In the hot, humid afternoon, Pete Stanley and John Pinkham, two veteran Army Green Beret sergeants, lugged a cumbersome 25-pound pack and a rifle as they negotiated a series of rope climbs, scaled walls and crawled through tunnels.
"Shuffle and breathe, shuffle and breathe," a fellow competitor screamed at the pair as they lumbered three city blocks to the next course challenge, where they stopped suddenly and fired 20 shots with their scoped rifles.
Stanley and Pinkham are professional snipers. Not recreational shooters, gun fanciers, weekend warriors or militiamen, but elite military officers trained in the craft of stalking an enemy or hostage-taker -- then killing him from a well-concealed nest as far as a mile away.
This week at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, they joined 38 other two-man sniper teams from the Army Special Forces, Navy SEALS, U.S. Secret Service, U.S. State Department and police who participated in an arduous competition to benefit former Marine Carlos "Gunny" Hathcock II, considered the most successful sniper of the Vietnam War.
Hathcock, who killed 93, has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair at his Virginia Beach, Va., home. His money is dwindling, and he might have to enter a nursing home. A similar benefit for Hathcock, 55, was held recently in West Virginia, and another is scheduled for next month in New Hampshire.
"Carlos Hathcock developed our sniping program, probably had a hand in most everyone else's," said Petty Officer Timothy Bortz, a Navy SEAL who brought a team to Maryland. "There's no one better."
To some, stalking and killing humans -- Hathcock shot a North Vietnamese general from 1.4 miles away during his two years in Southeast Asia -- is immoral. Critics argue that snipers "execute" their targets but are not held accountable.
Military and law enforcement officers say sniping is a critically needed, though rarely used, skill. "We feel extremely confident that when a hostage-taker has a gun to the head of someone's child or loved one, we can deliver a shot that instantly incapacitates the criminal and frees the hostage unharmed," said Sgt. William Bartholomew, the senior Baltimore County Police Department sniper who learned the skill from Hathcock when both were Marines.
Only 2 percent to 4 percent of trained snipers ever shoot at anyone, said Bartholomew, who fatally shot a gunman last year in Parkville after the man leveled a rifle at officers during a barricade situation.
In its 27-year history, marksmen for the U.S. Secret Service unit that protects the president have never fired a shot at a person.
The focus of this week's session was not killing, but Hathcock, a decorated veteran who was belatedly awarded a Silver Star in 1996 for his rescue of six Marines from a burning armored vehicle.
Bartholomew remembered being one of the last Marines who Hathcock trained before he retired.
"Gunny was so patient," Bartholomew said. "He emphasized snipers could not be John Wayne, that we should be reserved. If you didn't apply what he taught you, if you made an absent-minded error, he could stare right through you. He could chew you out without ever raising his voice."
At 17, Hathcock carried his marksmanship into the Marine Corps, where he was on the competitive shooting team.
Hathcock served two terms as a sniper in Vietnam. Once, after being dropped deep into enemy territory, he ran and slithered on the ground for two days until he was within shooting range of a North Vietnamese general. On another mission, he shot a female interrogator nicknamed "Apache," who tortured captured Marines and soldiers.
The North Vietnamese paid Hathcock an indirect compliment, offering a $30,000 reward for his life.
After returning to the United States, he established a scout and sniper school at the Marine base in Quantico, Va. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an incurable degenerative nerve disease, and was forced to retire two months short of the 20 years that would have made him eligible for full retirement pay.
After suffering bouts of depression, Hathcock began teaching police and military snipers. But the disease has been relentless.
Today, Hathcock is barely audible when he speaks. He is fed through a tube in his stomach. He and his wife, Josephine, live on monthly government checks and donations, many from strangers who have read the book about him, "Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills."
For years, Hathcock had nightmares in which he would see himself as the target in his rifle's scope. Now, even the nightmares have vanished.
"You can really see the illness winning," said Hathcock's son, Marine Staff Sgt. Carlos Hathcock III, also a crack rifle shot.
"He gets a little stronger, then slips. I've laid up late at nights thinking how much longer he's got."
Pub Date: 5/23/98