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Carlos Hathcock Tribute Page

From the Los Angeles Times February 28, 1999 page B6. Carlos Hathcock; Sniper in Vietnam by Jon Thurber, Times Staff Writer His vanity license plates in Virginia read SNIPER, and during the Vietnam War he was just that, the bearer of a surprising, sudden death to enemy soldiers. But when Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carlos N. Hathcock II died last week at the age of 57, the enemy that ultimately felled him was the slow, patient progression of multiple sclerosis. No Marine sniper was more effective than Hathcock at killing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. The number 93 reflects his confirmed kills, but his actual total is believed to be well over 100. As a testament to his effectiveness, North Vietnam once put a bounty of $30,000.00 on his head. The Viet Cong knew him as well and called him "Long Trang," the white feather, because he often wore one in his bush hat. Hathcock remains a legend in the Marines. The Carlos Hathcock Award is presented annually to the Marine who does the most to promote marksmanship. And there is a sniper range named for Hathcock at Camp Lejeune, NC Late in his life, he was awarded a Silver Star, the third-highest military honor, for an incident that happened nearly 30 years earlier, when he pulled seven comrades off a burning armored personnel carrier that had struck a mine. That act bravery left Hathcock badly burned and effectively ended his career as a rifleman. Hathcock, a native of Arkansas, was a slight, unassuming man with a self-contained temperament that made him perfect for a job that involved infiltrating deep into enemy-held territory and waiting, often for days, to take one shot at his target. He once said that he survived in his work because of an ability to "get in the bubble," to put himself into a state of "utter, complete, absolute concentration," first on his equipment, then on his environment in which every breeze and every leaf meant something, and finally on his quarry. His work demanded steady nerves and was exhausting. During one pursuit of an enemy general, he had to cover more than 1,000 meters of open terrain during three days and nights of constant crawling an inch at a time. Enemy patrols came within 20 feet of Hathcock, who lay camouflaged with grass and vegetation in the open. During two 13-month tours of duty in Vietnam, Hathcock volunteered for so many missions that his commanding officer once had to restrict him to quarters to make him rest. At the time the 5-foot, 10-inch Hathcock weighed only 120 pounds. "It was the stalk that I enjoyed," he once told a reporter for the Washington Post. "Pitting yourself against another human being. There was no second place in Vietnam-second place was a body bag. Everybody was scared and those that weren't are liars. But you can let that work for you. It makes you more alert, keener, and that's how it got for me. It made me be the best." Raised outside Little Rock, Hathcock lived with his grandmother after his parents divorced. He loved the outdoors and taught himself to hunt in the woods as a young boy. He knew where the rabbits and squirrels ran. "As a young'n, I'd go sit in the woods and wait a spell," he once said. "I'd just wait for the rabbits and squirrels 'cause sooner or later a squirrel would be in that very tree or a rabbit would be coming by that very log. I just knew it. Don't know why, just did." By age 10, he was bringing meat home to the table regularly. As soon as he turned 17 in 1959, Hathcock enlisted in the Marines. It didn't take him long to make his mark. He qualified immediately at boot camp in San Diego as an expert shot. Over the next several years, he won many shooting championships, including the prestigious Wimbledon cup-long-range shooting's most prestigious prize-in 1965. A year later he was sent to Vietnam. His first job in Vietnam was as a military policeman, but he wanted more action. He volunteered for regular reconnaissance patrols but felt uneasy with Marines who did not have the woodcraft skills that he possessed. He wanted to hunt on his own. At first, his fellow Marines questioned the usefulness of a lone sniper, but after six months-and 14 confirmed kills-Hathcock's methods won acceptance. He once said that Vietnam was "just right" for him. Although he once told a fellow Marine that he never looked at his work "as a shooting match, where the man with the most kills wins the gold medal," he told the Post reporter that he "did enjoy it once. And it scared me. Bad." Hathcock's career as a sniper came to sudden end outside Queson in 1969, when the amphibious tractor he was riding on was ambushed and hit a 500-pound box mine. Hathcock pulled seven marines off the flame-engulfed vehicle before jumping to safety. As was his way, he rejected any commendation for his bravery. He came out of the attack with second- and third-degree burns over more than 40% of his body and was evacuated to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where he underwent 13 skin graft operations. The nature of the injuries left him unable to perform effectively again with a rifle. After returning to active duty, he helped establish a scout and sniper school at the Marine base in Quantico, VA. "He emphasized snipers could not be John Wayne, that we should be reserved," said Sgt. William Bartholomew, a sniper in the Baltimore Police Department who trained under Hathcock. "If you didn't apply when he taught you, if you made an absentminded error, he could stare right through you," Bartholomew told the Baltimore Sun. "He could chew you out without ever raising his voice." In 1975, Hathcock's health was deteriorating and he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, in incurable degenerative nerve disorder. He stayed in the Corps but continued to decline in health and was forced to retire just 55 days short of the 20 years that would have made him eligible for full retirement pay. During his retirement ceremony, he was presented a plaque by his commanding officer. It read: "There have been many Marines. And there have been many Marine marksmen. But there is only one Marine Sniper-Gunnery Sgt. Carlos N. Hathcock II. One Shot-One Kill." Despite the sentiment on the plaque, Hathcock left the service an embittered man. He lived in Virginia Beach, Va., with his wife of 35 years, Josephine, but his health declined to the point where he was confined to a wheelchair. Eventually, he came out of his depression and was hired by police departments to lecture on the art of sniping. Two books were written about his exploits and a movie called "Sniper," which was loosely based on his career, was released. His disease, however, was relentless. His death came two weeks after he helped pin a promotion on his only child, 34-year-old Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock III, during a ceremony the Marines moved from North Carolina to the Hathcocks' Virginia Beach home. After the war, a friend showed Hathcock a passage written by Ernest Hemingway: "Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and like it, never really care for anything else thereafter." Hathcock copied Hemingway's words on a piece of paper. "He got that right," Hathcock said. "It was the hunt, not the killing."

Washington Post February 27, 1999 Pg. C1 The Sniper With A Steadfast Aim By Stephen Hunter, Washington Post Staff Writer The academics write their mighty histories. The politicians dictate their memoirs. The retired generals give their speeches. The intellectuals record their ironic epiphanies. And in all this hubbub attending wars either lost or won, the key man is forgotten -- the lonely figure crouched in the bushes, wishing he were somewhere else: the man with the rifle. Such a man has just died, and his passing will be marked elsewhere only in small, specialized journals with names like Leatherneck and Tactical Shooter and in the Jesuitical culture of the Marine Corps, where he is still fiercely admired. And in some quarters, even that small amount of respect will be observed with skepticism. After all, he was merely a grunt. He was a sergeant who made people do push-ups. He fought in a bad war. He was beyond irony, perspective or introspection. He made no policies, he commanded no battalions, he invented no colorful code names for operations. But worst of all, he was a sniper. Gunnery Sgt. (Ret.) Carlos N. Hathcock II, USMC, died Monday at 57 in Virginia Beach, after a long decline in the grip of the only enemy he wasn't able to kill: multiple sclerosis. In the end, he didn't recognize his own friends. So it was a kind of mercy, one supposes. But he had quite a life. In two tours in the 1960s, he wandered through the big bad bush in the Republic of South Vietnam, and with a rifle made by Winchester, a heart made by God and a discipline made by the Marine Corps, he stalked and killed 93 of his country's enemies. And that was only the official count. It's not merely that Vietnam was a war largely without heroes. It's also that the very nature of Hathcock's heroism was a problem for so many. He killed, nakedly and without warning. There is something in the mercilessness of the sniper that makes the heart recoil. He attracts vultures, not only to his carcasses but also to his psyche. Is he sick? Is he psycho? The line troops call him "Murder Inc." behind his back. They puzzle over what he does. When they kill, it's in hot blood, in a haze of smoke and adrenaline. And much of the other death they see is inflicted by industrial applications, such as air power or artillery, which almost seem beyond human agency. But the sniper is different. He isn't at the point of the spear, he is the point of the spear. He reduces warfare to its purest element, the destruction of another human being. He's like a '50s mad scientist, who learns things no man can learn -- how it looks through an 8x scope when you center-punch an enemy at 200 yards, and how it feels -- but he learns them at the risk of his own possible exile from the community. But maybe Hathcock never cared much for the larger community, but only the Marine Corps and its mission. "Vietnam," he told a reporter in 1987, "was just right for me." He even began sniping before the Corps had instituted an official policy. And one must give Hathcock credit for consistency: In all the endless revising done in the wake of our second-place finish in the Southeast Asia war games, he never reinvented himself or pretended to be something he wasn't. He remained a true believer to the end, not in his nation's glory or its policies, but in his narrower commitment to the Marine code of the rifle. He never euphemized, didn't call himself an "enemy troop-strength reduction technician" or "counter-morale specialist." He never walked away from who he'd been and what he'd done. He was salty, leathery and a tough Marine Corps professional NCO, even in a wheelchair. His license plate said it best: SNIPER. "Hell," he once said, "anybody would be crazy to like to go out and kill folks. . . . I never did enjoy killing anybody. It's my job. If I don't get those bastards, then they're going to kill a lot of these kids. That's the way I look at it." Though he was known for many years as the Marine Corps' leading sniper -- later, a researcher uncovered another sniper with a few more official kills -- he took no particular pleasure in the raw numbers. "I'll never look at it like this was some sort of shooting match, where the man with the most kills wins the gold medal," he once said. Ironically, the only decoration for valor that he won was for saving, not taking, lives. On his second tour in Vietnam, on Sept. 16, 1969, he was riding atop an armored personnel carrier when it struck a 500-pound mine and erupted into flames. Hathcock was knocked briefly unconscious, sprayed with flaming gasoline and thrown clear. Waking, he climbed back aboard the burning vehicle to drag seven other Marines out. Then, "with complete disregard for his own safety and while suffering an excruciating pain from his burns, he bravely ran back through the flames and exploding ammunition to ensure that no Marines had been left behind," according to the citation for the Silver Star he received in November 1996, after an extensive letter-writing campaign by fellow Marines had failed to win him the Medal of Honor for his exploits with a rifle. But he was equally proud of the fact that as a sniper platoon sergeant on two tours, no man under his command was killed. "I never lost a person over there," he told a visiting journalist in 1995. "Never lost nobody but me, and that wasn't my fault." Hathcock was an Arkansan, from a dirt-poor broken home, who joined the Marine Corps at 17 and quickly understood that he had found his place in the world. He qualified as an expert rifleman in boot camp and began quickly to win competitive shooting events, specializing in service rifle competition. In 1965, he won the Wimbledon Cup, the premier American 1,000-yard shooting championship. Shortly after that he was in Vietnam, but it was six months before the Marines learned the value of dedicated sniper operations and a former commanding officer built a new unit around his talents. Hathcock gave himself to the war with such fury that he took no liberty, no days off and toward the end of his first tour was finally restricted to quarters to prevent him from going on further missions. After the war, he suffered from the inevitable melancholy. Forced medical retirement from the Corps in 1979 -- he had served 19 years 10 months 5 days -- led to drinking problems and extended bitterness. The multiple sclerosis, discovered in 1975, certainly didn't help, and burns that covered 43 percent of his body made things even more painful, but what may have saved his life -- it certainly saved the quality of his life -- was the incremental recognition that came his way as more and more people discovered who he was and what he had done. Even in the atmosphere of moral recrimination in the aftermath of the war, enough people far from media centers and universities were still attracted to the spartan simplicity of his life and battles and to the integrity of his heroism. His biography, "Marine Sniper," written by Charles Henderson, was published in 1985; it sold over half a million copies. In the brief blast of publicity that followed, he stood still for interviews with The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and others. The general population may have soon forgotten about him, but in the world of target shooters, hunters and police and military shooting, he was a revered figure. And particularly as shooters came to perceive themselves under attack from mainstream culture, he became a symbol of the heroic man with a gun. He connected, in some atavistic way, to other American heroes, like Audie Murphy or Sgt. Alvin York, perhaps even Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. They were all men like Hathcock who grew up on hardscrabble farms far from the big cities and learned early to shoot, read sign and understand the terrain. Other gun culture enterprises kept him visible in a specialized universe unmonitored by the media, and put some money on the table. He authorized a poster that showed him in full combat regalia, crouched over his Model 70 Winchester, his face blackened, his boonie cap scrunched close to his head, the only identifier being a small sprig of feather in its band. In fact, a long-range .308-caliber ammunition was sold as "White Feather," from the Vietnamese Long Tra'ng, his nickname. He consulted on law enforcement sharpshooting, a growth area in the '80s and '90s as nearly every police department in America appointed a designated marksman to its de rigueur SWAT team. He appeared in several videos, where he revealed himself to be a practically oriented man of few but decisive words, with a sense of humor dry as a stick. He inspired several novels and at least two nonfiction books, and his exploits made it onto TV, where a "JAG" episode featured a tough old Marine sniper, and even into the movies, even if he was never credited. In both 1994's "Sniper" and, more recently, "Saving Private Ryan," heroic riflemen dispatch enemy counter-snipers with rounds so perfectly placed they travel the tube of the enemy's scope before hitting him in the eye. In both cases, the shooters are tough Southerners (played by Tom Berenger and Barry Pepper), very much in the Hathcock mold. According to "Marine Sniper," Hathcock made such a shot, dispatching a Viet Cong sniper sent to target him specifically. Also according to that book, he ambushed a female enemy interrogator, a North Vietnamese general and a VC platoon that he took down, a man at a time, over a 24-hour engagement. Finally, and perhaps best of all, he ascended to a special kind of Marine celebrity. The Corps named the annual Carlos Hathcock Award after him for its best marksman. A Marine library in Washington has been named after him and a Virginia Civil Air Patrol unit named itself after him. In 1990 a Marine unit raised $5,000 in donations to fight multiple sclerosis and presented it to him at his home. They brought it to him the old-fashioned way, the Marine way: They ran 216 miles from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Virginia Beach. It was a tribute to his toughness that Carlos Hathcock understood. According to the account in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, the old sniper told the men, "I am so touched, I can hardly talk." In the end, he could not escape the terrible disease that had afflicted him since 1975. But death, with whom he had an intimate relationship, at least came to him quietly -- as if out of respect.