Baldwin grad puts
talents to work
on Iraq duty

Damien Mason: The Stryker soldier from Maui was active in drama in high school

WAILUKU >> Even as a student in high school, Damien Mason displayed exceptional physical and mental skills.

Mason, a 1992 graduate of Baldwin High School and a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, is serving in Iraq as a Stryker Brigade captain.

"He's an exceptional young man," said Fred Guzman, a former Baldwin soccer coach. "He was an exceptional student and a very good athlete."

Guzman said Damien, son of the late Maui attorney Ed Mason, played on championship soccer teams in the Maui Interscholastic League, including his senior year as an all-star goal keeper.

Damien Mason was also active in the drama club at Baldwin High School, acting in such plays as the "Imaginary Invalid" and "Miser" by Moliere.

"He's wonderful. He loved the classics," said Sue Loudon, head of the drama department. "He was an all-around young man, very gracious, very smart."

His mother, Merlene Mason, said Damien, who is married, has been stationed in Germany in the past.

Merlene Mason said she doesn't want her son to be in Iraq but understands it's necessary.

"Of course, nobody wants war," she said. "But there are things in life we have to stand up for and do our job."

A U.S. Army sniper takes up position at a traffic check point near Najaf, Iraq. Snipers are in great demand in Iraq as they are ideally able to isolate and knock out combatants without harming civilians, among which insurgents operate or use as human shields.

Army snipers attack
while minimizing risks
to civilians

NAJAF, Iraq >> A U.S. Army patrol stops suspicious vehicles on the edges of this insurgent-controlled city.

Some 500 yards away, lying prone and hidden in the sand, two expert marksmen stalk Iraqis emerging from cars through the cross-hairs of their rifles.

If they detect a sudden, hostile move, the snipers should be able to kill the assailant with a single bullet before the patrol itself can react.

"We can't get enough of them," says Capt. Damien Mason, from Maui, a company commander who ordered the two shooters into position. "Snipers are vital in this kind of warfare."

Mason's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Karl Reed, describes snipers in Iraq as a "political weapon," ideally able to isolate and knock out combatants without harming civilians whom insurgents often use as human shields.

"You run into bad guys in a school with children. A regular infantry squad can't really cope. That's when you need snipers. They prevent civilian casualties, and thus political problems," said Reed, who commands the Stryker Brigade 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.

Officers say snipers in Iraq have inflicted the greatest number of casualties during counter-sniper fire or protecting an advancing unit by hanging back and watching for an insurgent to appear at a window or peer around a corner.

Despite thermal targeting devices and other battlefield wizardry, the technological advantage of U.S. forces drops sharply the moment a unit moves into the warrens of alleys, walled compounds and low, flat-roofed buildings that dominate Iraq's urban centers.

At such times, the finely honed skills of the snipers must kick in, and the fighting becomes close-up and dependent on raw instinct.

"It's more personal than regular combat. You see the man's expression before you pull the trigger, then the blood and the fall," says Cpl. Omar Torres, a sniper with the 2nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division.

The 23-year-old soldier and others rate their Iraqi counterparts low on training and ingenuity, saying opposing snipers invariably use upper stories of houses or rooftops and aren't armed with particularly accurate weapons. Nonetheless, they're among the main killers of U.S. forces after roadside bombers.

Torres, of Waterbury, Conn., is one of only five fully qualified snipers in the regiment's 2nd Battalion, having gone through the Army's rigorous sniper school at Ft. Benning, Ga.

Up to 70 percent of a class fails the five-week course. Successful students become masters of camouflage, stealth and ability to identify hostile faces in a crowd by their expressions and movements.

In Torres' battalion, the snipers operate in two-man teams, one soldier wielding a sniper rifle and the other armed with an automatic fire weapon, says Staff Sgt. Carlo Pokos, a Croatian-American who is the unit's top sniper.

Pokos says snipers often move into a targeted area 24 to 48 hours before an attack to observe and pick targets, avoiding detection at all costs. "You measure your movement in inches, not in feet," the 26-year-old master marksman says.

Before deploying to Iraq, his men had brown-colored sheets sewn into camouflage wear, making them appear like just another small rise in the desert sand.

The standard M-24 sniper rifle is of the same hue, a bolt-action weapon with which a sniper is expected to make "head shots" at up to 600 yards and "body kills" at a maximum range of 1,000 yards.

Sometimes snipers accomplish more by inspiring fear than by pulling triggers.

Called to the Kosovo town of Gnjilane, where ethnic Albanians had been attacking Serbs and gypsies, Pokos and seven other snipers scanned the town around-the-clock from a radio tower. The eerie sensation that a silent, deadly marksman could be viewing them at any time through a rifle scope, stopped the killers.

Pokos, who like some snipers declines to talk about how many people he has killed, says that total concentration and calculation must be brought to bear on the moment when the trigger is pulled, as well as the distance, weather, state of the rifle, the amount of sleep and coffee one has had.

"It's just you and your buddy and you've got to make the call on the ground and the one call is all you get," he says. "The only thing you must think about are those cross-hairs."


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