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Sunday, February 1, 2015

So I Married A Sniper

There's been a lot of buzz about long riflemen recently. The book (and now the movie) American Sniper, the story of Chris Kyle, has brought this reclusive profession out of the shadows and into the limelight (and a lot of guys are not happy!). There's also Nicholas Irving's The Reaper, another fine entry by a thoroughly decent man.

Personally, I think it's a good thing. Chris' story is so accessible, so human, and in the end so tragic that he's become something of the perfect ambassador to an oft-misunderstood profession of arms.

Since this is a forum about marriage, let's look at the question...what's it like to be married to one of these guys (or, rarely, gals...like Ruth Westheimer...yes, Dr. Ruth herself, who was a sniper with the Haganah in Israel's War of Independence).

First, some basics...

  • Snipers are not psychopaths - thought I'd get that out of the way early. They are carefully screened so that only well-balanced individuals can even enter training. There are two 'syndromes' that are particularly vital to weed out...first, the Texas Tower Syndrome, in which being on the gun gives such a sense of power that the operator will keep shooting after legitimate targets are down. Second is the Stockholm Syndrome, in which the shooter develops sympathy for the target (who he's been watching through optics for minutes...or hours) and can't pull the trigger. Shooters have to be able to kill, but only in the lawful performance of duty, governed by the Rules of Engagement (ROE).
  • Killing is not the primary duty - contrary to what Hollywood says, the sniper's first job is to observe, assess, and report. The ability to move quietly and unobserved through the battlespace is honed with this end in mind.
  •  Snipers are not nihilists - most are men with a strong faith, often Christian, but at the very least "spiritual". A true nihilist would go mad, given the weight of responsibility.
So, what are some of the traits you can expect if you're planning a trip to the altar?
  • Intelligence - shooters have to be able to do complex calculations concerning the flight of the bullet while on the gun, and adjust the optics accordingly (the crosshairs are always on the target). This takes a fairly sophisticated knowledge of math and trigonometry. They must also be able to blend into their surroundings, which calls for a thorough understanding of the environment, and of the psychology of vision. And they must be able to both analyze and effectively act upon situational awareness of what is often a confused and, yes, frightening battlespace.
  • Patience - how long could you wait, fully alert, for a target to wander into your sector of observation? A good sniper can stay on the gun for hours, and work a hide for days, with appropriate rest intervals.
  • Tolerance of discomfort - would you be willing to lie in a sewage-filled ditch under a smelly piece of fabric, counting the passage of military-age males along a path? The best hides are in places most people would avoid. Oh, and you shouldn't mind bugs crawling on you. Slapping them's a no-no, as movement draws attention.
  • Organization - snipers have to be meticulous about their work, and that means having everything needed ready to hand, and relevant information on tap. This doesn't always equate to being a Neat Freak; the organization is mission-specific, so the professional ducks will always be in a row, but the living space may not be.
  • Good powers of observation - since the main job is observation, snipers tend to notice far more of what's going on around them than most people do.
  • Good memory - it's not always possible to consult a range card, so hide-specific information (on which distances are computed) have to be committed to memory, as do the ballistic of the round used. The sniper you marry will probably remember your birthday, and your anniversary.
  • A highly developed sense of time - moving to consult a watch isn't always possible in a hide, so a sniper will be able to estimate, say, twenty minutes to within less than a minute.
  • The ability to compartmentalize - the profession of deliberately killing individuals one has 'gotten to know' through observation is psychologically tough, and typically has to be put aside until the emotions can be dealt with. This can come across as coldness; it's not. It's simply doing the thing that is immediately before one.
  • Quiet character - a hide is not a place for conversation, and for most snipers having a quiet nature makes the job easier. This is not to say that demonstrativeness is lacking, but expressions of emotion are usually fairly low-key.
  • Independence - the traditional role of the sniper pair (shooter / spotter) is solitary; two guys attract less attention than a fire team, squad, or platoon (and SEAL snipers often work alone). Snipers are therefore pretty self-reliant, and this can be maddening...they can make one feel like they don't need anyone else. (Sniper doctrine is changing, and clearing the battlespace ahead of advancing troops can utilize a sniper squad, or a dedicated platoon...read Dan Mills' Sniper One for a good introduction to the modern paradigm.)
  • A strong sense of duty - when on the gun, the sniper's job is to save lives by eliminating threats to their comrades in arms. This goes beyond the 'guy in the next foxhole' that the movies portray; the responsibility is more abstract, and is shouldered for people whom one will never meet.
One could go on, but I think - I hope - that the picture's becoming clear.

The sniper you may grow to like, or love, is someone who's conscientious, motivated, and subject to a strong moral and spiritual code. He cares about those around him, and has committed to protecting them.

He's someone who may be a lot like you.

Please drop by my other blog, Starting The Day With Grace, if you have a few minutes.


  1. -don't ask how many kills
    -don't ask if he likes shooting people
    -understand that he is NOT a murderer, but a soldier
    -and if someone was targetting me, I'd sure hope you were targeting them, because I know you'd eliminate the threat

    1. Yes, to all four points. Thank you, Jennifer.

  2. Fascinating and helpful information, Andrew. My dad is a former Marine, and I see some of these traits in him--though to a lesser degree.

    1. Thanks, Cheryl. The transition from civilian to marine is a much longer road than the one from Rifleman to Scout/Sniper.

      Please give your Dad my best.

  3. Fascinating and helpful information, Andrew. My dad is a former Marine, and I see some of these traits in him--though to a lesser degree.

  4. Thank you for sharing this information, Andrew! Your wife is a lucky woman :). (I fixed the link up over at Inspire Me Monday--thanks for letting me know it wasn't working!)

    1. Thank you so much!

      (And setting up those link-up tools is not for the faint-of-heart, eh?)

  5. I have friends who are married to men who've been in the war zone. I'm going to be sharing this with them, Andrew. There's so much more than meets the eye when a spouse reconnects with her warrior spouse. I'm glad you've taken the time to highlight those often overlooked facets of a person who's been there, done that. Great post, my friend!

    1. Thank you, Beth!

      The relationship can be hard...both the marriage relationship, and the warrior's relationship with a world in which his or her role is forever changed.

  6. I haven't seen American Sniper yet. My husband wants to, but I'm not sure I'm ready for it. I can't imagine how hard that life must be for either the husband or the wife so I appreciate reading these insights.

    1. I haven't seen the film yet, either - I'm not well enough to get out alone, and my wife does not want to see it. So it'll be a Redbox rental for me, in a few months.

      I hope that if you do see it, you'll write a post about how it affected you. We can all learn a lot from your reactions, and your wisdom.

  7. I just finished reading the book. I haven't seen the movie yet. After reading the book I felt like his wife Taya was my hero. Of course Chris Kyle is a hero, but he did put his family through a lot and she had every reason in the world to give up on their marriage. It's difficult to digest all the aspects of what that job would entail, but it's a good book. I love what you have written here and I agree with how you've laid this all out. Great post.

    1. Absolutely right. Taya is the hero of the story.

      When Chris thought he was facing a terminal illness, he spoke to Taya in a way that showed that he felt replaceable, that if he died there would be someone else for her, another father for their son.

      That has to be - is - the most horrifying thing for a wife to hear, and to bear. I know, because I did that to my wife. It took a large paradigm shit - still not complete - for me to even be able to understand her viewpoint, let alone adopt it.

  8. Very well written, Andrew! Thank you for sharing your hard-earned insights.

    1. Thank you so much, Joe. Thank you for being here.

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