Profile of Scott Tyler, professional sniper.
Credit: Photograph by John Lee
At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Tyler is modestly sized, if muscular, with thick blacksmith hands, dark hair showing flecks of gray, and green eyes, one of which – the left – bears a birthmark that sometimes lends that iris a golden hue. Maybe the defect is actually a gift, because Tyler has 20/20 vision in his right eye but 20/15 in the left.

That's not the only unusual thing about Tyler, 36, a man who likes to meditate and contemplate big philosophical issues, such as the meaning of life. "People expect him to be so macho,'' says his mother, Kate, a former hippie who made jewelry and traveled about with her son in a lime-green school bus in southern California before settling down with second husband Darrol Rice in Rio Linda. "They expect that of a sniper. But he's so thoughtful, so open to suggestions, so concerned about others. When he was a little boy, he found five dollars on the playground, and he turned it in. When he went to sign up for the Marines, I thought we were going to the mall so he could hit me up for comic books."

He was 18 then, in 1991, coming off a restless high school career. (He was kicked out after spending more time surfing than studying, but eventually earned his GED.) He served a tour in Somalia, got out in 1996, and enrolled at the University of California–Berkeley. The elite, famously liberal school wasn't exactly clamoring for a surfer-dropout-turned–G.I. Joe, but Tyler cajoled military officials into writing him letters of recommendation. He settled on chemistry as his major, "because chemistry had kicked my ass'' in some early classes there, and he wasn't backing down from it again. After a year he had a 3.8 GPA, but his view of life from the chemistry lab was not fulfilling.

He had had a dream: He would continue on to medical school, become a doctor, and, rifle hanging in the back of his truck, work on an Indian reservation, where he would save lives while hiking into the roughest terrain. "I wanted to help people," he says. "But I was managing an apartment building and spending 80 to 90 hours a week studying. For what? So I could spend 80 to 90 hours a week studying in med school? I wanted to learn – knowledge for knowledge's sake – but it was all so competitive for no reason, so full of backstabbing, just a meat grinder. I looked out the windows of the lab, and there were the hills. And I knew I wanted to be back around people I liked being around."

So he switched his major to cognitive science – "why we think what we think," he says – and began hanging out with professors, "talking and trying to learn from them." One afternoon, Tyler and I visit his favorite professor at Berkeley, a cheerful man named John Matsui, the head of the scholars program in the department of integrative biology. As we sit in the campus coffee shop, Matsui says with something like awe, "I never had a student like Scott before. I knew you were intelligent. I saw that you would never quit. Your story was… different. Coming to school the way you did. Your desire to learn."

Even so, after he graduated in 2000, Tyler had had enough of school, and he felt himself drawn back to the military, but this time in more of a thinking role. He joined the navy to become a SEAL, one of those supersoldiers trained not only to fight on sea, on land, or in the air, but also to operate more independently. "I wanted to work in as small a unit as possible," he says. "I wanted to take all my determination, intentions, and skill and deliver it as precisely as I could – on the tip of a single bullet."

And that is how a sniper was born.