.
"Not too bad," I said to myself when I opened the door. I had a few storage-locker-type closets, a bed, a desk, and chairs in a room that was about twelve by fifteen feet. Even though I was trying not to think about home, I was struck by how much it reminded me of the bedroom I'd had growing up as a kid in Maryland. My dad was an E6 stationed at Fort Meade. We lived in a modest house in Jessup, Maryland, where it was just my dad, my mom, and my sister, Jasmine. My parents had met in Augsburg, Germany, where they were both stationed. My mom was an E4, but I don't remember her in uniform at all. By the time I was old enough to start school, she'd left the military to be a full-time mom. Money was always tight, so Mom worked for UPS and Burger King, among other jobs, to help make ends meet.
Growing up on base and living in military housing didn't seem at all unusual to me. It was what I grew up with and what most of the kids I hung around with as a preschooler knew. Some of my first memories are of being on that base and going to work with my dad sometimes. I didn't know what he did, all I knew was that the American flag went up every morning and we'd salute it. I was taught to show respect to everyone and especially to the men and women in uniform and to that flag flying above our neighborhood. In a way it was like we lived in Major Roger's neighborhood. Those preschool lessons were spoken but mostly unspoken. Only later, when I went to the local elementary school, middle school, and high school, would I realize that the air of respect that permeated the base wasn't the same one that existed off base.
As I stowed my gear at FOB Wilson, it was like I had to pack away some of those memories. Never the neatest kid in the world, I remember having my desk at school end up overflowing with homework papers, books, folders, and assorted junk. Not at home of course. That was the place that I had to keep squared away. Probably my greatest accomplishment in elementary school, besides advancing from grade to grade (barely), was meeting Jessica. I was one of the smaller kids in class, but I towered over her. Even at the age of six, as small as she was, Jessica was as energetic and vibrant as any of the kids in our class. She had an awesome smile that she flashed as she ran around the playground during recess, a tiny dynamo daring anybody to keep up with her.
I'd brought along a picture of the two of us when we were still dating and out for the day at Ocean City. A couple of kites are flying above our heads in the perfect blue sky, but it's Jessica's smile that outdazzles everything. I set the frame on the desk and resumed unpacking. From the twin building next door came the sound of barking, a fierce and insistent demand. In a way, another reminder of home. I'd always liked having dogs around and on previous deployments I'd seen how effective working dogs could be in helping us complete our missions. I also liked how they acted a lot like us. As soon as they had their kit on, you could see a change in their attitude. They were all business. They sat up straighter, their ears peaked to their highest point, their noses twitched, and it was as if their vision narrowed.
I'd been thinking about how businesslike I needed to be in my new role. As much as I'd always wanted to be in the military and had had to grow up very, very fast and learn to do things the right way, I didn't want to come across as too much of a hard-liner. I was going to be in charge, but the key word in that sentence was "I." I still had to be myself, still had to be the guy everyone called "Irv." I'd been exposed to a few different leaders in my time, and I knew what it was like to be led. Nobody wants to feel like they're being ordered and bossed around and that they have no say in how things are going to go down. The reality was that somebody had to be in charge and that the chain of command was a necessary, and often very good, thing. We all had our parts to play, but I was more than a rank and title and so were the guys I was there to help protect. Keep it simple and keep it real was going to be the order of my day.
My thoughts about how I was going to handle this new role were interrupted by the sound of my beeper going off. Leaving the task of organizing my room wasn't something I was comfortable with, but another, and far more important, duty was calling. I grabbed my go kit and weapon and headed over to Pemberton's room. I nudged open the door with my shoulder and then stood there shaking my head. He was standing in front of a small mirror combing his closely cropped gray-streaked dark brown hair.
"Dude, this won't be no photo op. I know you want to look good for the overheads."
The sound of boots clattering down the aluminum stairs was nearly deafening. Ignoring my wise-ass remarks, my spotter said, "So much for boring, right?" He looked at his watch. "Thirty hours ago I was in my rack at home."
We joined the flow of guys into the ready room. Instead of taking my seat with them, I lingered near the front. I scanned the wood-paneled room and the six large-screen displays that had various satellite feeds and other data streaming onto them. Next to me was a large poster-type board, about the size of one panel of school chalkboard. On it were photos of various bad guys. Some of them had a big red X through the image. The photos weren't posted haphazardly; they were organized into a type of flow chart with lines connecting some of the images to show relationships among and between the various Taliban enemies we'd been encountering.
I had a couple of topographical maps in my hand and I pushed at the end of the rolled tubes, extending them like a drill bit. I was gathering my thoughts while still eyeing the screens, watching the predator drones while also wondering how it was that the smell of pine could still be so strong. A whole lot of sweaty, smelly men had been in that room, and I thought that maybe the whole paneling thing served as a kind of room freshener. The Special Forces version of those tree-shaped car deodorizers.
I was still new to my leadership role and I also knew what it was like to be one of the guys in the seats. They respected you if you were real, still the same guy they'd known back before you were standing out front. That point was driven home when the platoon leader, whom we were there in support of, kept dropping AFI bombs (another f---ing inconvenience) and a bunch of other acronyms when talking about our ORP (objective rally point). He was a good soldier, but that wasn't how I would handle things, with all the fancy lingo and by-the-book stuff.
I flashed again on that photo of Jessica and me. In it, I was wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey. I've always loved the 'Boys despite growing up near D.C. and the Redskins. I also loved the game itself and had fond memories of high school days out on the field. In a way I wished these kinds of sessions could be as simple as our pregame chalkboard talks had been. A lot less was at stake back then, of course, and it was easy to just get us hyped up so we'd charge hard and play with more guts than brains. Still, something about that approach appealed to me.
As I scanned the room, preparing my remarks, I remembered what it was like back in the day playing sandlot football. We'd all kneel down and I'd often be the one diagramming plays in the dirt. You do a stop-and-go. You run a post. You stay the hell out of the way.
While my presentation wasn't that informal, I had the guys laughing a little bit when I opened with, "Dudes, listen up," to help set the right tone. I sprinkled in a bit of army lingo—sectors of security, cover and concealment, lines of advance—just to show the guys who didn't know me that I knew my stuff. I told them that our high value target (HVT) was a suicide-vest maker. That got their attention, and I told them the obvious but necessary thing. "Likely, he'll be wearing one or have one close by." That fact seemed to get everybody's attention, and it was good to have them all amped up.
The plan was relatively simple. We knew the HVT's location. We'd all advance together, and then, about three hundred to five hundred meters from the objective, we were going to break off the sniper element. The assault force would proceed, but the snipers were going to climb onto the top of the building. From there we'd have a better perspective on the entire objective. I concluded my remarks the way I would have if I was talking to the guys back inside the wire. "Okay, we knock that out and pop on the helicopters."
I made eye contact with a few of the guys I didn't know already. Kopp. Fredericks. Gilliam. Howard. They all met my gaze and nodded.
"Good to go then."
Whatever anxiety I was feeling was gone. The briefing went well, and now it was on to the fun part. That began with climbing into the Chinook helicopter for insertion. I'd never flown one of the newer MH47-G variants. They were a step up even from the CH47-Fs. Both were used widely with Special Forces operations, but with the addition of the FLIR (forward looking infrared) and multimode radar, the MHs were ideal for nighttime, low-light, and foul-weather operations. We were definitely going to encounter the first two of those, and who knew about the third?
Given my interest in all things military, particularly weapons and machinery, I'd sat and talked with lots of pilots over the years. I'd been told previously that the CH47s, no matter the variant, were a better fit than the Black Hawks. They were more powerful for one thing, and without a tail rotor, they were less susceptible to the crazy winds in Afghanistan. Most important was that they had a safety feature that also worked well with the weather and terrain in Afghanistan. Windstorms could whip up the sand and soil and brown-out conditions were fairly common. The CH47s had a system that would enable the pilots to switch over to an automatic landing mode that they could use in those low-visibility conditions. It was nice to know that no matter what, we'd be in good hands—human or electronic.
Excerpted from The Reaper by Nicholas Irving, Gary Brozek. Copyright © 2015 Nicholas Irving. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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