The Bullet
Fiction (?)

By James R. Jarrett *

Ashau Valley, I Corps, Republic of South Vietnam, August of 1967. Thick, heavy clouds, swollen with monsoon rains, were impaled on the jagged peaks etched on the western horizon like dragon's teeth. The dark, foreboding green of the triple canopy jungle covering the mountains was indifferent to the man-made abstraction of the border separating Laos and the Republic of South Viet Nam. Two United States Special Forces soldiers, "Green Berets," lay quietly in their hide observing the clear stretch of trail that passed through the saddle defined by small peaks on either side. The small elevations were identified merely as numerical designations on the topographic maps made by the French during their futile and abortive attempt to subdue this incredibly beautiful and remote piece of Asian real estate.

The two "Secret Project" Americans had lain in this same spot for nearly three days; watching and waiting. The procedure, followed so many times before by these extraordinary men, had finally yielded the sought-after results; in the parlance of the trade, "target identification and acquisition information." The Team Leader, known as the "One-Zero," looked over at his observer/assistant -- the "One-One" -- and let his penetrating gaze call for his attention. The One-One, felt the signal, often described as a warm, gentle pressure on the side of the arm or leg and looked back over his shoulder at the team leader. One-Zero pointed at the trail visible some six hundred yards away, formed a mock pistol with his right index finger and thumb, and made a downward motion with his thumb mimicking a hammer falling and firing a pistol. It was the hand signal that said, "'s killing time."

The mission with which these two twenty-two year-old Americans had been tasked by older, pot bellied men on the other side of the world was about to enter its critical stage. Two white, young, clean-cut American soldiers were about to kill several yellow, young, small North Vietnamese soldiers who themselves had been sent by older, yellow men to this same piece of blood-soaked jungle to kill their neighbors and the Americans assisting them.

As last light approached, the sun pierced beneath the clouds and left a crimson, bloody smear on the horizon. The One-Zero settled more comfortably into his prone shooting position and pushed the twenty-four inch barrel of the Remington Model 700 bolt action rifle -- an unofficial "shelf item" not found in the table of equipment of U.S. military units -- forward through the bamboo grass and placed his eye behind the fixed magnification day telescope, also an unofficial shelf item. He raised his head slightly and noticed the One-One indicating that targets were approaching the kill zone. One-Zero settled in once again. Pulling the highly accurate weapon firmly into his right shoulder, he gently swung the scope to cover a spot where the trail which crept out of the trees on the west side of a small grassy clearing reentered the triple canopy jungle some sixty meters to the northeast. Even this late in the day, the jungle heat emanated from the ground, and created a shooter's mirage. The mirage appeared as transparent, ephemeral lines that danced and flowed in the scope. The lines told the shooter about wind, humidity, turbulence and air density, all variables that could affect the path of the bullet.

One-Zero could smell the dank, rotting odor of dying vegetation as the jungle went through its never-ending process of death and rejuvenation. Perspiration ran from beneath the dark green cravat he wore as a headband, which was festooned with bits and pieces of bamboo grass and other jungle vegetation. The oil based camouflage paint covering his face in random patterns of black and dark green was slightly smeared by sweat, and he could taste the paint mixed with the salt as the droplets ran into his mouth. After six days in the bush, he no longer noticed the sour odor of his body. His tiger-striped fatigues were coated with mud and he was indistinguishable from even a few feet from the ground on which he lay.

The first North Vietnamese Army ("NVA") Regular stepped quickly out of the trees and entered the clear grassy area on the saddle. He carried his Soviet-made 7.62 x 39 millimeter AK-47 Assault Rifle in a one-handed trail carry. He glanced at the sky scanning for aircraft. Not seeing any, he casually walked forward turning to say something to his slack man. He was obviously not expecting trouble this far from known South Vietnamese or American ground units. As the point man for his element, the NVA soldier was performing poorly. Under normal operational formats, he would be among the first to die. On this day, he would live. The American sniper team was after bigger game this late afternoon.

An NVA platoon-sized element followed along the trail through the pass. Many of the small, khaki clad soldiers had their weapons slung over their shoulders and even at 600 yards, the Americans could catch snatches of their conversations. As with any group of men, soldiers especially, the conversations were the same as that of their enemies, merely spoken in a different language. The main subjects were tales of home, parents, wives, sweethearts and children, experiences in military training or firefights. Dominating the conversations were the various allures and shortcomings of the female sex and each man's prowess at prowling the jungles of feminine thighs and gender relationships.

As the One-Zero looked over his weapon at the small figures, he wished for the authority to call an air strike. The mission parameters had expressly forbidden the use of air strikes on this mission except to protect the team if compromised. The psychological effects of the mission were tied to larger strategic designs and future operations, which the U.S. had already scheduled for the Ashau. Intelligence from various sources, including the Project's own Road Runner teams had confirmed that on or about this date, an NVA unit would be escorting high ranking officers to their base camps in the Ashau. The effect of a surgical mission of this nature was dramatic on a variety of fronts, and the Americans who undertook these missions understood the necessity for such an operation.

A muted hiss by the One-One, who was scanning the area through a set of high magnification binoculars mounted on a small tripod alerted the One-Zero that the primary targets were coming into the impact sector. The gold cross hairs in the scope gathered the waning light, giving the sniper a crisp sight picture. The extended hood on the end of the scope and the angle of the sun precluded any reflection from the lens to be transmitted to the target zone. The small field of view presented by the scope to the One-Zero forced him to rely on the observations and communications of his One-One. As an added precaution, the One-Zero adjusted the sniper's veil over his head and draped it over the scope. He again checked the ground in front of his weapon's muzzle and poured more water from his canteen onto the jungle floor to minimize any debris with might arise and give away their position from the muzzle blast.

One-Zero immediately recognized the primary target by the red tabs on the collar of the NVA officer's uniform. He appeared to be wearing the insignia of a lieutenant colonel. Ahead of the senior officer walked a captain, and behind him, walked an enlisted NVA soldier carrying a radio. The colonel, the radio and the captain were the target priorities. The One-Zero looked over at the One-One who was already looking at him.

Both men's faces showed the strain and the effects of the massive adrenal rush that was beginning to pound through their systems. Eyes were wide with the pupils dilated, rapid-fire pulses were visible in the carotid arteries of their necks and a palpable charge of emotionally ionized air surrounded the two men. One-One would take the radio operator through the back in order to destroy the radio. One-Zero would kill the Colonel and the Captain to disrupt leadership. After all three targets were down, the Americans would either start a run for their lives south and east into the jungle-covered, broken floor of the Ashau Valley or remain motionless in their present position. The actions of the enemy would dictate their own course of action. They depended upon the velvet blackness of the jungle night to hide and protect them. One-Zero watched One-One carefully move to the side and mount his specially adapted M14 rifle, designated an "XM-21," to his shoulder.

Both men swung their weapons and placed their scopes on their initial targets. One-One would wait until One-Zero fired eliminating the colonel who was the principle target.

The unofficial .308 caliber cartridge with its 168 grain International Match Boat Tail Hollow Point bullet, a round very similar to, but different from, the "White Box" match ammunition of the early 60's lay quietly in the chamber of One-Zero's rifle. With its sleek and polished lines, it resembled a missile poised in its launching silo. The One-Zero settled the junction of the fine gold cross hairs on the top of the North Vietnamese officer's head to allow for the drop of the bullet at the 600 plus yard range. The scopes had been precisely adjusted previously for zero during their wait. Mirage was rising straight and calm so it was not necessary to correct for lateral error, known as deflection.

One-Zero took in a full complement of air and slowly exhaled under pressure between his teeth. His brain needed a maximum oxygen supply to control the complex series of fine motor functions that had to interact flawlessly to produce a perfect shot. As he gazed through the rifle's scope and began to apply the mere two pounds of pressure to the weapon's trigger, he hesitated. The adrenal rush, the sniper's drug of addiction was working against him. His metabolic rate was too high to produce the absolute stability needed for the shot. He watched his pulse bounce the cross hairs as his quarry continued to traverse the distance between the black maw of the rifle's muzzle and the enemy soldier's spine. One-Zero called upon the biofeedback training he had undergone in Sniper School and slowed his pulse to barely over fifty beats per minute. Death waited six heartbeats away.

His finger gently applied the two pounds of pressure on the trigger. As the sear disengaged, the steel firing pin shot forward striking the primer with a force of over thirty pounds. The impact sensitive compound in the cartridge's primer snapped and sent a spark into the tiny pieces of black IMR 4895 ball powder filling the shiny brass case. The powder ignited and burned so fast as to produce the illusion of an explosion. The gasses produced by the burning powder generated instant pressures of over 54,000 Copper Units of Pressure just nine inches ahead of the face of the bolt. The combined effect of this mini-explosion was to produce temperatures of over 3000 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt the bullet itself if it remained in the barrel longer than the 6.1 millionths of a second it took to travel the remaining 18 inches to the open air. With the gas and fire behind it the 168 grain copper jacketed bullet leaped from the neck of the cartridge, grabbed the spiral rifling machined into the barrel, and began to spin at the rate of one revolution every foot - the equivalent of nearly 150,000 revolutions per minute.

The rifle spat forth its command on ten inches of flame sending its deadly messenger through the failing jungle light at a speed of 2550 feet per second, nearly three times the speed of sound. The supersonic crack made by the bullet as it passes through the air is heard before the sound of the rifle being fired. The super heated, streamlined hollow point tip full metal jacket reached the victim in less than three quarters of a second with the teeth jolting crack rolling across the mountain side, well after the victim has ceased ever hearing anything again. The deadly missile plunged into the officer's back just below his collar. The bullet coursed through the man's body opening up like a deformed flower as the copper jacket peeled back creating an ever-larger destructive path on its plunge through the body. The ugly, misshapen bullet severed the spine compressing and pushing fluids ahead of it exploding and shredding tissue. Bits and pieces of shattered bone splintered and ricocheted like shrapnel throughout the body turning it into a living grenade. A fine red mist caught the final rays of the sun and glistened for an instant as the bullet exited his chest and continued its mindless path into the jungle grass.

One-One fired the second and third shots so rapidly as to be nearly indistinguishable from each other. The crashing roars of the weapons drifted up towards the nearly dark sky as the snipers lay quiet and listened to the shouts of panic from the North Vietnamese soldiers fleeing into the gathering darkness below them.

Well past midnight, the Americans cautiously made their way to the killing zone, and examined the bodies, removing insignia, papers and diaries from the three dead men. With highly specialized cameras, the Green Berets photographed the bodies, and carefully plotted the bodies' location on the Green Berets' maps and entered in code in their field notes. The bodies would be gone by tomorrow, picked up by the dead men's comrades. The lack of an immediate body recovery attempt or counter sniper assault by the unit indicated that the Green Berets had seriously disrupted the NVA unit's leadership and that the unit was no doubt fresh from the North and inexperienced.

If all went well, morning would find the Americans several kilometers away awaiting the recovery slicks to extract them and return them to their Forward Operational Base for mission debriefing, and, with luck, a couple of days R&R in Da Nang. Three days later, and thousands of miles away, in modern concrete and glass buildings, near a river called the Potomac, gray, faceless men with whiskey on their breath would read a report, look at gruesome photographs, place brightly colored pins on a large scale map and on a chart affixed to the wall would write: "Ashau Valley, Republic of South Viet Nam, 26 August, 1967, 3 NVA, K.I.A. - Confirmed."

* Note

Jarrett is founder and director of the American Shooting Academy. During the Vietnam Conflict, Jarrett was assigned to the 5th, 7th, and 10th Special Forces Groups. Jarrett spent time in country with these groups and was a Team Leader with Project Delta.

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