The Sniper

A psychologist, a minister, a disabled Marine veteran, and a writer discuss war

As I stood in the entry of an Assisted Living dining hall, hoping to join my friend after lunch, I overheard this comment: “She’s no angel. I heard she shacked up with George last night.” The speaker nodded toward another woman two tables over with coiffed hair and Fifth Avenue attire.

The Escondido, California, facility served about a hundred seniors at tables seating four — mostly women who’d outlived their husbands. The clack of porcelain platters ricocheted as young employees uniformed in white tunics collected food plates onto wheeled push carts.

I spotted my friend, Don, a retired psychotherapist for Black Ops (black operations) military personnel. He was now in his mid-eighties, seated at a far table with two other men. On joining them, he introduced me to a former Protestant minister and a disabled Marine veteran, both in their sixties. We chatted for a while.

“So how did you become a Marine sniper?” I asked, after our waitress served us tea.

Traumatized veterans are usually reluctant to speak about the horror of what happened to them. He paused to scrutinize me, a complete stranger, then saw what he needed to see and opened up.

“My boot camp sergeant earmarked me as a born sniper, and I got special training for that. I could shoot the wings off a horse fly with an M40 at 300 meters, despite a stiff crosswind. The Marines spent big bucks training me to be an HPK (hired professional killer.) I learned how to kill a man a dozen different ways. It twisted me. Being in the field a while, I saw life different.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“In my unit, I became a legend from my fast disappearing acts after a kill. The enemy put me on their most wanted list, dead or alive, for being the spook sniper who killed 150 top brass.”

“Does it bother you, having killed so many people?” asked the horrified minister.

“Hell, yeah! I can hardly sleep at night. Sometimes I wake up screaming. People I killed were no different than you or me. They had their hopes and dreams: wives, children, and maybe lots of grandkids. If word got around that I was prowling in their part of the jungle, they would start worrying if this was to be their last day alive.” He aimed his finger gun at each of us.

“So, how long were you a sniper?” I could read shame in his eyes.

“About five years in, I got sick and tired of it all. One day my commanding officer ordered me to kill a notorious enemy colonel. I balked. I’d had enough of the cold-blooded assassinations. Then he told me that if I refused his direct order, I’d be committing treason. After a court martial, I’d be shot, or locked up in Leavenworth for 20 years, without right of appeal.”

“He was bluffing. Service men have the constitutional right of appeal,” Don said with authority.

“Couldn’t have known he was exaggerating, so that freaked me out. All I’d been told was a convicted Marine has no civil rights. That’d be as close to hell on earth as I could imagine.

“They wanted us — no, ordered us — to become inhumane butchers and that drove a lot of us nuts. That’s why by 1973 more than a thousand front-line officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers) were fragged in their sleep by grenades.

“After a couple more years in the field, telescoping crosshairs on a new victim and slowly squeezing the trigger, my willingness to kill would waver. But my indecision was fast resolved by remembering it came down to killing the enemy or being shot by a court martial firing squad.”

“So what did you end up doing?” Don, my Ph.D. friend, leaned forward to hear him better.

“Truth is, I think my conscience made me sloppy with my standard escape procedures.”

“You allowed yourself to be wounded so it would all stop,” the psychoanalyst inferred.

“Mind you, not that I made a conscious effort to get hurt. I just hesitated too long.”

“So how were you wounded?” I asked, careful not to pry or prod at his guilt scars. His left eye was twitching by now.

“Grenade shrapnel hit me and I fell out of a tree. A freaked out Cong teenager shot 30 caliber through my left elbow and knee, then ran off, left me bleeding there. My unit finally found me.”

“Why didn’t he just kill you? Why shoot your left, instead of your right side?”

“Good questions. I don’t know. Fate, I guess. He must have mistaken my left side for his right. Maybe he figured I’d suffer my whole life, disabled by my dominant side. Just killing me wasn’t cruel enough. It got me a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, and a 100% VA disability. Big deal. I’d rather have two healthy limbs than two friggin medals gathering dust.”

“So, was Vietnam a just war?” the minister asked, seeing his moment for pulpit-philosophy.

“Hell, I can’t say one way or another if it was a just war. Was America justified being there in Nam and forcing me to kill its enemies? If the Cong were invading Hawaii, I could say hell yeah― self-defense without a doubt. But invasion of America’s shore wasn’t the excuse for that war. President Johnson figured our global hegemony was threatened by a Communist domino effect. And our greedy military industrial complex was all too willing to profit big from Johnson’s war.”

“Nietzche’s Will to Power in Johnson, using America’s global reach,” the minister shrugged in a bookish retort.

“President Eisenhower clearly warned us about the military industrial complex in his Farewell Speech,” I said.

“Makes me wonder if cave men were more civilized,” Don quipped, leaning back again.

“All I know is, popular opinion soured and we came home to shame. No hero ticker tape parade on Broadway for us. Even today a lot of our Nam vets are screwed up, maybe homeless.”

“All the times we’ve met here, I’ve never heard you talk about this,” said Don, surprised by his candor.

Pointing to me, he said, “I guess that gentleman somehow got me telling you things I’m not proud of.”

He seemed relieved, as after a good confession. Donning his Marine visor cap, he stood with effort using a walker, his once tall shoulders stooped as he hobbled away. While watching him leave, I shuddered in gratitude that I was not physically disabled. The only damage I incurred from the Vietnam War ― a few months after being commissioned an Army officer ― was the stigma of a nervous breakdown that crippled my confidence for several years.

Leaving the dining hall a while later, I noticed the same lady was still sniping at her target.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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