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Almost everyone knows about the legendary toughness of the Navy SEALs.
They've heard about the infamous Hell Week in SEAL training, during which cold, wet and sleepless recruits are stressed to the edge of human limits on the sands of Coronado.
A lesser-known specialty emerged Sunday night, when three SEAL snipers rescued a sea captain by killing the Somali pirates who held him hostage.
These guys are amazing shots.
“For all three of them to fire those shots at the same time and take those guys out, it was quite a feat,” said Don Shipley, a former SEAL who now runs a private training school for commandos in Chesapeake, Va. “They showed the patience the sniper has, which is looking through the scope for hours to get that perfect shot.”
Several dozen SEALs had secretly boarded the destroyer Bainbridge late Saturday after parachuting into the ocean nearby and climbing into inflatable boats.
Then they bided their time, waiting for a chance to save the hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips. That came around dusk Sunday, as the Bainbridge towed the lifeboat holding the captain and pirates from its stern.
The snipers could see two pirates peering out from the back of the enclosed lifeboat and the third pointing his assault rifle at Phillips. President Barack Obama had cleared them to shoot if the captain faced imminent threat of death.
When the order came to shoot, former SEALs said, the hard part was not the distance – about 75 feet, an easy range for an experienced sniper.
The biggest risk came from the many moving parts: the bobbing lifeboat, the rolling ship, hitting three targets simultaneously in darkness.
With deadly accuracy, the snipers fired their rifles in unison. They killed the pirates with exactly three shots.
That marksmanship is honed in or near San Diego County, said Cmdr. Greg Geisen, a spokesman for the Coronado-based Naval Special Warfare Command. The SEALs train in classrooms on the Silver Strand, on ranges in rural La Posta and Niland, or in varied settings around San Clemente Island.
“To get to the Tiger Woods level of play, you go through a lot of special training,” Geisen said.
Over several months, snipers practice hitting distant targets in urban and rural settings, said a local retired SEAL who was closely involved with sniper training during his Navy career. They learn how to drop from a helicopter into all kinds of environments.
And yes, they practice shooting at floating targets, in darkness, from boats.
“You're learning a lot more than just putting bullets on paper. You learn to work tactically. It's quite rigorous,” said the former SEAL, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his current career.
At least one member of every deployed SEAL platoon is certified as a sniper, Geisen said. Sometimes all of them are.
Geisen wouldn't say how many of the 2,775-man SEAL force are snipers. But he said many of them find those shooting skills useful in the small-group, commando-style tactics they often employ.
“Most SEALs will try to get that (sniper) training at some point in their career,” Geisen said.
Navy SEALs – the acronym stands for sea, air and land, to signify that they can work in any environment – trace their roots to underwater demolition teams created during World War II. They refined their tactics during the Korean War.
In 1962, they adopted the SEAL moniker and expanded into a variety of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations.
Three SEALs received the Medal of Honor – the nation's highest valor award – for their Vietnam War service. Two more have earned it for their actions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Even among SEALs, a super-secret, anti-terrorism unit blandly named the Naval Special Warfare Development Group is considered the best of the best. Popularly known by its original name, SEAL Team 6, the Virginia-based unit was created as a counterpart to the Army's Delta Force in the early 1980s after a failed attempt to rescue U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran.
The Navy won't discuss whether the team aided in Phillips' rescue, though bloggers speculated yesterday that it seemed consistent with the team's past missions. Those reportedly include the 1983 evacuation of Gov. Sir Paul Scoon in Grenada and the 1991 rescue of Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide.
Ultimately, though, former SEALs made one point especially clear: A daring and precise rescue that has amazed Americans is business as usual in the cloak-and-dagger world of Navy special operations.
“What they're doing every day is absolutely eye-watering,” said the retired SEAL from San Diego County. “This is normal operating procedure. It's a day at the office.”