Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
Chuck Mawhinney—Chronicles of a Killing Man
Chuck Mawhinney—Chronicles of a Killing Man
By Fred Dickey © 2002
For Penthouse Magazine
The man is kneeling in the tall grass, unmoving as a lizard on a rock. He has learned the finesse of the expert killer, which is not to threaten but to lull. He had been here for hours, since long before the blazing noonday sun rose slowly as a red ball to absorb the night chill. In his face-paint and artful camouflage, he doesn’t exist.
The muscles of his young legs are locked into place without pain. When he moves, rarely, it is in slow motion, like a mime on valium. A drink of water takes minutes from when he reaches for his canteen. A leech is growing fat on the back of his neck, but he ignores it, knowing the creature will balloon with blood, then harmlessly fall off. Insects have worked inside his pants and shirt, but he blocks the itching from his mind. Earlier, he observed a deadly krait from a few yards distant, but the snake crawled indifferently away, two predators taking a pass on each other. He sucks on granulated coffee from C-rats which he holds under his lip like Copenhagen, knowing the caffeine and bitter taste will help keep him alert. There is a companion hunched over about two feet from him, a togetherness each acknowledges with only a few secretive gestures and grunts, sometimes hours apart.
His eyes are fixed on a point far out in Indian Country, as this battle zone of Vietnam just below the DMZ is called. He ignores all else. A half-mile out in the middle of a rice paddy are ant-like dots. However, when he lifts his rifle and looks through the scope, the figures turn into three men dressed as farmers, apparently headed for a day’s work. But the AK-47s they carry inadequately hidden reveal them as enemy soldiers—at least for a few more moments.
He looks expectantly at his spotter. The other man is absorbed in his binoculars, but senses the question, and answers in a single hushed word. “Clear.” There are no other NVA in sight. He returns his eye to the scope and locks his brain into cruise control. He shifts the instrument from one man to another. They look alike, and all are fair game, but since he will allow himself only one shot, which one? God should be so arbitrary. The scope is filled with the men, but he sees them as objectives, not as fellow humans. He doesn’t look at their faces or their eyes. No point. This isn’t personal. He notices one talking and the others listening. He looks more carefully at the soldier and sees that he carries a pistol at his side. Officers carry pistols. He is the one who will die today.
He settles the crosshairs on the man’s chest—center mass. He estimates the distance…700 meters. His scope is sighted in on 500 meters, so he elevates the rifle slightly. The breeze on his cheek says the wind is about 12 m.p.h. from the left. He moves the barrel slightly in that direction—maybe a quarter inch, but not three-eights. The death moment is now. He suspends breathing and gently tightens his finger. The stock slams into his shoulder, but he holds his head and grip just for a moment. Follow through. Tiger Woods. Michael Jordan. He is that kind of good.
His view suddenly empties. He shifts the scope and sees his target on the ground. Nothing moves except the seeping blood. The other two men look down, then around: stunned, then frantic. They had heard nothing, but know death is keen-eyed and out there somewhere. He could easily kill both, but his own iron rule says otherwise—one shot, one kill.
Chuck Mawhinney, skinny 20-year-old sniper from the mountains of Oregon, and spotter Bob “Sugar Bear” Bryant, a burly black youth from inner-city Philadelphia, turn without a word and start back at a cautious but fast hunched-over trot to the Marine perimeter more than a half-mile distant. It has been a productive day. An average one for the Marine acknowledged as the most successful sniper of the Vietnam War.
Mawhinney is older now, 53, and he walks with a slight limp from a hip gone bad from first carrying 100 pounds of gear through rice paddies during the worst years of the war, ’68 to ‘70, and then from years after of trying to make mountain roads passable for the U.S. Forest Service. He is about six-two and rangy. He dresses in the casual practicality of the mountain man. His skin is leathered and clear. His eyes are always moving, not nervously, but in reaction to every motion, in the way of the lifelong hunter who always gets his deer. He has a soft-spoken sandpaper sense of humor, but he rubs it in gently. He lives in an Eastern Oregon mountain town, the name of which he doesn’t want printed because publicity still brings him occasional “child-killer” anonymous phone calls. From the place where he now stands in his backyard, the Oregon Trail winds along just a few miles to the east, and it’s easy for the imagination to transport him back to those pioneers of a century and a half ago. They would have known him. His whole manner says that he would rather take a beer piss into a snow bank at the foot of a tall pine with a skin-shrinking cold wind blowing through its lower branches, then win a free trip to Disney World.
Mawhinney had been a teen-age hellraiser—“I liked to fight a little and race motorcycles, sometimes with cops chasing me.” His enlistment was the alternative offered by a probation officer who persuaded authorities to give the wild kid an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I was gonna join the Navy, but when I went down to the recruiting office, I got in the Marines line by mistake. When I asked the gunny sergeant if this was the Navy line, he screamed, ‘You fuckin’ pussy, get out of my line! Get over there with the girls!’” Mawhinney chuckles. “I kinda liked his personality, so I stayed in his line.”
The old sniper is now retired from the Forest Service and has long-since become domesticated. At the moment he is worrying about a pork loin on the barbeque. If he wants a cigarette, he obediently leaves the house, and he watches how many Keystone Lites he drinks. For a quarter-century, his coworkers and neighbors knew nothing unusual about him: Just another good-guy neighbor, a blue-collar fellow with a modest house, a friendly wife and healthy kids. When he and his buddies would get together for beers on Fridays after work, he was the one who said nothing when the talk turned to war bragging.
“You’d get these guys who were in motor pools or supply back in DaNang, and they’d talk about their night missions, and bullshit like that. ‘I was a bad sumbitch,’ and all that stuff. I’d just sit and listen. If they asked me about the war, I’d just tell ‘em I was lucky, I didn’t get drafted.” He is still amused by the ruse.
A few years ago, however, Mawhinney’s years of silence about his war record came to an end in the pages of a paperback, “Dear Mom: A Sniper’s Vietnam,” written by Joe Ward, an ex-buddy in the same sniper platoon. Ward identified Mawhinney as the top sniper in the entire war. As word of that revelation was circulated, his pals stopped telling war stories when he took a seat at the bar. A man who came back to Oregon with 103 confirmed kills and 216 probable kills might not be impressed.
There’s always a question about such statistics. Who’s counting? In Mawhinney’s case, it was primarily his squad leader, Mark Limpic, now a 56-year-old engineer in Kansas City, Mo., but then the sergeant of a sniper squad in Vietnam. “How do I know how many confirmed kills he had? Because I counted them. Every one went in my book.” On the probable kills, Limpic isn’t certain, but said 216 might be low. “Generally, we figured at least two and maybe three probables to every confirmed,” he said.
Of the skinny kid who followed his orders, Limpic says: “Chuck was an incredible shot and a guy who knew terrain like a wolf. Helluva Marine. He was the real deal.”
Today, Mawhinney is trying to make the best of the notoriety that he didn’t seek by teaching sniper skills to police department SWAT teams across the country, where he must seem like Ted Williams demonstrating how to hit a curve ball. He’s suddenly in demand because the War on Terror has made heroes out of Special Operations soldiers, and SWAT-team snipers are no longer seen as psychopaths with means. He knows, as does every police officer, that the frontline of that war could erupt on the main street of any town in America. Today’s cop has to be able to write a traffic ticket at 11 a.m. and then resist a fanatic paramilitary effort before noon. An example of that being done badly was the Hollywood bank-holdup shootout of a couple years ago where robbers in body armor engaged what seemed like the entire Los Angeles Police Department for hours. Mawhinney says that the matter could have been put to rest in minutes if trained snipers had locked-onto the robbers. “A .308 bullet would go through that body armor like butter,” he says. “But that’s California--‘Let’s all hold hands and not hurt anybody.’ Shit.”
Though he hates to leave the mountains, even for a few days, Mahwinney contributes a few weeks out of the year to help the cops. “I’m sure as hell no professor. When all this falderaul about what I did first started, some guy called and asked me to go to a sniper symposium. I had to ask my wife, ‘What the hell’s a symposium?’ Anyway, I don’t lecture, I just plain talk, and the best learning comes sitting around over beers after class.”
Recognition has also brought Mawhinney into uncomfortable proximity with sniper wannabes and hangers-on. He scoffs at the bravado slogans that make the rounds in that shadow world: “The only thing I feel is the recoil.” “You can run, but you’ll only die tired.” “Can you see something like that on the side of a police car?” he asks, and shakes his head.
He tells of being invited to a sniper event in Las Vegas sponsored by “Soldier of Fortune” magazine. “There were these assholes walking around in camouflage with about six knives strapped to their bodies. One of them came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, you a sniper?’ I said, ‘No, man, I’m the caterer.’ I got the hell out of there.”
Mawhinney teaches cops the military skills that worked for him in Vietnam: camouflage, stealth, how to build a hide, covering tracks, and the importance of patience. He has the ardor of a TV preacher on the subject of practice time—and then more of it--the single quality that he calls key to sniper success. “SWAT members on small departments have other duties, so they get out maybe once a month to shoot. That’s bullshit. When I was In Country, I practiced every day I wasn’t out doing it. If you have to think about the steps you take to shoot, then you’re not ready to shoot. Take these cops: they almost always have only one shot, so they have to know how their gun will react to cold-bore shooting. A cold barrel will throw the shot off by an inch or two. That can mean the difference on whether the one you kill is the one you want to kill.”
The threat of the War on Terror is no melodrama to Mawhinney. He understands sudden death and how easy it is to inflict. “There’s shit that could happen that you don’t see on TV talk shows. Let me tell ya: We worry about planes being hijacked; well, a sniper can get a .50-caliber sniper rifle on the Internet, and dig a spider trap [concealed hole] as far as a mile away from where the planes are parked on the tarmac. He can use incendiary bullets and blow the shit out of about a dozen of those planes. You’d have goddamn explosions going off all over.” He can see it in his mind, and he shakes his head. “We have to have people trained for that bullshit.
“I teach cops how to think like a sniper and a scout. A sniper, when he’s in position, is apart from the main scene, so he’s watching and sizing-up. He’s the intelligence for the rest of the operation. When he settles in, he starts sketching with his eyes.” Mawhinney imagines a scene. “There’s dog shit on the ground. Where’s the dog? What kind is it? There’s a swing set on the lawn. Probably kids in the house. Where? How many? If we move in at night, what yard junk do we have to not trip over?” Mawhinney leans back and rolls the Keystone can in his big hands. “The sniper makes a mental map of the situation and of every detail because people could live or die on what’s he’s seen. That’s a helluva lot harder to learn than the shooting.”
He gives an example from Kentucky of the type of scene-awareness he teaches. “A sniper was covering a hostage situation in a trailer park. The gunman was holding a female in front of a window with a gun pointed at her head and seemed certain to shoot. The gunman thought he was protected because he had concealed his body just beyond the window. The sniper, however, had learned the thickness of the trailer wall and knew he could penetrate it. He calculated the position of the gunman’s body and made a kill shot.”
Mawhinney scoffs at war stories, but if you’re sitting with him in his garage hideaway with a couple Keystones, he can be coaxed to limber up.
He sets the scene: It happened on Valentine’s Day 1969 on the Thu-Bon River near the Cambodia border. Mawhinney’s company, operating out of the Liberty Bridge artillery base, had set up in the elephant grass about 400 yards from the water. An observation airplane had radioed that a large enemy force was moving toward them….
”I grab my spotter and an M-14 with a Starlight [night vision scope] and go down to the river bank to watch. We pick a place where the river is wider, because that means it’s shallower at that point. We set up in high grass about 30 feet from the bank. About two hours after dark, one guy comes out of the river. No pack, only a rifle. I’m watching him. He looks around, then walks around for awhile. I can hear water dripping off him, that’s how close he is. I don’t shoot. I want to know what he’s up to. Finally, he gets back in the river and disappears. I tell my spotter, ‘This might get interesting.’
“Yep. About a half-hour later, here they come, wading across, a whole string of ‘em. The water’s up to their necks. They got those old green pith helmets on. As the first guy is coming out of the water, I shoot him, then go to the next one, then the next one, then the next. Like shooting fish in a bucket. I have the reticle right on their faces. Every shot a hit. Some would try to duck beneath the water, but what the hell’s that gonna get ‘em? These boys were screwed. They just floated away.” Later, Mawhinney counted the shells in that clip. Sixteen had been used, none wasted. The company enjoyed a peaceful bivouac that night.
It wasn’t all target shooting. The NVA weren’t clay pigeons. In addition to being wounded by shrapnel when another soldier blundered into a booby trap, Mawhinney spent an eternity one morning lying face down in the muck of a rice paddy. “One day, I’m on patrol with the grunts and I get pinned down in this rice paddy. The furrow I’m in is maybe 10 inches deep and some asshole keeps shooting my pack because that’s all he can see. So every time I move, I get hit again. The guy’s in the tree line, maybe 30 feet away. The rice paddy is filled with shit—human--you know, but at that moment, I love shit more than a pretty girl, can’t get close enough to it. He shoots me maybe half a dozen times. I can feel it in my shoulders; hurts like hell. Then, I feel something liquid running down my side. Sure as shit, I figure I’ve been hit. But I have three or four cans of peaches in my pack—I love peaches--and that son of a bitch hit a can. Finally, things got hot for the guy and he left. I just had to stay down tight and wait it out. Probably lasted a minute at most, but seemed like forever.”
He displays a photo of a kneeling figure in the far distance, obviously taken through a scope. “This guy, he’s about 300 yards out. He’s out there acting like a farmer, and at first we figure he’s working, but then my spotter says, ‘Chuck, he’s got a rifle hidden in the grass.’ End of story. Write your last letter, buddy. We were on the perimeter, and one Marine had a camera, so I put the camera up to the scope and turned it into a Kodak moment before I sent him home. When we went out there, we found that he’d been making a detailed sketch of our whole position.”
The spotter’s job was to use binoculars to scan a wider area and be ready with an M-14 or M-16 for “heavy lifting” if they were discovered and rushed. The spotter was also an apprentice sniper. Most, like Bryant, graduated to the sniper role themselves, but some couldn’t take the “scope-shot,” as Mawhinney calls it. “Some guys are fine in a fire fight because it’s kinda anonymous,” he says, “but they just can’t put a scope on one guy’s face and blow it away.”
Neophyte spotters could get you killed, and Mawhinney was not a gentle instructor. “One time it was getting dark and my dumb-ass rookie spotter had the Starlight scope on his M-14, and I didn’t know he’d loaded his magazine with tracers. He opened up on some movement he saw, and it was like a red line pointing right to us. I grabbed him and we ran like crazy while the spot where we had just been blew all to hell. Afterwards, we had us a little counseling session about using tracers from a sniper position.”
We’re sitting in his garage lair, and a couple of neighbors drop by. The Keystones pop, and the laughter becomes freer. After going outside to take a whizz against a cottonwood, he’s open to a request to show his gun collection. He leads the way into the house where his locked gun cabinet holds a place of honor. Next to it is an ornate frame holding a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, a gift from his family. He displays his 20 or so guns the way a skilled carpenter would his tools or a surgeon his instruments. The place of honor is held by a duplicate of his bolt-action Remington .308 which was presented to him by the Corps. The original is locked away at Quantico where it someday will go into a Marine museum. He holds it cautiously, first checking the breech for a forgotten round. As he operates the bolt and scans for rust, memories return, and he talks of long nights along the tree line that turned into golden mornings, waiting for the dew to dry and watching the farmers leave their hooches and walk toward the fields. He was not fooled by bucolic scenes, however, and he watched for giveaway signs of booby traps, such as carefully skirted trails.
He’s warmed up, and he segues into gun talk like an insurance guy into annuities. “I used 168-grain match ammo. It’s gotta be match ammo, special made, because every bullet has to act just like the one before. My scope was a 3x9 Redfield. Like a Model-T Ford, now.” He shows how the thick barrel of the gun is screwed into the receiver and “floats” above the stock. He takes a piece of paper and slides it between the barrel and the wooden stock. “If the barrel was solid on the frame of the gun, the jarring would throw it off true. It’s gotta be suspended. We didn’t have these slick variable scopes, laser range finders, or some of the other stuff available to today’s snipers, but we made do.” He did make do.
The memories jump in his mind like popcorn. “Your senses get sharper over there because that’s what you live by. First thing, your eyesight and hearing start picking up. You start keening in on stuff, especially at night. The whole country smelled to me like burnt bamboo. Can’t explain it, but when that smell would change, no matter how small, I’d pick up on it. Here’s something else: people stink. You usually don’t realize it, but you do if your life depends on it, and you know it if someone’s near. Fear even has a smell. For real. If I’d get a feeling something was wrong, I’d get my ass right back to camp. Maybe nothing was out there and maybe I was wrong, but I’m still alive.”
Every step he took was cautious and every glance was suspicious. If a villager happened to observe his hide, he would abandon it. If a large enemy unit passed in the distance, he would refrain from taking a shot because of the fear of being caught by flankers; he would head back to call in an air strike. “If I’m gonna be in a one-sided gunfight, I want the ‘one’ to be on my side.” He didn’t worry about the barking of village dogs. “Hell, a dog over there was a delicacy. It didn’t last long. If a villager had three or four, he was a rancher.
“Sometimes, I could be out there all day and not take a shot, but it wasn’t time wasted. I might go back to the company and tell the C.O., ‘Hey, look, don’t send a squad out there. You’re gonna get into a helluva fight because there’s a whole company of goddamned NVA setting up in that ville, and you go out there in squad strength, you’re gonna get your boys killed.’”
Apart from the particulars of his craft, Mawhinney knows that the main curiosity sniper cops have about him is the killing part. Most of them will never experience that, so one day, standing in front of them is the all-time military grim reaper. Sgt. Buddy Young, 48, a sniper on a regional SWAT team in N. Bend, Ore., provides perspective. “I can tell you that having actually drawn my gun and fired at someone, it’s a feeling that you can’t relate to anything else; nothing else in human experience comes close to the stress and emotion at the time it happens. So, for these cops who have never killed, Chuck is an incredible resource. They want to know how he dealt with that—what went through his mind just before and just after—and long after.”
The advice he gives comes from his own conscience. “When I pulled the trigger I didn’t feel a recoil, didn’t hear the gun go off, but for some reason, I could always smell gunpowder. I tell these cops that in the split second when you smell that powder, think of the lives you saved, not the one you took.”
Mawhinney believes that today’s police snipers have far more pressure on them than he did because the SWAT shooter usually has to have an instant kill to prevent the gunman from murdering a hostage. That means his target might be nickel-sized at 100 yards. Also, lawsuits follow a sniper shot as certain as the recoil. “Can you imagine a sniper having to explain himself on the stand to Johnnie Cochran?” he asks, and shakes his head at the horror of the thought.
The police sniper intuitively knows that if he misses his shot and kills a hostage, regardless of circumstances, he might as well change his name, sell his house, get a divorce, and move to Arkansas (unless that’s where he’s from). The politicians and bureaucrats will be picking over the carcass of his career while it’s still quivering. However, if a Marine sniper accidentally killed a villager, he would, in reality, be sternly admonished to be more careful in the future.
Twice, recently, policeman Young has had conversations with sniper cops who have had to kill in the line of duty. Neither one was willing to talk about the experience, either because of fear of public censure or of conscience. “I can understand their reluctance,” Young says, “because that’s the reality, and it’s in the back of every sniper’s mind: There can be a heavy price for doing your duty.”
Although snipers have played a role throughout American military history, from Daniel Morgan’s Virginia backwoodsmen popping redcoats to rebel sharpshooters in Devil’s Den at Gettysburg, there is a psychological shadow that lingers over the soldier willing to make war so personal.
Dave Grossman is a man who has put military killing under a microscope. Author of “On Killing,” and a retired army lieutenant colonel, he taught psychology at West Point and also graduated from Ranger school. “Killing as a sniper doesn’t require a nut case eager to see blood. To the contrary, it requires a man with a strong sense of duty who is a quiet, introspective person comfortable with solitude and willing to act alone.
“As he gets older, he has to learn to be reconciled with his life, to make peace with the magnitude of what he’s done—killed someone’s child whose future is gone because he put a bullet in that stranger’s heart or brain. Learning to live with that is made tougher because you can’t talk it out the way other people do with ordinary problems. Can you imagine going to a community counselor and saying, ‘I have an issue that’s been bothering me—I killed 100 men....’? This is a search for self-understanding that takes a strong man.”
If Mahwinney has bad nights over his sniper past, he conceals it well. “I shot over 300 people. I know that. I can’t sweeten it up and say, ‘Oh, I felt so bad every time I killed someone,’ because I didn’t. In my mind, I didn’t take lives, I saved them. In the field, I’d think, ‘If this one goes down, how many Marines are gonna live because of it.?’ That enemy out there is gonna kill me, if he can. So, if I’m first to the punch, that’s good.” He has no desire to join some other combatants in a pilgrimage back to Vietnam to find reconciliation. “Why should I go back? I didn’t leave anything there.”
In a lot of ways, he loved it. After serving his mandatory year In Country, he re-up’d for two six-month tours. “This’ll sound kinda funny, but I love to hunt. Always have. People can say, ‘Man, we’re going to Africa and hunt lions, hunt cape buffalo, like it was the scariest thing ever. But to me, when you’re hunting another man who has a weapon of his own, now that’s hunting the baddest thing you can ever hunt. For 16 months as a sniper I was on the ultimate hunt.”
Aware though he is of the war-killer’s need to cope, Mawhinney wastes little time on many veterans’ post-Vietnam troubles. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I knew some guys who went to Vietnam screwed up, and came back screwed up. Now they’re getting money from the VA for PMS or PES or PST or whatever the hell it is. But they were fucked-up when they went over there.”
Mawhinney is at his calmest driving through his beloved Blue Mountains. After pointing out from his jostling pickup where elk herds run, he says quietly, “You can’t kill that many men and not think about it. I do, every day. But I always come back to the truth that I never killed a single man who wasn’t trying to kill me.” His thoughts and conversation wander, the way it does when a man is at peace in his surroundings. He talks about needing a hip replacement, but he won’t trust VA doctors, so he’s going to pile $8,000 debt atop his $1,600 government pension to have a private doctor do it. That’s a worrisome load. Suddenly, we pass an area that reminds him of the days he used to earn Christmas money by trapping fur animals in the winter snow. “Not too long ago, I was checking my line, and there was this sorry old bastard of a coyote caught in one of my traps. When I came up on him, he gave me this pitiful look like, ‘I’m in so damned much misery, why don’t you just shoot me?’ I did; had no choice. Then I gathered up my traps and put them away. For good.”