By Erik Meridian
Many of the grape rows he stalks through in Zharay, Afghanistan are owned by the very Taliban fighters he seeks. Each vineyard he enters offers a fresh chance at death, either by mined trip wire, pressure-plate IED or the crack-thump of AK-47 fire. Commander of a U.S. Army sniper team known as Catch-22 – he’s the deadliest soldier on the battlefield and is the Taliban’s greatest prize.
There is irony here: Once upon a time, Kurt felt at peace in the vines. In his previous life, he was a winegrower in the U.S.
At times Catch-22 may be folded into a nine-man patrol and act as squad-designated marksmen responsible for laying down accurate, long-range fire in enemy contact. Often they’re tasked with sniper over-watch from a concealed position, where they support a larger operation with powerful optics and weapons capable of reaching farther than 1,500 meters.
Their favorite missions, however, are those involving the ambushes. In these, snipers work with infantry to engage the enemy and force them to flee into a prearranged kill zone where sniper fire and helicopter gunships await.
The team’s arsenal includes the M110 7.62 mm Semi-automatic Sniper System, the bolt-action XM2010 300 WinMag Sniper Weapon System and the M107 Barrett .50- caliber sniper rifle. Each also carries an M4 carbine, and the team leader has a M320 40 mm grenade launcher. Complementing these weapons are state-of-the-art optics including an array of day, night and thermal optics that allow observation several kilometers out.
The mastery of this equipment and the knowledge to choose the right tool requires an average of 18 months of intense training and preparation. Far more important than the toys is the ability to make quick and correct decisions based on limited information. Target detection, range estimation, land navigation and stealth movement are all part of sniper field craft.
In this game, lives depend on mere scraps of intelligence, and the sniper’s intuition and experience often makes the difference.
“We were selected for this duty because we are independent operators,” Kurt says. “We look at situations differently than the normal infantryman.”
Sometimes being a sniper is a lonely job, and the training reinforces self-reliance. Catch-22 often spends hours watching an area, learning about the patterns of life there. That way, when something out of the ordinary occurs, they can react.
As the 11-year conflict in Afghanistan winds down, the public pressure to reduce civilian casualties abroad and combat casualties at home has altered the way in which the U.S. wages war. Gone are the days of overwhelming firepower, night operations and air strikes. What remains is a battlefield that has nullified many of the tactical and technological advantages once held by coalition forces. In response to this new reality, commanders on the ground rely increasingly on snipers to provide pinpoint lethality against an elusive, yet deadly enemy.
Q&A with a sniper
Erik Meridian conducted this interview with Catch-22 sniper team members Kurt and Anthony in August and September 2012 when the sniper team Catch-22 was in Zharay, Afghanistan. Kurt, 32, selected and trained Anthony, 27, starting in mid-2011 based on Anthony’s skill set and ability to operate independently in a high-pressure environment. All quotes are from Kurt, unless otherwise noted.
1. You’ve said Zharay is “the birthplace of the Taliban.” What does that mean?
Have you heard of Mullah Omar? He’s the one-eyed spiritual leader of the Taliban who sheltered Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaida in Afghanistan, allowing them to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks from a safe haven. Mullah Omar was born in a little village called Nodeh, in the Zharay District of the Kandahar Province. Nodeh is 1.5 kilometers from where we’re sitting. I can literally see his house from here. Lucky for him he’s not home.
2. What’s your favorite weapon? Do they take on their own personalities?
They sure do. Each one has a name.
My M4 with the M320 grenade launcher is called Hungry Joe, after the character in Catch-22, the novel. He’s feisty and relentless. He goes on every mission and never leaves my side. My partner’s gun, the M110 SASS, that’s Scarlet. She’s a sassy minx who’ll slap the shit out of you, especially with the suppressor attached. The XM2010 is called Closing Time after the Joseph Heller sequel to Catch-22. It makes sense since the 2010 is the follow-up to the Army’s old M24 Remington 700, which is, to answer your first question, my favorite weapon. It’s simple, clean, and effective. It’s what I learned with when I became a sniper, and you never forget your first love.
As for the M107 Barrett, the celebrity of the bunch and the biggest, we call it Orion’s Bow. It’s a behemoth, and it takes a stud to handle it. One round from this rifle will change the complexion of a battlefield in a heartbeat. It’s designed to intimidate and destroy by punching through anything in its way, be it a vehicle, a brick building, or some unlucky schmuck shooting at my guys.
3. So, how much of a wine guru are you? What’s your background?
I studied Food Science and Food Manufacturing Operations at Purdue University and was trained by some of the best. One of my professors, Dr. Richard Vine, is a legend. A contemporary of Robert Mondavi, who wrote the foreword of Vine’s textbooks, he founded the Indy International Wine Competition, one of the world’s largest.
I worked in the Enology Lab at Purdue, facilitated the school’s wine competition in 2002, and began working for Chalet Debonné Vineyards that fall. I came back and graduated in 2003, and then became the assistant winemaker for Lakeridge Winery and San Sebastian Winery in Florida. We made everything from cream sherry and ruby port, to méthode champenoise sparkling wines where we hand-riddled the bottles. Our red and white table wines, both dry and sweet, were consistent crowd pleasers and award winners.
The most exciting time was during and right after harvest. Walking the vineyards, deciding when to harvest, working 80-plus hours a week to process the fruit, running the presses, starting the fermentation, and starting to blend after the first racking…it’s addictive. Tasting a wine that has reached its potential – something you’ve helped shepherd and craft– is really fulfilling. Those vines become your life. You know them better than you know yourself.
Later, I was a wine manager with Total Wine and More for four years and traveled to wine regions throughout the U.S. and Europe. By age 26, I was running the sales floor of their $62 million per year wine retail superstore outside Philadelphia.
4. Tell about walking through these dangerous vineyards in Afghanistan.
It’s funny how life comes full circle, but with little ironic twists. I used to walk through the vineyards every morning and evening. It was the best part of my day. Now during a mission, when I watch the sunrise through the vines, I’m very aware that my next step could be my last. My greatest love may be the death of me if I don’t watch my step.
5. What’s your biggest fear when you’re out there?
As snipers, we’re the eyes and ears of our unit. We look over their shoulders and watch their backs when they’re sweeping for IED’s, carrying tons of equipment, moving toward an objective, totally exposed. We had to earn their trust over time. They’re taking serious risks to get the job done, and they often can’t spot potential danger until it’s too late.
When insurgents are moving through grape rows or behind walls, we have a chance to stop them or alert the unit. If we failed our friends that would be something we’d have trouble living with. That fear keeps us sharp.
6. What about your own lives?
At this point, we’ve taken out our share of Taliban fighters. If they get us now, we’ve still done more damage to them than they have to us. However, we recognize we’re trophies. They’re gunning for us. There have been prices on our heads since we arrived here. If we give away the fact that we’re snipers, all hell rains down on us. That means they’re afraid of us. They know the name Catch-22. They gather intel just like we do. It’s a high stakes game of hide and seek, and we’re determined to keep winning.
I have a very supportive family who loves me, but I’m single with no children. If I go, I leave no one behind. Anthony, however, has two of the most adorable little daughters on the planet.
To Anthony: What if something happens to you?
It won’t, but if it somehow did, Kurt promised to be there for my girls. They’re 2 and 4. I would want them to know who their father was – how much I love them and why I made the tough choices I did in order to provide for them.
7. In most sniper teams there is a primary shooter and a primary spotter. Who’s the better shooter?
In unison: I am! (laughter)
Anthony: But Kurt’s the better spotter.
Kurt: For now, I just have more experience seeing bullet trace and calling wind.
Anthony: He’s the team leader so he’s gotta work the radio and coordinate things. That means I get more time behind the gun, which is fine by me.
8. Why the call sign, Catch-22?
Have you read the book? It applies perfectly. With the tight restrictions on rules of engagement and the lengthy process of establishing positive ID on a target before firing, soldiers often feel like they’re in a no-win situation. It’s important to maintain a sense of humor. If you lose that, morale goes downhill fast.
Also, you can spin it a different way. We believe we’ve got the Taliban in a catch-22. If they stand and fight, they die. If they fight and run, they die…tired. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
9. Are you tempted to make wine out of local grapes?
The thought has crossed my mind, but that would be against regulations (winks). I could barter with farmers for fruit and use water jugs for fermenters. I’ve got the rubber tubing and mosquito netting to rack and filter. The grapes have indigenous yeast on their skin, so I wouldn’t need to inoculate. I’ve made award-winning wines with less. These vines aren’t like Vitis vinifera vines that grow in places like Napa Valley or the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The Afghan grapes lack the sweetness and acidity needed to make the wine stable at 10 – 12 percent alcohol, so you’d have to ameliorate (add sugar) during fermentation. But it could be done.
Anthony: You’re such a nerd!
Kurt: Yeah, I know. But in all seriousness, one big reason I don’t is because it would likely offend our Afghan partners. Alcohol consumption is a serious taboo in Muslim culture, and we need them on our side.
10. Why is maintaining a good relationship with Afghan soldiers so important?
This is their country. We’re just short-timers trying to make an impact and provide security. For us to go home with dignity, they must be ready to take the lead.
Our leadership has forced us to live and work in close proximity with the Afghan National Army, and we have no choice but to intertwine them into our lives. If they don’t patrol, we don’t patrol. Our unit has decided to embrace them and make them brothers. We eat with them, fight with them, mourn with them, celebrate with them, learn their languages and customs well enough that if they were to turn on us, they’d be killing their brother.
When an Afghan soldier attacks coalition forces it’s called a Green on Blue incident. Those have become the number two cause of death among American soldiers in Afghanistan, second only to IED’s.
I want to make a stark differentiation between the ANA that have committed the Green on Blue incidents, and the ones we work with. We’ll be disappointed to have to work with other guys. They are even more vulnerable than American infantry – they don’t have the same level of mine detection equipment, protective equipment, firepower or communications equipment – and they take more casualties because of the risks they run. American soldiers can’t go into someone’s house and search it anymore, so we have to ask them to do it. We take their safety very personally.
But working with them is also another catch- 22. We have the opportunity to build a strong bond with them, but we also open ourselves up to serious risks. We hold our enemies close and our friends closer. So far, it’s working for us. The ANA are brave, motivated and professional, but it’s always a work in progress.
11. Why have you chosen to serve?
It’s part of my journey as a man and an American.
When I was a kid, both my parents were schoolteachers, so we had summers off. I grew up in eastern Indiana, and when I was 5, we took a summer-long vacation and went to every major park between Illinois and Yosemite. The first time I ever went fishing was in Yellowstone National Park. I caught a little brook trout, and it was the coolest thing that ever happened to me. It was a perfect day.
My dad is a Special Forces Vietnam veteran. At that time, he was a difficult person to talk to, and fishing with him was almost therapeutic. We understood each other very well that day, and it was many years before we understood each other again to that same degree. Part of the reason I serve is to understand where he’s coming from.
The memory of that day and others like it built my appreciation and love for the vast beauty of this country. Let’s face it: America isn’t perfect. However, I’m willing to serve and sacrifice for the sake of that one perfect day and the dream that eventually another one will come along.
Erik Meridian, a pseudonym, is an American soldier serving in Catch- 22’s unit in Afghanistan. His duty position prevents him from revealing his real name.