How an Army Rangers sniper became ‘The Reaper’
By Kyle Smith
Nick “Irv” Irving had never taken a human life when his platoon sergeant took him to one side. “After you kill a man,” said the NCO, “there’s no other feeling like it. Mark my words. You won’t want to do any hunting again. The excitement of that will be gone. You won’t find any joy in it. Once you kill a man, you can’t replace that feeling.”
Later, in Iraq, Irv was on the .50 caliber machine gun in a column of Stryker armored vehicles outside of Ramallah. On Route Tampa, the sun had just climbed above the horizon when a car sped past them at 70 mph. “If this guy turns around and approaches us at that same rate of speed,” said Irv’s supervisor, “take him out.”
Irv wondered: Is it that easy?
The Iraqi driver stopped, turned around, stared. Then he gunned it. He stopped in the middle of the road, facing the American convoy. Irv lit him up, with a controlled seven-round burst. “I saw something explode inside the car,” he writes. “It wasn’t an IED, it was the man inside it. He turned into mist and chunks.”
“Yeah!” “Get some!” is what soldiers like Irv say when looking at the after-action videos of some of their exploits, but taking a life is a personality-fragmenting experience.
“Later that night, the image of that man returned to me,” Irving says in his new memoir.
“I had a dream,” he writes, “where I was in a room with a ceiling fan spinning above me. The blades of the fan were the man’s four limbs plus his head and chest. He was staring at me with that same dead-eyed stare, but as the fan spun faster and faster, he started screaming at me open-mouthed. Eventually the fan got spinning so fast that his limbs were whipped off and he sprayed the room with blood and guts, covering me as well with gelatinous goo.”
The sound of Velcro
Irving, the first black sniper in the Army’s Third Ranger Battalion, which had previously fought in the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, killed 33 men in less than four months. Other guys started calling him “The Reaper,” which became the title of his book.
The kind of fierce dedication and concentration Irving deployed every day as a Ranger would have surprised the younger version of himself. He describes his boyhood as “angry.”
Growing up the son of two enlisted soldiers in Fort Meade, Md., he didn’t want to be in the Army. No, thanks to a Charlie Sheen movie, he had a bad case of Navy SEAL-itis.
He wasn’t a great student — the only A he ever got was in junior ROTC — and his discipline needed work. But he knew he was a good shot from all the practice he took inside the house: He pockmarked the walls with rounds from an air rifle. Fortunately, the walls were white and his sister had white Play-Doh. Irving used it for spackling purposes, and his dad the sergeant never discovered the damage.
When he was older, he looked up Internet guidelines for homemade weapons and built himself a blowgun. His bedroom window took collateral damage.
Failing a colorblindness test ended the young man’s hopes for joining the SEALs, but he took to life as the Army equivalent, a Ranger. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where one night the “freaks and geeks” squad, as he calls the analysts, had directed him to a building that they estimated to be 25 feet high. From the top, Irving might have a clear bead on his man.
A team of professionals suited up, a sacred sound to Irving.
“I love the sound of velcro,” he writes. “I don’t know what the military did before it was invented. Hearing 35 or so guys strapping stuff on with that simple hook and loop mechanism, the sound of tape being unrolled as guys secure things to keep as silent as possible, was like the music we’d play in the locker room [in high school] before a game to get pumped up. That collective sound signaled that we all had each other’s back.”
As seen in Clint Eastwood’s film “American Sniper,” snipers enjoy the view atop buildings in urban environments, but they risk creating a silhouette that makes them easy targets.
Also, the wrong ladder can scotch the entire mission: Irving found he needed virtually every inch of the telescoping ladder he had brought to get to the top of the building. He was nearly vertical as he climbed. A loss of balance would have meant crashing on his back, shattering under the weight of his own equipment.
Irving got a look at the target, who turned out to be a suicide bomber, who sprinted away. The first shot missed. The second did not.
A squad leader later informed the sniper, “The hollow point expanded and pushed everything up and out of his chest. His heart was hanging there on the outside of his body cavity, still pumping a couple of times, spraying the tree and leaves.”
Irving had left Fort Benning in a riot of feeling. Even as he was hugging his wife, Jessica, goodbye, he had a sense of his other, lethal self as a ghost, peeling away and looking elsewhere.
Irving had another girl on his mind: Dirty Diana, his SR-25 rifle. Jessica didn’t know that the reason he sometimes stayed late after work was he wanted to doll up Dirty Diana. “I would stay at work for three, four or five extra hours just painting various colors and patterns,” he writes. “If there was an edge that was not painted correctly or crooked, I’d start the whole thing over again.”
Pemberton, Irving’s partner and spotter, had a plain-green weapon called a Win Mag. Irving considered this an ugly companion: “It had no personality whatsoever.”
Preparing to move out against a manufacturer of suicide vests, Irving would lovingly recheck Dirty Diana, checking the stock to see if the spot of gun grease he’d put there was untouched. Irving hated it when another guy touched his girl.
The relationship between man and weapon is never more intimate than at the moment of firing. “I squeezed the trigger and experienced that slow-motion effect,” Irving says. “The smell of the gas burning out of the suppressor mixed with the sweet smell of the gun oil I use. My eye still focused on the crosshairs in the center of the scope, I watched as the man collapsed, almost as if he were a balloon being popped.”
Sometimes things go a little less smoothly. One mission failed when Irving had so much glare in his scope that he couldn’t see anything. When his buddy Pemberton tried to take over, he heard instead what Irving calls “the click of death.” Empty chamber.
Pemberton swore he had loaded a round, and when he pulled back the bolt, one indeed popped out. “We both looked at each other in disbelief,” Irving recalls. The rifle was out of commission.
“That’s why I didn’t like using bolt guns overseas,” Irving writes. “That kind of mechanical failure is pretty typical.” A grain of sand gets into the mechanism and maybe the firing pin doesn’t strike correctly.
Without a chute
Even worse, sometimes you take aim at a tank and discover it’s one of your own (as Irving once did in Iraq, realizing his mistake just before he fired).
Or you jump out of an airplane and no parachute opens.
Late in 2005, before deploying overseas, Irving was training in how to seize an airport. Jumping out of a C-17 aircraft, he says, “I did my four count. Nothing. Five count. Nothing still. I looked up and could see my parachute was a cigarette roll — just a long, slim strand of fabric. That’s what we call a partial malfunction.”
Guys flying past were screaming, “Pull your reserve!”
So Irving yanked on his secondary parachute, and found that as a string went up, one of his legs went with it. He was suspended like a crazed marionette, his left foot up near his helmet as the ground rushed up at him. All he could do was try to land on one foot.
“I hit the ground hard,” he says, “and rolled over while being dragged along the ground by the chute. My equipment was being thrown off me, I could smell rubber from the soles of my boots dragging along.”
Irving’s thought: “My mom is going to kill me.”
Despite having served briefly in the Army herself, before leaving to raise her kids, Irving’s mother took a more quizzical approach to her son’s derring-do. “Why in the world do they have you jumping out of airplanes anyway?” she would ask. “That makes no sense. That’s not a very safe job for you.”
What happens next
Now, Irving is safely out of the military, running a training site in San Antonio. Today he blogs (at sofrep.com), reflecting on issues such as events in Ferguson, Mo., and posttraumatic stress disorder.
The PTSD issue is a personal one for Irving. He allows that after he separated from the Army in 2010, he wasn’t quite the same. One time, in a slight daze, he walked out of a Walmart carrying Gatorade he hadn’t paid for (inside the wire, you’d just take what you needed and leave). Snug in bed with his wife, he’d keep a pistol on the nightstand or on his pillow.
Moving on from life as the Reaper, he says, has meant a certain amount of healthy disassociation, of breaking off the past as best he is able. “In my mind,” he says, “there’s a me and there’s a him. He did those things when deployed.”
Still, he says, “That doesn’t mean that once you flip that switch or whatever, everything is OK.”