03/01/2006 — KIRKUK, Iraq — When the peach-orange sun dipped below the hazy horizon, when dusk had faded so that we wouldn't cast a shadow, we scaled the wall to the rooftop.
Half the snipers on the team used a window grate for a ladder, grabbing a drain pipe to pull themselves up on a ledge before crawling onto the roof. The others pushed their backs against one wall and feet against another and shimmied up.
We crept across the roof and through a door, up a flight of stairs to the second-floor roof, which would serve as observation post for a sniper team from Alpha Company of the Idaho Army Guard's 116th Brigade. The team's job: Sneak into position where the soldiers can see a lot of territory and stop insurgents trying to plant bombs or fire rockets or mortars
An Iraqi had been firing rockets at FOB Warrior, the U.S. air base in Kirkuk where Alpha Company is stationed. "Rocketman" seemed to favor Monday nights. If he followed his pattern, the sniper team hoped to catch him in the act.
"If he launches that rocket, he's so done," said Sgt. Brian Humphreys, an ex-Marine from Hailey who led the team.
Humphreys is a graduate of the Marine Corps sniper school, one of the most grueling tests in any branch of the military. A Marine sniper must endure days without food or sleep while doing intense workouts, stalking targets and shooting with extreme accuracy.
Snipers can routinely shoot a volleyball-sized target from five football fields away. With his 35-pound, .50-caliber sniper rifle, Humphreys can hit a human a mile away.
Before the mission, Lt. Matt Addleman of Nampa explained the ground rules, or "rules of engagement": A sniper has to positively identify his target and see "hostile action."
"You don't have to wait until the rattlesnake strikes," Addleman said. "You just have to see him rattle."
I've learned to gauge danger by watching the soldiers' body language, and I sensed no apprehension in any of them. The way they acted, the soldiers could have been drawing up strategy for a sandlot baseball game.
Each team member trained his rifle on a different area. Through night-vision goggles and binoculars, they watched for anything suspicious, such as cars driving with lights off or parking in a field.
The night air was calm and warm, like the best summer nights. Sounds of children playing, donkeys braying and dogs barking drifted to the rooftop.
A perfect crescent moon rose over the dome of a lighted mosque. Burn-off from oil wells sent flames dancing in the distance. Bats flitted by, crickets chirped and the final call to prayers sent soft rolling chants through the night sky.
"This is one of the best jobs in the military," said Humphreys. "You just sit up here alone and chill. No one knows you're here."
"That guy looks fishy," Spec. Taylor Lynard of Boise said.
A man was walking across a field, stopping beneath a water tower. He was close enough that any "hostile action" would probably be his last act of any kind.
He shined his flashlight around. Signaling someone? Waiting to be picked up by a car? Or maybe he was simply checking the water tower. He meandered around the tower. The team silently watched.
The man carried something. A mortar? A rocket? It turned out to be a water bottle. Whatever he was doing, it seemed pretty harmless.
Most of the team turned their focus back to other areas, but Lynard kept his attention on the man.
I asked him if he felt exposed, sitting on a building with backups several minutes away.
"I feel pretty confident with the .50-cal., an M-14 and a SAW (squad automatic weapon). We could take out a lot of people," he said.
I borrowed Humphreys' night-vision goggles and scanned a neighborhood.
With the naked eye, I had been able to see only faint, nondescript shapes in the inky darkness. With goggles, houses, fences, huts and parked cars materialized in a green glow.
I looked toward the horizon. City lights were white with green halos. Porchlights shone like stars. A person on a distant street looked like an apparition. Darting bats looked like white doves.
The man at the water tower wandered back the way he came.
Earlier I had wondered if it gets boring sitting on a rooftop staring into the night. My answer: no way. The darkness was comforting. We were eyes looking out, and no one could see in.
Lynard said sometimes it gets boring hanging out on roofs and "sometimes we kind of want someone to come out and do something." Kirkuk is usually pretty quiet, he said, unlike the time soldiers spent in Baqoubah at the beginning of their deployment.
"When we were down south, there was stuff going on all the time," Lynard said.
"I think as long as we're out here doing this," he said of the sniper duty, "it keeps the rocket attacks down."
Spec. Terry Jensen of Grace was spending his first night on an observation post.
"There's always something to watch, or someone coming by. There's always something going on," he said.
The watch continued, and the streets grew quiet as the 11 p.m. curfew neared. The closer the curfew got, the more suspicious any vehicle looked, especially those driving slowly. After curfew, the few remaining cars soon parked, and the drivers went into houses.
Someone asked how late we would stay.
"You guys aren't ready to go yet, are you? We haven't got to kill anybody yet," Humphreys joked.
By midnight, things were quiet. Everyone seemed to have gone inside for the night. Other teams reported by radio that their posts were quiet, too. Humphreys' team called it quits, and Humvees arrived to take us back to the base.