Disease finds sniper Viet Cong didn't A soldier's story

February 02, 1992|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Correspondent

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- The right hand trembles, so he has to drink his Pepsi with both hands. Controlling his vision has become maddening. And when he stands, his legs quiver as if he were going to fall to the floor.

In another time, Carlos Norman Hathcock II was the ultimate terminator. As a sniper for the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam -- when the hands were rock steady, the eyes keen, the legs durable -- he was officially credited with killing 93 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. No sniper killed more people in the 216-year history of the Marines.

Now, this 49-year-old man called Gunny is ravaged by multiple sclerosis, a debilitating neurological disease. In constant pain, it's not clear how much time he has left.

But the retired gunnery sergeant believes he still has a mission to accomplish -- teaching others to save lives with one well-aimed rifle shot. When he is able to travel, Mr. Hathcock serves as a consultant on sniping to elite military units and police departments around the country, including Baltimore County.

As a Marine sniper, his job -- to kill with cunning and calculation -- had been a chilling one, one that makes many people flinch. Some view snipers as cold and murderous, the antithesis of

the American version of fair fighting. John Wayne and Matt Dillon never drew first.

But to others, trained military snipers are highly disciplined, slow and cautious workers, who never kill indiscriminately. Their usual targets are enemy officers, operators of crew-served weapons and communications specialists. And snipers are part of a long tradition, dating back to the early days of warfare when archers picked off key commanders.

For Mr. Hathcock, there never have been any doubts.

"Whether you take down an enemy soldier in combat or somebody who is threatening to kill a hostage in civilian life, it's still the same thing," he says. "When you do your job, you save lives."

Some military historians say Mr. Hathcock changed the art of combat sniping, from being just a marksman with a well-aimed rock or arrow to an accomplished shooter with a powerful scoped rifle who hunted humans like he hunted animals as a kid.

"Carlos developed an edge that I've never seen in another human being," says E. J. Land, Mr. Hathcock's commanding officer in Southeast Asia and now a security executive in New York City. "It was something that every smell and sound, the wind, trees, insects . . . they all said something to him. All of us were top marksmen but we didn't have that edge. Nobody but

Carlos did."

"I could hit anything"

It wasn't that Mr. Hathcock became intoxicated by the killing in the hills, pits and jungles of Vietnam. The challenge of the stalk was what drove him.

The stalk, after all, was what he learned as a child growing up in poverty in rural Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

"Both my parents were alcoholics, died fairly young, and I was farmed out to kin a lot," he says. "So I acquired the skills of an excellent rifle shot and woodsman because the squirrel and rabbit I hunted wound up being our groceries. I got good at that. I always shot them in the head because a body shot wasted meat. Everybody joked that I could hit anything that I wanted with my rifle."

He dropped out of school in eighth grade and worked as a laborer. He spent much of his time in the woods, though, and dreamed of being a Marine.

On his 17th birthday, just as he planned, he walked into the Marine Corps recruiting station in Little Rock and signed up.

Soon, his special talent was recognized.

"In boot camp, I won expert badge on the rifle range," he recalls. But he had trouble adjusting to a regimented life. "I was still very belligerent," Mr. Hathcock says. "Look, here I was away from home the first time, earning my own money."

He was sent to Hawaii where, as a military policeman, he shot on the Marine rifle team. He also drank too much. He was busted to private twice, he says -- once for punching a lieutenant in the face, the other for being absent without leave.

Later, at Cherry Point, N.C., Mr. Hathcock matured. He stayed there four years as an instructor and member of the rifle team. In 1965, he won the coveted Wimbledon Cup in the 1,000-yard high-powered rifle competition, making him arguably the best rifle shot in America.

The next year he was in South Vietnam, assigned to the 1st Marine Division in the northern sector. When Captain Land heard about the new guy in country with the reputation of being a splendid rifle shot, he wanted the 24-year-old sharpshooter.

"Carlos was a country boy who was basic in his philosophy of loving his country and the Marine Corps," said Mr. Land, who was forming the division's new sniper team. "He started out immediately going on missions. He would work with an observer but did a lot of his work alone. He didn't like crowds because they made too much noise."

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