Competitors vie for Best Sniper title, relish chance to learn new skills
FORT BENNING, Ga. — It wasn’t easy to leave Germany with its tightened coronavirus restrictions to travel to the United States, but the chance to earn the Army’s Best Sniper title made navigating the red tape worthwhile.
For U.S. Army Sgts. Gerald Vistayan and John Visco, toting their sniper rifles to the United States added more difficulty, but the 2nd Cavalry Regiment infantrymen said they were determined to make it to Fort Benning this week for the 2021 Best Sniper competition.
After completing the first three events of the four-day competition, Visco said he was certain the bureaucracy-induced headaches would prove worthwhile.
“It was a lot of work to get here,” he said. “But it’s incredible. The competition is no joke. It’s tough. They’re throwing some really tough stuff at us, but it’s a lot of fun, and we can definitely learn a whole lot from it.”
Win or lose, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment soldiers said the opportunity to rub shoulders and talk shooting with some of the military’s most accomplished snipers was worth the extra paperwork, the coronavirus tests and the trek to southwest Georgia, where the sun blazed down on competitors Monday afternoon as temperatures neared 90 degrees.
Fort Benning officials said they pressed Army leaders to OK the Best Sniper and Best Ranger events to be held there this week during its annual Infantry Week because they are important opportunities for elite-skilled people to share tactics and training practices. The events were canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
While some travel restrictions have remained in place for the military, the Army has continued to move large units of troops around the globe for training and other operations. The ability to safely move troops persuaded Army officials to move forward with a scaled-back version of Infantry Week, with competitors coming to Fort Benning from assignments around the world.
The Army gave the go-ahead in late January, said Lt. Col. Nate Williams, who commands Fort Benning’s 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment. William’s unit oversees the Army Sniper Course, which plans and holds the Best Sniper competition.
“We felt we needed to be able to show people that we can begin to open back up again as an Army,” Williams said Monday.
Chance to learnThe competitions also give soldiers invaluable opportunities to advance their skills and learn from each other.
“It’s demonstrating the expertise that we have within our ranks,” Williams said. “Making a very competitive environment is healthy for the Army, and it’s important considering the environment we think we’re moving toward — large scale combat operations.”
The competition this week includes 26 teams of sniper duos. One qualified team did not make the trip to Fort Benning after a positive test for the coronavirus, Williams said.
The Sniper Course cadre planned the 2021 event with the potential fight against a near-peer rival in mind. Taking cues from the Pentagon — which has shifted its primary focus from counterterrorism to full-scale operations to fight rival powers like China and Russia — instructors designed the 2021 contest to resemble an operation against an Army with similar capabilities to the U.S. military.
‘Reality check’The first surprise for sniper competitors came early in the competition, said Sgt. 1st Class Zachary Small, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the contest. Competitors in the very first stage, which kicked off at 4 a.m. Monday, had to maneuver a land navigation course as patrols of simulated enemies and small drones searched for them.
This competition challenges snipers’ mental and physical abilities, Small said. It is not just a shooting competition; snipers have to demonstrate other critical battlefield skills, including stealth, reconnaissance, fitness and the ability to adjust under pressure.
“We like to try and start off with a reality check,” Small said. “So here we’re taking an approach to this competition as what you could see in that next fight — that near-peer threat fight. That challenges the competitors to think outside the box and creates realism in the scenario in the best way that we could without having an actual enemy for searching for them.”
Small said the competitors would have other surprises before a team is crowned Best Sniper on Friday.
After having the competition canceled last year, Small said he was pleased to see so many teams travel to Fort Benning this year. The Army sent teams from dozens of units, including National Guard and teams from elite special operations units including the 75th Ranger Regiment and Green Berets.
“You’ve got guys in this competition that are inexperienced, brand new right out of the Sniper course who are coming into this with the institutional knowledge of the latest information from the school, and guys who are very experienced operators, who’ve been out in a combat operational environment a ton over the last 10 years or more,” Small said. “You get these guys together, and that’s how you keep the [sniper] community growing; that’s how you create and advance [tactics, techniques and procedures]. This is where a whole lot of knowledge is passed on and shared.”
For Coast Guard snipers Petty Officer 2nd Class Randy Robinson and Nathan Wuerffel, the Army-led competition has offered them the opportunity to talk shop with snipers from the other services, including more experienced snipers who have served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Coast Guardsmen assigned to the Maritime Security Response Team in Chesapeake, Virginia, said after only three competitions by Monday afternoon, they had picked up new ideas for training.
“For us, we’re kind of limited a lot of times to the maritime environment, so here rubbing shoulders with guys that were in Syria and stuff, it’s cool to get those experiences,” Wuerffel said. “We want to come to these things knowing we’re going to learn new things to train on when we go back.”
Winning the competition would also be welcome, Robinson said.
“It would mean the world to win,” he said. “We want to win this thing for sure.”