TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina- For now, the two men are just watching- the lady who comes out to feed her chickens every day, the man who yells at his cows, the schoolchildren who fight in the clearing. From atop their sandbagged bunker high atop the coal-fired heating plant, the men, stripped of the cumbersome gear other soldiers carry, study the quaint hillside before them, memorizing every detail. They are U.S. Army snipers: merciless recorders of detail and relentless noticers of change. For now, their weapons- a thick barreled, bolt-action M-24 sniper rifle and a harpoon-like .50-caliber single-shot- lean idle in the corner. It is with their eyes and their minds that Spc.Damian Mackie, 25, and Sgt Andrew Measels, 26 are preparing for their work. So that at the slightest deviation in routine, the merest hint that might signal approaching menace, they are ready and reaching for the corner.
To this savage conflict that frequently was ruled- and still is threatened- by the terror of the sniper, Mackie of Seattle and Measels of Springfield, VA., bring a cold-blooded professionalism.
Members of the elite, eagle-eyed "recon platoon," 3rd Airborne Battalion of the 325th Infantry Regiment, their job is to plant fear in the hearts of enemy snipers. Serious and not given to jest, they are grim equalizers: experts at what they call "target reduction." "One shot, one kill," they and their comrades repeat like a mantra, gathered around the little stove in their tent on the U.S. air base near here. One shot, one kill. Early last week, assembled in their tent and perched atop the coal tower as darkness fell, these restless soldiers sought to explain what they do, and what makes them tick.
There are 18 men in the platoon, 11 of whom are trained snipers. They work in two-person teams- one spotter, one shooter- at three elevated locations around the airfield outside this town, which has become the main U.S. base in Bosnia. Their job is to protect the base and also to provide a deterrent to anyone who might ponder a pot shot. So rash an act, they say, would invite instant and lethal retaliation. Here, they work in shifts of 24 to 48 hours, constantly varying their routine. But they have been trained for jobs that can take a week. "So 24 hours isn't really anything," said SPC Jason D. Shepherd, 24 of Hammonton, N.J.
They are experts at stalking, camouflage, range estimation and target detection. They all have the Army's hard-earned Ranger qualification. They must be specially selected to join the platoon. And they are older than the average line soldier. For often, said the platoon commander, Lt. Greg Beaudoin, 25, of Dalton Ga., they must "make a call" to shoot or not, in a split second with no guidance from superiors. "It's a lot of pressure on them," he said.
The snipers' chief tool is the M-24, the equivalent to a high-powered hunting rifle in the civilian world, Shepherd said a few hours after getting off duty. "I treat my weapon like it's my baby," he said. "The ideal mission in the worst-case scenario is you never want to fire more than twice from one position," he said. "You want to kill who you have to kill and leave." "The most feared soldier on the battlefield is a trained sniper," he said. "It might take him weeks to get that one shot. But when he gets it, he'll get it and it will be right on." A few hundred yards away, high atop the coal plant, Mackie and Measels, who both learned to shoot as youngsters, were on duty in OP-1 [Operations Point One], watching dusk fall on the Bosnian countryside. Measels stood in a corner of the roofed, floored bunker, watching through a shoebox-size hole cut in the fiberboard wall. A radio handset was fastened to the wall inches from his face. Nearby were a high-powered viewing scope and a laser range finder. A box of Army rations sat against the wall. The weapons leaned in the corner. Were something to crop up now, Mackie would be the shooter, and Measels the observer.
But all is very quiet, as it has been for the past few weeks they have been in Bosnia. "Generally, it's the same thing day in and day out," Measels said. "You see the lady with the chickens. In the morning she goes out, feeds the chickens." "Then there's the Muslim lady that lives down the hill. She walks down the hill, gathers water from that drainage ditch, then she walks up the hill with two pails of water."
It is a gentle routine, he said. But now that they know it, any change can be noted: if the two women cease to appear, for example, or their movements become unusual. "The locals will know," Measels said. "If something's going to happen, they're going to know before we're going to know. By watching their routine, if there is anything different, we can react to that difference." Said Mackie: "Kind of like the suspicious man next door, we're always staring at things that have always been there, just seeing if there are any changes. It's the little things that usually show up." As he spoke, darkness descended on the rural landscape framed in the snipers' window. House lights winked on as usual. Cars drove down the little lane, as usual. Mackie and Measels attached the big night vision scope to the M-24. But Measels still watched anxiously out the little window, like a man awaiting a train. The radio crackled briefly to life. But it's nothing much. The vigil went on. Darkness now filled the bunker. "OP-1." Measels radioed in reply. "Roger, out."