Special Reports

'Marksman' or 'expert' rating no big deal in Army, soldiers point out

Qualifying as an "expert marksman" is no extraordinary achievement for soldiers in the Army.

In basic training and usually once a year, soldiers have to qualify with their service weapon. To earn their "expert" badge, they've got to hit 36 out of 40 targets from distances of 50 to 300 meters, officials said.

Soldiers and former soldiers said it's not a particularly tough test. And they said it shouldn't be read as any indication that D.C. sniper suspect John Muhammad achieved any unusual level of proficiency during his time in the Army.

"This expert badge this guy got is completely meaningless," said Gene Econ, a retired infantry major who trains soldiers in marksmanship. "The public needs to know that in the Army, that's pretty much meaningless."

Shooting a rifle, using camouflage and concealment are among the fundamental skills that all soldiers learn in their nine weeks of basic training, soldiers, veterans and Army officials said.

"You shoot from different positions at different targets," Spc. Vicente Hidalgo said Thursday after a haircut at Bell's Barber Shop II in Tillicum. "You learn aiming, breathing and holding the weapon steady."

He said 95 percent of soldiers pass the basic rifle marksmanship course. Others said about one in five qualify as expert.

"They train you on that a lot," said Hidalgo, who works in the pharmacy at Madigan Army Medical Center. "There are a few people who are too nervous to do it."

After the course, he said, anybody would be able to shoot a target 100 yards away - the range from which the D.C. sniper is reported to have shot his victims.

Don Kell, 63, an Army and Vietnam veteran from Tillicum, agreed, saying he can hit "a nickel or even a dime from 100 yards away."

While in the Army, Kell said, he qualified with several firearms including M-1 and M-16 rifles.

The Pentagon said Muhammad, a combat engineer, qualified expert on the M-16 and with hand grenades. He was last stationed at Fort Lewis in 1994.

Qualifying as an expert marksman and becoming a sniper are "apples and oranges," said Lt. Col. Stephen Barger, the Fort Lewis spokesman.

Sniper training involves a lot more than shooting, officials said. Candidates are put through a five-week course, screened for psychiatric and emotional problems, and must have advanced infantry skills.

Soldiers with disciplinary problems are kicked out of the program, officials said.

Muhammad did not receive sniper training in the Army, the Pentagon said in a news release.

"This guy's ability to point a rifle barrel, hit a 20-inch-by-30-inch target from 100 yards, firing with the barrel stabilized with a tripod ... there's no marksmanship ability involved in that at all," said Econ, who helps train snipers at Fort Lewis. "There is a sick, demented, murdering brain that will never be cured."

Michael Gilbert: 253-597-8921