Inside a U.S. Army sniper school

Trainee at Army sniper school at Fort Benning, Ga.

Trainee at Army sniper school at Fort Benning, Ga.


FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Snipers have changed the face of modern warfare. They’ve always been a valuable military tool, but they’ve become even more effective in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military is training and using them in greater numbers than ever before.

At a sniper school in Fort Benning, Ga., men wear face paint and ferns, and spike their heads with leaves in an effort to conceal themselves. The camouflage is quite a sight. The point, though, is not to be seen at all. “You don’t want to look like a bush,” one instructor told a trainee. “You want to look like nothing.”

At the school, soldiers are also students, training to become Army snipers. But before they learn to shoot, they have to learn to hide.

In one concealment exercise, called a long-form stalk, students have three hours to get in position and shoot a target as far as 800 yards away before being noticed by spotters.

On day two of sniper school, only one of the 36 students hits the target.

Staff Sgt. Michael Haenel, an instructor, says it’s like fishing. “You have to take your time,” he notes. “You’re not just gonna throw your line in and get a snag. The same thing with stalks. ... You’re not gonna take your rifle out, take 20 rounds, and hit 20 targets.

“Patience is one of the ... biggest keys. Without all the patience, they’re gonna rush. And when they rush, they’re gonna make mistakes,” Haenel says. “It’s a mental mindset, and if they let the stress overwhelm ‘em, they’re not gonna be able to accomplish what they need to.”

Gen. Richard Myers, the senior military security analyst for CBS News and was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, says, “What the sniper brings to you is persistent surveillance of a target.”

Myers says, during those wars, he saw snipers become one of our military’s most effective weapons against insurgents.

“The more precise you can be when you’re going after the adversary, the better it is in terms of winning hearts and minds,” Myers says. “If you have, as we call it, collateral damage or you hurt innocent men women and children, then you have a very difficult time trying to build confidence and trust with the people you’re trying to help.”

Snipers are in such high demand the number of slots at the Fort Benning school has more than tripled since 2003.

They’ve also become much more famous thanks to Hollywood and recent high-profile missions.

But Staff Sgt. Cameron Erisman, another instructor at the Fort Benning school, says the hype is just that.

He returned recently from a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan.

“Sometimes you’ll be sitting in a position for three, four days and not moving,” Erisman says. “It’s not as glamorous as it might seem, and a lot of snipers aren’t necessarily going out and engaging enemies of this nation. It’s gathering intelligence, gathering information and reporting that to higher-ups, so that they can save future soldiers’ lives. People are under the understanding that snipers are a one-shot kill ... and that’s not necessarily the case.”

Of course, he said that right before he fired at and hit a target 300 yards away -- an easy distance, he says -- perfect for beginners.

A good sniper, says Haenel, is someone who has “imagination. ... Someone who can solve his problems by himself. He doesn’t need to be told how to do it, and, you know, why to do it that way.”

Haenel, Erisman and other instructors try to teach as much as they can during sniper school, but they readily admit what’s learned during training takes a lifetime to master.

“This is like the Golden Age of being a sniper, because everything I learned and a lot of the other instructors with us,” Haenel says. “It’s completely different. ... So we’re learning an awful lot more, and we’re just getting better.”

To see Jeff Glor’s report, click on the video in the player above.