In six years of sniping men for the United States Navy SEALs, it never occurred to me I could be the one lined up in the scope of a sniper. That thought could not co-exist with my massive ego. This same ego allowed me to kill a man from a hiding place, leave without facing him, and still accept props for being brave.
Now it appears as if I am a victim and soon-to-be casualty of war. My death certificate is set—and it will not be impressive: Terminal ballistics in the line of duty. Those seven words will undercut my accomplishments, including one-hundred percent accuracy of taking out any man locked-in by my infrared scope. Death certificates and tombstones do not record the victories of man. Such is the fate of the human race. After you are in the grave, people who read your name on a headstone will only see two details about you: the date of your birth and the date of your death. Every other detail of your life is reduced to the dash between the two.
In addition to earning myself an unimpressive grave marker today, my death will be fodder for the body count banner during the evening news. Viewers use this banner to gauge how well our troops are faring in the multi-nation “conflicts” of the world. They lose interest after six months. Eventually, soldier deaths become little more than visual noise. The sad truth is, if you are going to be a casualty of war, it’s best to die early in the game so your story gets some screen time. If I happen to die on one of my classified operations, things are worse. I will be given a single line that will say something like, “he was killed by friendly fire”—which makes me looks like a complete moron.
Like viewers, soldiers also get over the thrill of war in six months. From that point on, they are just hoping to be alive when it’s over. I can relate to the apathy. Dropped right into the center of this front-line action, I am guilty of playing along without having measurable passion for any of it. Sun Tzu would tell me this is the real reason I am dying.
Though I didn’t make eye contact with the sniper who hit me, I know he was a worthy opponent. He contained his emotions long enough to deliver his hate-driven bullet with flawless accuracy. He took the shot I perfected. I call it the “Adam” because the bullet enters the neck exactly one inch from the target’s Adam’s apple. It takes out the carotid artery. No man can survive it. The bullet initiates a fatal blood loss as it enters the body, and shatters the spinal cord as it exits, paralyzing the victim from the neck down.
When sniping, you rarely get a chance for a second shot. Every single one has to be exact, hitting a spot about the size of a BB pellet. The “Adam” is the best shot to take if you intend to kill. Helmets block the head, and bulletproof vests cover the body. Legs and groins are vulnerable, but hitting them only increases the chance of failure. You end up with an injured shooter who is mad as hell that you hit him. He will tie off the wound and come after you. There is a good chance that the ineffective bullet you sent his way will help him pinpoint your location.
Even if you get off the field alive after a botched sniper assignment, you will not hear the end of it in the barracks. As far as snipers go, hitting a target and failing to kill him earns you a reputation of being a subpar marksman. For the rest of your career, you will not be able to shake the fallout of a single shot. Your salary nosedives, and you find yourself facing the reality there are zero jobs waiting for a sharpshooter who failed to take out a target—especially after age twenty-eight. The Yemen basecamp will celebrate the sniper who just put a bullet through my neck. He will not need to worry about job security. He perfectly sliced through my artery. I will bleed out in three minutes—five minutes tops. I hope for five, but prepare for three.
Navy SEALs are acutely aware of every second when executing a mission. There is an expected protocol for using the time, even when dying. The first thing I must do in a situation like this is to assess if any of my men are in the line-of-fire. They are not. By now, they should have cleared the red zone and disappeared into the brush. They will be boarding the chopper soon.
The second thing I assess is the likelihood of capture. This is a zero. The shooter will need to climb a sharp limestone terrain to get to me. I have no doubt he will come to ensure I am no longer a threat, but this will take a solid ten minutes. I will be dead before he arrives.
The third thing I need to do is decide if I should destroy my gear and backpack. This will not be necessary. All I have left is my rifle and a few rounds of ammo. I am not carrying anything he can use. There are no grenades or classified information here. The checklist is complete.
Now, I focus on myself. The only question here is whether I can do anything to prolong my life. This is also a zero. Even if I could lift my arms, there is no way to stop the bleeding from my neck. It is the one place where a tourniquet cannot be tightened. The only thing I can do is slow my breathing and stay in control of my head. A quick assessment tells me that I am breathing too fast and too shallow. If I do not take the air in slower and push it deeper, fear will consume me.
As luck would have it, controlled breathing is a mandatory skill for SEALs. I spent many days in the training pool pushed to the brink of losing consciousness before earning a small amount of oxygen from my tank. It would be just enough to keep me from blacking out. I did this repeatedly—for hours at a time—all in an effort to expand my lung capacity. I can still hear the commander shouting at me through my underwater headset. “You’re not breathing on count, Cunningham! Breathe in for three, out for three…in for three, out for three. You can either do this right, or you can die. It’s your choice.”
There is no grand reward for doing it right. Your only prize is the minimum amount of oxygen needed to protect you from having permanent brain damage. After surfacing from training sessions, I would go for a long run up to the highest elevation I could find—just to take in as much air as I wanted. It put me back in control of oxygen, and my head. Most days, I closed my eyes and focused on the sweet smell of the air as it passed through my sinuses on its way to my lungs. Ironically, restricted breathing from an underwater tank is where I learned fresh air has a sweet aroma. The smell of air is something you take for granted until you have to fight for it.
Here I am again—fighting for air. This time, I am fighting for just enough to keep me alive for a minute or two. Some positive news is my controlled breathing is beginning to work. The panic pushing its way to the surface is subsiding. I cannot move my head, but I can look around a little with my eyes. I want to know more about the place where I am taking my final breaths. I like that it is peaceful and quiet. Soldiers rarely get such a serene place to die. Again, I appear to be the lucky one.
None of my body parts are responding to my nervous system. Not being able to move is a very vulnerable feeling, especially behind enemy lines. I push the thought out of my head and focus on my surroundings. White limestone boulders cover the hillside on which I am lying motionless. These beautiful rocks line the beaches of most of the small islands of the Arabian Sea. The soil I am dying on is one of four groups of islands owned by the nation of Yemen.
Unfortunately, I am too far from the ocean to hear the waves along the boulders. It would be nice to hear the water right now. I cannot think of a better sound to hear when you are dying than waves breaking at the edge of an ocean.