How an army sniper became 'The Reaper'0:57
Nick Irving vividly recalls the first time he killed in Iraq. Little did he know at the time, that he would go on to become a famous sniper known as 'The Reaper'.
A CONCUSSION wave knocked Nicholas Irving’s head from side to side as a plume of smoke from the IED (improvised explosive device) engulfed the tank in front.
Sticking his head out, Nick’s throat and nose stung with the smell of burning rubber and superheated metal as he dimly made out the singed, oil-streaked sides of the armoured vehicle ahead.
For a terrible moment, it occurred to him that his colleagues’ fuel tank could ignite with the hatches inoperable, and his special ops comrades could be incinerated inside. He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the men spilling out of the mechanical emergency exit.
“I’m hit, I’m hit!” shouted his tour leader Keith in a rapid, high-pitched voice. “My leg, I think it’s f***ed up! It might be gone. Holy s***.”
As Keith was hauled out through the swirling smoke, bloody and screaming, Nick remembers thinking it looked like some kind of dystopian birth scene. He was just a teenager at the time. It was his second deployment in Mosul, Iraq, with the 75th Ranger Regiment, where he would eventually become a master sniper.
Nick was already a trained killer. His first book, The Reaper, recounts the day he fired a seven-round burst into a man’s head at the age of 18, watching him explode in a cloud of “mist and chunks” in Tikrit, Iraq. That night, the ranger had a nightmare the corpse was spinning above his bed, raining down blood — but he never felt that horror again.
He would go on to kill a record 33 Taliban in just one Afghanistan deployment, making him one of America’s deadliest snipers.
The 30-year-old told news.com.au his most memorable operation in Mosul was one his battalion dubbed the Hotel Party, featured in his second book about his most significant missions, Way of the Reaper.
The special ops rangers had been tasked to dress in the uniforms of the regular US Army battalion in the region and inflict maximum damage.
“It was one of those times I got to feel like a cool guy,” he said. “I was 18, 19 driving a Stryker, ready to get shot at by bad guys.
“There were guys hopping out of helicopters, all types of bombs, munitions, I’m hanging out, cigarette in one hand, shooting bad guys. There’s a guy hanging out of a helicopter spraying a machinegun. It was an experience.”
Nick lost count of how many men he shot as they attacked the hotel. The enemy were used to the regular army, whose rules of engagement limited who they could kill. They weren’t ready for this.
“I aimed again, this time holding the rifle so the number 3 hash mark in the ACOG scope was centred on a bad guy’s head,” he writes in his book. “I squeezed the trigger and then watched as the dude dropped out of sight below the window ledge.
“I took a moment for it to sink in. I’d just shot somebody in the head. I was pumped, but I knew that I had to relax a bit; too much adrenaline would make it hard for me to stay focused. I aimed again at that same window ... I fired. Same result. Another one dropped. I blinked; it was like I was played whack-a-mole or something. Another dude popped up. Was it the first guy that I thought I’d taken out? Were there a bunch of dudes in that room?
“Didn’t matter. I needed to take them out even if they seemed like they were zombies.”
As the furious assault wore on, Nick suddenly spotted a splash of spray come out behind an assault gunner, who rocked back on his heels and lurched forward as his helmet rotated. He could see a large hole below the man’s shoulder blade and blood dripping down his back. The doctor rushed over, afraid his lung had been punctured.
Just then, they heard even worse news. They were “completely black on ammo”. That’s when the pilots did something Nick had never seen, hanging out of the cockpit doing fly-by after fly-by firing their small arms at the targets until all the ammo was gone and the troops had got back to their Strykers.
“It built up that ego,” Nick told news.com.au. “It was brought back down in Afghanistan.”
Even at the time, he confesses, there were jarring moments — things that didn’t quite sit right, that he didn’t think about back then.
During the day, with the US government’s decision to close down the war, troops would be out in the city later taken by the Islamic State building schools, a democracy and a public presence. But at night, special ops would be out taking out targets, and soldiers had died.
“Going out into the streets of Mosul in full-on daylight was literally and figuratively eye-opening. I’d heard people say we should blow Iraqis and others into the Stone Age, and it kind of looked like we had tried,” he writes. “Shattered buildings and islands of rubble all dotted the landscape.
“All I know is that we had each other’s backs at the time and did everything we could to support one another. Whether or not the higher-ups did the same is tough to say.”
Nick says it’s hard for him to comment on what actually goes on at the top, but one thing he does agree with Donald Trump about is that there should be no more of the “nation building” that warns your opponent of your movements. “We’re there to destroy the enemy, no more telling the enemy what you’re going to do and when,” he said.
The military should be left to the military, there shouldn’t be so much outside influence on procedures.
“Special ops get to see the difference ... it’s allowing guys to not fight with their hands behind their back.
“There’s a need to be a defined, set in stone endgame. What was the endgame? Not stay in there 16 years — guys are worn out.”
Life has changed dramatically for Nick. After he left the army following six years of service, he struggled for a long time, writing his first book in a blur of alcohol and post traumatic stress disorder.
The memoir was a remarkable success and “everything took off from there,” he says. The 30-year-old is a regular speaker, appears on television shows including Fox News reality program American Grit and is starring in movie called The Wall.
Jay-Z is producing an NBC miniseries based on his previous book, starring Emmy Award-winning This Is Us actor Sterling K Brown.
Nick admits he “tends to stay away from large groups of people with firearms” after what happened to American Sniper Chris Kyle, but he does try to help soldiers entering the military and those dealing with the “afterlife”, which he says is one of the biggest challenges of all.
“Special ops guys have been overseas and seen different things. In the military community, we harp on about not expressing emotions, you’re the tough guy. That eats guys up in the long run.
There’s nothing wrong with talking about what you did overseas, what not to do, what to do.
“No one really prepares you ... in the military you get into a mindset of ‘failure is not an option.’ You’re not used to rejection, the army doesn’t allow it. On the civilian side, you get that. The first dose is hard to overcome, then you realise, ‘this is just life’.
“I’ve learnt a lot from struggle. You have to go through struggles to appreciate things.
“I miss the brotherhood and camaraderie but killing, getting shot at, you can only go so far.”