Profile of Scott Tyler, professional sniper.
Credit: Photograph by John Lee
Scott Tyler was in a stone hut in Iraq's Amdar province, east of Ramadi. This was in 2005, and the wrecked little building, about 10 feet by 12 feet, had been dubbed "the hot dog stand" by members of the SEAL team who occasionally used it for cover in the no-man's-land of destruction. Tyler was with two men from his sniper team, observing the gray ambivalent scene outside, when they noticed a suspicious-looking local man checking out places where the SEALs sometimes set up. The man studied the road the military used regularly. He had on a robe, and it was impossible to see what he might be carrying underneath. The man looked at the hut. He walked closer and stared into the opening about five feet off the ground, at eye level, the place where the SEALs had built an observation deck out of bricks inside the hot dog stand. The man stared directly at Tyler, from six feet away, into his face.

Tyler was covered with his own handmade camouflage suit, spray-painted different colors "like a chameleon," with a mottled front he had designed "not to look like a human, but to be natural and exist in negative space, to be invisible." He had layers of mosquito netting covering his face, and he had backed into the shadows. The man could not see Tyler, could not even see his green eyes.

"Every hair on my body was standing on end,'' Tyler says. "He could have tossed a grenade into that opening. But I need to see that he is a threat, absolutely. I need to know. He has to deserve to die."

The man left and 20 minutes later returned with someone else. The first man began to dig a hole in the roadway with a trowel while the other served as a lookout. The first man dropped something into the hole, perhaps a bomb.

"I didn't have a rifle, but I confirmed the target – both of those guys – and I cleared my men hot. It would be a simultaneous shoot. I counted down – 'Three, two, one…' and we took out the mine guy, about 75 meters away, and the lookout guy, about 125 meters away, at the same time. We had to do it precisely so that neither would be alerted. Within seconds a truck came flying down the road and picked up the farther body. But the first guy had fallen directly on top of the mine, or whatever it was. And it was a mine. We detonated it, and he disappeared."

Tyler didn't take those death shots, but he produced them. Though he won't talk about it, it seems likely that snipers under his command have killed more than two dozen men, and he himself has killed maybe a half dozen or more. He won't deny that. And maybe the body count is much higher. He doesn't like to discuss it. "There are noncombatants in that number," he says.

"If I shot somebody, or men under my command did, I took full responsibility for that. I know that helped the men, lifted the burden." But what about the burden on him? "It sucks. It's impossible, really, trying to be precise. Nothing is clear. I never had a textbook case. Never. You do your best. You follow the rules of engagement, your conscience. And then the next morning you wake up and you think, Oh, my God."