NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. â€” A security forces sergeant from the 99th Ground Combat Training Squadron completed Air Force sniper school April 27, becoming the U.S. militaryâ€™s ninth officially-qualified female sniper.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Alyssa Gomez, 99th Ground Combat Training Squadron instructor, graduated from the Close Precision Engagement Course, a challenging 19-day course at Fort Bliss, Texas.
The course teaches advanced marksmanship and military scouting skills to Air Force security forces members, whose career field specializes in the protection of Air Force personnel and resources. CPEC is the only U.S. military sniper school open to females, though its stringent graduation requirements are the same regardless of gender.
Approximately 800 students have attended the course since its inception at Camp Robinson, Ark. in 2002 and after the courseâ€™s relocation to Fort Bliss in 2008. Only 500 students finished; about 20 percent wash out from every class. Just 18 females have attended.
Gomez said her unit was highly supportive and helped her prepare for the class. She singled out Tech. Sgt. Ely, another CPEC graduate and fellow 99 GCTS member, who served as a mentor in preparing her.
The CPEC curriculum is densely scheduled. Twelve or more hours of academics and practical exercises are built into most class days, while additional drills, hours on watch, or individual preparations after the duty day consume studentsâ€™ time.
Gomez said the instructors expressed their expectations soon after she arrived.
â€œThey were like, â€˜grab your weapon and get outside,â€ she said.
On the first day, the instructors began what students know as a â€œsmoke session,â€ putting the class through almost two hours of continuous muscle-failure-inducing workout that included push-ups, weapon raises, lunges and other exercises. Dirt got into shirts, mouths and eyes, and dehydration set in.
A training cadre favorite was the â€œside-straddle hop,â€ also known as jumping jacks. Gomez said the class did many, many of these.
â€œI lost count after 200,â€ she said. â€œBy that point, everyone was a noodle. And that was day one.â€
Gomez said an instructor addressed the class, asking them how badly they wanted to be there. He promised that several of those standing to each studentâ€™s left and right would not be there at graduation. Gomez took it as a personal challenge.
â€œI decided I wasnâ€™t going to quit,â€ she said. â€œI told myself, â€˜they canâ€™t put me through anything I canâ€™t handle, and failure is not an option.â€™â€
During this and many of the courseâ€™s numerous smoke sessions or other exercises, instructors conducted a drill known as Kimâ€™s Game to test studentsâ€™ ability to focus under pressure and while fatigued. In Kimâ€™s Game, students would be shown ten random objects in a variety of settings, for a short period of time. Not every Kimâ€™s Game was explicitly announced, and each one was different.
â€œWe not only had to memorize the objects and be able to identify what they were, we had to identify their sizes, draw a 3D picture of each object in a sketch, and determine whether the objects were serviceable or unserviceable,â€ Gomez said. â€œIt taught you to really focus and pay attention all the time.â€
At 3 a.m. one morning, Gomez and her classmates were rousted out of bed by yelling, whistle blasts and ambulance sirens. They were run into a fog machine-filled tent lit by strobe lighting, and had to do push-ups and flutter kicks, followed by more running. Another Kimâ€™s game was in progress while they exercised.
â€œIâ€™m in my Grinch Pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, and Iâ€™m thinking, â€˜someone just stole my Christmas,â€™â€ Gomez laughed.
Over the course, instructors taught the class the skills required of a sniper. This included an immersive course on the M24, the militaryâ€™s primary sniper rifle. Other skills included target detection, range estimation, and camouflage and concealment.
Part of this was the construction of ghille suits – camouflage suits built on a standard uniform but enhanced with burlap, jute and natural vegetation – that help the sniper blend in to surroundings. The sniper personally builds the suit to match the environment, which Gomez described as a â€œlabor of love.â€
Gomez said breaks and free time were sparse during the course. Rest was in short supply, so she focused on the positive. She recalls the simple act of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich one evening as being a welcome relief.
Snipers do not generally work alone. They work in pairs with one person as the primary and the second assisting as spotter, helping to find threats and assisting with adjustments to compensate for weather, elevation, and other factors that affect the flight path of a bullet at extended ranges.
However, Gomez was originally slated to attend CPEC with another squadron member, but he could not go due to an injury. As a result, Gomez became the self-described â€œred-headed stepchildâ€ of the class, paired off in three successive sniper teams as other students dropped out.
She found herself paired with a brand new spotter the day before her first unknown distance firing event.
â€œWe had never fired together and we had to fire the next day. I was worried,â€ she admitted. â€œBut it turned out that it worked great.â€
The hardest part of the class for Gomez was the stalk, the most comprehensive test of the sniperâ€™s skills.
Each stalk involves moving through 500-700 meters of harsh desert terrain within a defined lane, at the end of which is a target dummy, nicknamed â€œBob.â€ Instructors stand at double-arm distance from Bobâ€™s sides, searching for the sniperâ€™s approach with spotting scopes and binoculars. The sniper has to positively identify Bob and hit him with a precise shot before a time limit expires.
If snipers are spotted, or if they miss, they fail. Each student must pass 2 of 4 stalks to graduate. Though one remedial â€œdo overâ€ is allowed, it means the student has to do an extra stalk.
Gomez said she was overly cautious at first, low-crawling the entire way. With heavy mesquite scrub in her path, thorns cut her arms up to her elbows. She ran out of water, then time. Once, she was nearly spotted. She blew three stalks in a row before she discovered that she could walk part of the way, and had to do a remedial stalk with no room for error.
On her remedial, the instructors set the time limit to expire at sunset. With barely enough light to see, and nearly out of time, she climbed inside a mesquite bush and took aim. Although she felt like she was â€œinside a pin cushion,â€ she focused, hitting Bob with less than five minutes left. The mesquite kept her from being spotted.
Fortunately, her final two stalks went better for her, and the end of the class came soon after.
She credited her support system – her friends and family – for helping her keep the determination to get through. She singled out Tech. Sgt. Ely as a huge inspiration, for helping give her the opportunity and training to get ready, and for believing in her.
Gomez said that making it through was an exercise in mental discipline.
â€œItâ€™s really mind over matter. It sounds clichÃ©, but I found out going through that it does come down to making a commitment not to quit. You feel like you know what your physical limit is, but when you put mind over matter, you can go far beyond what you thought you were capable of.
â€œThe result is worth the sweat and the blood and the pain. I feel pretty good right now.â€