Growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, during the ’60s and ’70s, I knew several men who went into harm’s way on a regular basis. As the son of a Church of Christ preacher, it didn’t seem like such a big deal to share a pew with a Green Beret or an Army Ranger—they were just the fathers of my church-going friends. I recall the day that I learned that one of those men, Sergeant Cecil Edens, was a sniper. The days after that, I talked guns with Cecil after church on more Sunday mornings than I can count. Cecil was kind and very patient with a 12-year-old’s questions about guns and shooting.
Then the Vietnam War came to an end, and my father hadn’t held a funeral service for one of my friends’ fathers in quite a while. We thought we’d gotten through the worst. But when my dad broke the news that Cecil was killed overseas and wasn’t coming home, it was a shock. Cecil and several other military men from my youth had made a big impression on me, a kid who liked guns. They probably are the biggest reason why I’m writing for gun magazines today.
While researching the longest confirmed sniper kills, I found the name of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant James Gilliland. Coincidentally, a business associate introduced us a couple of weeks later. Not far into our conversation, we discovered we both loved chasing whitetails. Humble and unassuming, Gilliland’s character impressed me more than his feat.
I got to know Gilliland better over the coming weeks, and we spent some time together vainly chasing bucks in the backwoods of Tennessee. Over a couple of days and with a fair amount of journalistic prodding, Gilliland shared his primary objective while leading the Shadow Team in Iraq. “I taught my men the job,” Gilliland said. “Officially, I didn’t allow my men to individually keep score. There wasn’t anyone carving notches in their rifle stocks.”
He takes aim with his M24 while getting a little assistance from a fellow Shadow Team member. Teammates had great respect for each other and did what was necessary to get the job done. Image: JULIAN SIMMONDS
Shadow 6, Gilliland’s call sign, preached two things to his team: multiple engagements (more than one sniper firing on a single target) and body shots (center-mass, just under the breast plate). Leading the U.S. Army’s 10-man Shadow Team from 2/69, 3rd Infantry Division, Gilliland’s men learned their lessons well. The Shadow Team was tasked with cleaning out insurgents from Ramadi, Iraq, a target-rich environment. They killed at least 276 enemy combatants in 2005 and 2006. “When we rolled into Ramadi, there were 90 to 100 IEDs a month,” Gilliland recalled. “If we were looking at you and we deemed you a bad guy, we were going to kill you. Our rules of engagement were ‘once he steps across that line, we were going to kill him.’ We were engaging up to three or four targets a day.”
Shadow Team’s success resulted from many factors. They had a good relationship with a trusting battalion commander, and they were allowed to operate with a minimum of second-guessing. An even greater factor was that this group of men generally respected and trusted each other. As soon as Shadow Team arrived in Ramadi, they carefully selected a hide site based on reports of insurgent activity. The team watched a car with four men pull up 60 meters from their hide. Two men quickly got out of the backseat and retrieved two IEDs from the trunk, burying them in a pile of garbage. When the two bombers got back in the car and closed the doors, the team opened fire and killed all four insurgents.