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Spc. Patrick Teixeira, front, and Pfc. Eric Hernandez compete for "top gun," the best marksman in their class, in a sniper course last week in Sinjar, northern Iraq. The three-week-long course trained soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division. Teixeira, 20, from San Diego, is with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade. Hernandez, 22, from West Milford, N.J., is with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade.

Spc. Patrick Teixeira, front, and Pfc. Eric Hernandez compete for "top gun," the best marksman in their class, in a sniper course last week in Sinjar, northern Iraq. The three-week-long course trained soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division. Teixeira, 20, from San Diego, is with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade. Hernandez, 22, from West Milford, N.J., is with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade. (Kendra Helmer / S&S)

SINJAR, Iraq — Soldiers aiming for a sniper qualification fired away on the vast plains of northwest Iraq.

Rather than send soldiers to stateside training, the 101st Airborne Division set its sights on Sinjar for a sniper course.

The division brought in instructors from the Marksmanship Training Center in Little Rock, Ark., the National Guard’s version of the Army Sniper School in Fort Benning, Ga.

Nineteen soldiers were the students. Most of them have been in Iraq since March.

“With these guys being in country as long as they have, I’m very impressed with their motivation,” said Sgt. 1st Class Bret Boatright, noncommissioned officer in charge of the course.

The five-week course was condensed to three weeks, but still covered the usual 398½ hours of training.

Soldiers built two firing ranges at Range 54 camp outside Sinjar, 60 miles west of Mosul. Students learned how to fire on stationary and moving targets at known and unknown distances. They fired as far away from the target as 800 meters, the maximum effective range of a sniper.

At the end of the course, Spc. Patrick Teixeira and Pfc. Eric Hernandez were tied for “top gun,” the best marksman. They went to the range with their M24 sniper weapon system to break the tie.

“Since I was a little kid, I thought [being a sniper] was cool,” said Teixeira, who won the tiebreaker.

The San Diego native said he would have no qualms about putting his skills to use.

“If they put me out there to take someone out, then he’s obviously done something wrong,” said Teixeira, 20, with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade.

Students learned more than marksmanship. The soldiers also were tested in stalking, target detection and range estimation.

Graduates needed 660 out of 900 points, with at least a 70 percent in marksmanship. Seventeen of 19 students graduated last weekend from the Sinjar course, an 89.5 percent success rate. The stateside courses graduation rates vary from 60 percent to 80 percent, said Boatright and another instructor, Staff Sgt. Dominic Barnello.

“I expected them to do better than [stateside students] because they’ve been deployed,” Barnello said of the Ft. Campbell, Ky.-based division.

He and the center’s other instructors have been in demand this year. Since June, the center has taught Special Forces in Florida, the 1st Infantry Division and Massachusetts, Arkansas and Oregon National Guard troops.

“They needed more snipers,” said Barnello, 31, from Millbrook, N.Y. “It gave us the chance to see what kind of equipment they have, how they get employed by their battalions.”

Though there are no set plans for another course in Iraq, Barnello said the students will pass along their new knowledge to fellow infantrymen.

“The division has realized there’s a need for snipers,” Barnello said. “[The new snipers] will be looked to as the subject-matter experts.”

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