When You Do Everything Right and it Still Goes Wrong

It was one of those days when your pager or Nextel goes off and you know immediately that it is a call-out. It was in the early morning of August 4th 2008, 0600, when my Nextel starts talking. I hear my SWAT commander going through roll call to see if we are all “up” on our communications. I jumped out of bed and got dressed, grabbing my gear along the way. Luckily my department allows the SWAT team take-home cars and the bulk of equipment was already secured in the trunk. Along the way, I communicated with my sniper team leader, Sgt. Jeff Stanfield, and he advised me to meet him at Handy School along with the other snipers. During the night, patrol had located a suspect who held felony warrants for attempted murder. Patrol thought they had the suspect present at a housing complex. Handy School was located approximately three blocks away from our suspect location and we, the snipers, were meeting here, gearing up and moving into position for intelligence and cover until the entry team arrived. On this day I was using my Remington 700 custom by Engel Ballistics. It had a suppressor attached and was housed in an Accuracy International chassis. Sgt. Stanfield and myself teamed up and took a position 35 yards off the “1” side of the apartment complex. Due to the terrain and the buildings, all we could do was to get on a corner of another building in a prone position and use it for cover. Sgt. Stanfield took first watch while I began to set up to relieve him. During this month it had been extremely hot and humid, seeing that we had no shade and it was already 88 degrees at 0630 I began to communicate to Sgt. Stanfield about rotation of the watch. He agreed the rotation needed to be about every 15 minutes. On side one of the building, the suspect’s girlfriend had come to the door talking to patrol officers. They were telling her to come outside to talk and bring her children. By this time I had moved into position next to Sgt. Stanfield, my rifle parallel to his and was up on my elbows. I bolted a round into the chamber and “BAM!” the rifle fired.

At first I couldn’t believe it. I visually looked down at my trigger hand to confirm what I already knew. My finger was NOT on the trigger. Luckily, Sgt. Stanfield had been looking right at me and saw the entire process. He too saw that my finger was not on the trigger. The next thing that happened, about .0003 seconds after looking at my hand was to look up and see where my round had struck. I saw the girlfriend, I saw the two officers, everyone was ok, no one was screaming “I’m shot”, but where was the bullet? When the weapon fired, the police officers down range from us only heard the sonic crack of the bullet. Both officers told me later that they thought the suspect was firing on them with a .22 caliber pistol or rifle. Neither of the officers knew Sgt. Stanfield or myself were there and set up. One sergeant on shift called a “shots fired” over the radio but Sgt. Stanfield immediately called out a “weapons malfunction”.

Now you have to realize, the above paragraph took literally seconds to happen but it seemed as if to take forever. Also there were things that I don’t remember doing that Sgt. Stanfield tells me I did. For example, after the rifle went off and I checked down range, I don’t remember unloading the rifle and extracting the magazine. I later found the spent brass in my vest pocket, don’t remember putting it there. I moved the rifle out of the way against the building and took my place next to Sgt. Stanfield with a pair of binoculars. I don’t remember getting the binoculars out of my bag. In fact, all that was playing over and over in my head was the few milliseconds it took for me to look down at my hand and up where my barrel was pointing. I felt as if all the blood had drained from my head and I was sweating profusely; not from the heat but from the shock of what had just happened.

Sgt. Stanfield was a trooper, he stayed on the rifle the entire time we were in that location. He realized that I was mentally unable to get back behind a rifle. He told me later that he could “see it in my eyes” that I wasn’t really there. He located where my round had struck, into the trunk of a 1990 Dodge Intrepid. We would later discover that the round, a .168 grain Hornady TAP, remained in the trunk.

An extremely difficult thing to go through was the time. You see, I was next to the one person in the entire world who actually knew what had happened. I wasn’t worried what he thought. We laid there for three hours in the sun, by ourselves. All three chiefs were present and had heard what had happened from the command post. One deputy chief came over and asked if I was ok then asked what had happened. Another chief came over and just looked at my rifle not saying anything. Everything was going through my head at this time. The team wouldn’t trust me any more, hell I would be kicked off the team, oh hey! I could lose my job! If I didn’t lose my job, no one at the department would have any faith in my abilities ever again and on and on and on. Every time I looked up and saw officers talking, I believed they were talking about me and what had happened.

We discovered the building next to us had been evacuated so we decided to take refuge in it. We were out of the sun and out of sight from everyone. I took my rifle back to my patrol car and secured it in the trunk and grabbed my back-up rifle, a Sig-Blaser. After both of us had set up our sniper hide in the upstairs bedroom, Sgt. Stanfield called in to tell the commander that we were up and running and I had another rifle. The commander came back over the Nextel and asked if it was “one that wouldn’t shoot him” laughing about it. After hearing that, I felt some relief for the first time since this whole thing had happened. If he was laughing and joking with me, I felt it couldn’t be as serious as I was making it out to be. But it was, I just didn’t realize it yet.

After hours of standing watch over the apartment, the entry team shot tear gas inside and waited. After waiting the appropriate time, they made a dynamic entry and cleared the apartment. No one was home. The damage the entry team did was tremendous compared to my tiny hole in the trunk of the car. Still, my mind was in turmoil going through every step I knew to do and what I did to make this happen. The team rallied up and met back at the police department for a debrief. My shot was not mentioned. After the debrief, I was told by the commander that I would have to go through a shooting review board but “not to worry, its just a formality.” Sgt. Stanfield and I then did a detailed incident/offense report of the incident.

Right after the report writing, I called my wife and told her what had happened. At the time she was working out of town and I would not be able to see her or talk face to face for about three more days. She assured me that everything would be fine and for me not to worry even though she knew I would. I then called Patriot Arms and discussed my rifle. They told me to ship it to them and they would go through it inch by inch to find the problem. Later that day I had the rifle shipped second-day air in hopes it would get to them by the end of the week.

The rest of the week went by like a blur. Patriot Arms called me two days later and told me that they had got the rifle to slam fire two times with them and were now in the process of going over it. They felt sure that the flaw was in the trigger but were leaving nothing to chance. After the checkout, they did confirm the trigger being the problem. The trigger was a Jewell, and Patriot Arms did not “dig” into it. Instead they installed one of their field triggers and shipped me back the rifle along with the Jewell wrapped in an envelope. I opened the package and checked the rifle. The envelope was placed in my workroom.

All my focus now was on the shooting review board. Even though I had not injured or killed anyone, the department wanted this to discuss the issues related to the weapon malfunction. Sgt. Stanfield and myself had to “testify” so to speak about the incident in front of a panel of officers, supervisors, and a secretary. The questions were very basic as if they knew nothing about the workings of a bolt rifle or our sniper policy. In the end, I was cleared of any negligence or wrong-doing in my actions. This is where my nightmare started.

After the shooting review board cleared me, my mind just wrapped up everything very neatly, boxed it away, and stuck it in the deep corner of my mind. It was as if I told myself, “Phew, that’s over with, now get back to work and forget about it!” The problem was that I couldn’t forget about it. I found myself constantly thinking about the incident and replaying it in my head at night. I would lay down to go to sleep and suddenly jerk awake sweating and reliving the few milliseconds it took for me to look up from my rifle after the shot went off. I relived this over and over, the slow motion gaze, every detail of my barrel pointed down range at the front door. Then the “what ifs” started to play into the game. What if I had shot that woman at the front door? What if I had shot one of the officers standing close to her? What if the bullet had passed through the trunk and a window striking a child on the other side? What if, what if, what if? For weeks this went on and for weeks I slowly began to change. I felt guilty for feeling this way. I had not shot anyone! I had not hurt anyone! I had no right to feel this way when I have buddies that have actually been overseas and shot and killed the enemy! I had no right to feel this way when I have buddies that have shot and killed the enemy here doing their job! Why was I going through this tremendous guilt and pressure?  

It was about six weeks after the incident when I was talking to my wife over the phone. She was at work, out of town, and had asked me something when I snapped back at her. She asked me what was wrong and I told her nothing. She then told me something that struck home. She told me that I was not her husband lately. She told me that I was always edgy, quick tempered and restless. I asked her how long had I been this way and she told me, “Ever since your rifle went off on that call-out.” I immediately started crying. I don’t know how to explain it but the feeling was over-whelming. My wife told me to talk to somebody, anybody who I trusted, who would be neutral and could get me through whatever this was.  

The next day I talked to my Chaplin on my shift. He explained to me that what I was going through was normal all things considered. He explained that my worry and guilt was not coming from what happened but rather from what COULD have happened. I also called and talked to Derrick Bartlett, head of the American Sniper Association (ASA) and Snipercraft. Derrick explained to me that I was indeed going through post traumatic stress and exhibited all the signs of such. After talking and healing, I finally sent the Jewel trigger back to the company. I don’t know why I hadn’t already. I guess I was fearful that they wouldn’t find anything wrong with it. Along with the trigger I also enclosed a copy of the incident report and detailed letter of what had happened. A few weeks later I received a phone call from Jewell. The way it was explained to me was that the trigger had lost some of its spring tension as if some pressure was being exhibited on it. He asked me what ammo I was using and if I was shooting reloads. I told him the only ammo that went down the barrel was factory loaded. He couldn’t explain why the trigger had jumped from three and a half pounds to under one pound pull. He did say it was a little dirty but what was puzzling was the spring wear. I then told him that I had a suppressor on my rifle. Both of our light bulbs went off after this statement. We came to the conclusion that due to the back pressure coming in after the round is fired when using a suppressor could cause the spring tension to weaken.

A note to all those who use suppressors with Jewell triggers. Don’t learn the hard way, clean the trigger often.  

After the conversation with Jewell I felt as if I could close the book on my incident but after talking with Derrick I wanted to share my story with my fellow sniper brothers and sisters. I am one to meticulously document each and every shot that goes down the barrel of my rifle. I keep an accurate shot log and data book along with regular maintenance and cleaning. I am, so to speak, very OCD about my rifles and training. Two weeks prior to this incident, using the ASA course, I qualified with this same rifle without any malfunctions. I am not sharing my story because it is one of excitement or heroism- I am sharing my story because I want you to know that even when you do everything “by the book” as meticulously as I do, something can still go wrong. If I can give you one piece of advice it would be document, document, document – EVERYTHING! Stay safe.

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Article written by Hal Howard

Hal Howard is a Horus Vision sponsored shooter, who recently placed in the Top 10 at SniperCraft’s SniperWeek held in St. Petersburg, FL from April 7-10, 2010.  We thank you for your hard work and wish you luck for the future!

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