This is an interview from 2014. But it still bears relevance today, some four years on. Here, this front line sniper talks about training, the feelings of taking another person’s life, the aftermath and why you should never believe what you see in video games.
How does sniper training differ to training as a soldier?
Well, you’re already a soldier so you obviously have the skills and physical fitness so it’s just a matter of specialist training. You train on different weapons first of all. But most sniping skills are about observation and camouflage. A sniper’s role is not just firing a weapon. He is an observer and a scout, so field craft must be learned.
How does your strength affect your ability to stay still for so long?
If your muscles are built up then you have stamina so you’re able as a sniper to control your breathing better because your muscles can store up more lactic acid before you need to use that emergency back up. Obviously if you’re physically fit you’re not going to be out of breath so much, which is vital for a sniper. Snipers want to be in position for a good while so they can calm their body down to take any shot. Should there be a need to take a shot when you’ve been exerting yourself you need to be able to recover quickly from that exertion.
Watch: Men’s Health takes on the British Army
Do you try and detach yourself from the fact that your target is a person?
Yes. People say they could never do it, but you probably could if you had had two years of incredibly intense training and you’re confident in that training. The psychological side of it is a bit like watching TV; you’re looking through a telescopic sight. You are quite removed. That kind of questioning, the psychological questioning, comes much later in life when you’re no longer doing it and you have time to reflect.
Were you worried about your first kill or did you have any doubts?
Thinking about my first encounters I don’t think I fully appreciated what I had done to be honest. I think the realisation dawns on you slowly. I’ve seen adrenaline take people through bad wounds without people knowing they’ve been wounded. I think adrenaline and the situation can drive you through something that you wouldn’t be able to do in a normal environment. The extenuating circumstances produce a kind of mental state that adjusts you to do whatever you have to do. When you’re young and you feel quite indestructible I think you’re more able to do these kinds of things.
Did you keep a count of how many people you killed?
I had a count. But after my experiences I wasn’t allowed to talk. I was on a secret electoral list and I didn’t speak to anyone about it. I totally blanked it out.
How do you deal with the aftermath? How has it affected you?
At the time you’re young and resilient. I don’t recall anyone having immediate effects. Of course, many people suffer from PTSD afterwards, but it manifests itself sometimes many years later. With me it was 30 years later.
When did you realize you had PTSD?
I was watching a program about combat stress the night before an appointment for an ingrown toenail, and I realised that my flashbacks and inability to sleep were related to what they were talking about. The doctor the next day said I did have PTSD and sent me to try a therapy called rewind therapy, which worked brilliantly.
If you went back in time would you make the same decisions?
I think the best thing I ever did was join the army and the next best thing I ever did was leave. It made me who I am, I’m thankful to the army for giving me a very busy, great time, getting mr physically fit, and teaching me to look after myself. It’s something I can look back on and be glad I did it. But I’m a pacifist now. A pacifist with sniping skills.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about snipers, especially in games?
If you’re a soldier or a sniper on the front line and you’re engaged in battle for any period of time you’re going to be absolutely knackered. You probably haven’t had a full night’s sleep for weeks and sleep in two and three hour snatches, your stomach’s churning over because your diet is all up the creek, you’ve probably got the runs or dysentery, you feel like absolute crap and you’re uncomfortable. Generally on computer games you’ve got some young lad sat in his bedroom playing it and he’s had his tea and he’s going to have a good night’s sleep so his frame of mind is going to be nothing like the frame of mind of a solider on the front line.
Of course the weapon itself has to be very carefully maintained. You use ammunition that’s made on the same day in the same factory. You have a special case for it. The one person that’s allowed to touch that rifle is you and the armourer and that’s yours for the duration. This fantastic idea of arriving to this scenario, like in films where they arrive in a hotel room and open a briefcase and put a rifle together out of bits and poke it out a window and shoot somebody wouldn’t work. It takes a lot of time to get the rifle to hit where the scope is aiming; you have to do a lot of adjustments over a long period of time so you’re going to get that shot. Over very long distances the fractional things can make you miss a shot.
I’ll tell you about a friend of mine. I’ll give you an example of a shot. He fired at a man who was taking guns out the back of a car and putting them into the boot of another car. He was a long way off, about 900m, and there was a side wind. He miscalculated. When he squeezed the trigger and fired at this man, the wind took the bullet behind the man. As soon as he pulled the trigger he realised he made that mistake, but in that short time it took for the bullet to go from the rifle to the target the man took a step back and stepped into the bullet. So that was lucky. That sort of thing happens a lot. There are no test shots.