Profile of Scott Tyler, professional sniper.
Credit: Photograph by John Lee
Part of being a great sniper is having the ability, the mind-set, to blend in, to disguise oneself, to become part of the landscape, to feel and react like soil, like leaves blowing in the wind. In The Ultimate Sniper, a technical guide for advanced snipers that Tyler references again and again, there is a section on Ghillie suits, the camouflage outfits that are designed to resemble the surrounding landscape. "A properly made Ghillie suit so well conceals the wearer that it never fails to impress first-time viewers,'' writes the author, retired army special forces major John L. Plaster. At sniper school, when an instructor talks about the suits, the point is reinforced when, after a spell, an innocuous part of the ground in front of the recruits slowly rises up and becomes human.

"The most important thing about a Ghillie suit is that you can attach other things to it," says Tyler. "It has loops everywhere, and you gather whatever's in your environment – leaves and grass and branches – and tape or string or zip-tie them on. It's a layman's myth that you cover yourself with burlap and you look like Chewbacca and that's that."

Snipers, whenever possible, work as two-man teams – one man spotting with a powerful scope, another shooting. But often even harder than shooting is the act of getting within range. It consists of patience almost beyond belief. There is the high crawl, the elbow crawl, the low crawl, and the sniper crawl. "The sniper crawl is the lowest, slowest movement technique…" Plaster writes, "used when movement must be so slow that there is no visible action to detect. [The sniper] creeps along, only four inches per move, using just fingers and toes to propel himself." With a rifle, of course.

Then come the difficult decisions. "I liked the cut-and-dry, liked it if a guy had a gun and was shooting at our troops, and we shot him," says Tyler. "It's a situation of less ambivalence. Nobody wants to go out and murder someone. You don't shoot just because you can. You have the trigger depressed and there is that final quarter-pound of pressure, and if you make a bad call.… Well, a 'bad kill' can create more insurgents, bad feelings, an international incident. But the biggest thing is, you have to live with it.''

Tyler has won two bronze stars for valor. The first one stemmed from a 2003 incident in which his sniper team was providing support for a unit taking down a Taliban stronghold in the Afghanistan mountains. "We got into a combat situation and had to shoot our way through it," says Tyler, reluctant to say more. It's the second bronze star, though, that illustrates how gray the decision making in the field can get. That one came after a 2005 firefight in the Philippines, where he and other U.S. soldiers had been sent to assist the government in hunting down extremists. The document that accompanied that award notes that Tyler "without regard for his own personal safety…led a two-man element to rescue four injured personnel." The truth is that Tyler came damned close to disobeying orders, since he was supposed to be an "observer," not a combatant. He and another SEAL used two small boats to go up a river, firing all the way, to pull out ambushed and wounded Filipino troops. It was political dynamite, but human grace. Tyler could have been court-martialed as easily as decorated.

"The men had been shot up; they were bleeding out," he says. "I got on the phone with the captain back at the base, and he wanted us to wait. He didn't want to make the call, politically. Then my phone fell in the water. It kind of slipped out of my hand. Even now I don't know if I did it on purpose." Three of the four men he rescued survived, and Scott Tyler's reputation spread.

The men in his platoons revered him, because he was meticulous, because he was loyal and smart, because he followed the rules but still thought philosophically and creatively. "I love the guy like a brother," says Dave Hansen, a 13-year SEAL chief petty officer who served under Tyler in Iraq in 2005. "He constantly thought outside the box. Need something done? Just give him the facts and leave him alone. Because he was so good at so many things, he was always able to get us into combat, which is the point. I mean, there he is, knee-deep in craziness, smoking a lot of dudes, and doing it the right way. Mr. Rice" – Tyler recently changed his name from Rice back to Tyler, his birth name, as a way of reconnecting with his birth dad, but many of his fellow former soldiers still call him that – "he is the kind of guy who's gonna save your ass. Maybe that's what comes through in his art.''

Oh yes, the art. Tyler is a sculptor; he learned welding from his birth father and has created some remarkably beautiful and thought-provoking moving sculptures out of stainless steel and stone. We visit a gallery in Stinson Beach where one of his pieces, Spatial Relationships, is on display in the yard, and the slightest breeze sets arms on the heavy, earth-toned metal-and-rock form into improbable, silent, delicate motion. "My art has to do with the positive spaces and negative spaces of a landscape,'' Tyler explains. "That goes with the art of being a sniper. A person's instinct, your eye, will go from positive space – a tree, a rock – to positive space. Negative space is the space in between. Deer and coyotes have the ability, with their coloring, to stand still in negative space, to hide in plain sight. Our eye notices straight lines, perfect circles, shiny things in the wild because they're out of place. Those are not natural forms or shapes. I like things that blend into the landscape. I find nothing more beautiful than trees and rocks.''