Elite Sniper Unit Abandoned | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Elite Sniper Unit Abandoned

Lying low beside the rifle, his stomach touching the ground, Cpl. Rob Furlong concentrated hard on his breathing. In, out. In, out. In, out. Deep, but not too deep. Slow, but not too slow.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 15, 2006

Elite Sniper Unit Abandoned

Lying low beside the rifle, his stomach touching the ground, Cpl. Rob Furlong concentrated hard on his breathing. In, out. In, out. In, out. Deep, but not too deep. Slow, but not too slow. The tiniest twitch - a heavy exhale, perhaps, or a breath held one second too long - could jerk his weapon ever so slightly, turning a sure hit into a narrow miss. In the sniping world, where one shot should always equal one kill, steady breathing is just as crucial as steady aim.

On that March afternoon in 2002, Cpl. Furlong squinted through the scope of his McMillan Tac-50, a sleek bolt-action rifle almost as long as he is. In his crosshairs were three men, each lugging weapons toward an al-Qaeda mortar nest high in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Master Cpl. Tim McMeekin, hunkered behind his fellow sniper, saw the same trio through the lens of his Vector, a binocular-like device that uses a laser to pinpoint targets thousands of metres away. Speaking quietly, both soldiers agreed on the obvious: take out the biggest threat first, in this case the man in the middle carrying the RPK machine gun. According to the Vector, he was exactly 2,430 m away - nearly 2½ kilometres.

A Newfoundland boy with pale blue eyes and a chiselled frame, Furlong adjusted the elevation knob on his scope, the barrel of his gun pointing higher and higher with each turn. He knew the routine, had practised it a thousand times back at the base in Edmonton. The farther away the target, the higher the rifle should point. Wind blowing to the left? Aim slightly right. Most snipers will tell you it's not much different than a golfer and his caddie lining up a long putt. Calculation. Instinct. And a little bit of luck. "You can teach a certain amount of it," Furlong says. "But there is a large percentage that you must have naturally. A good shooter is born. You can't teach someone to be a good shot if they don't naturally have it."

The 26-year-old stared through the scope, his left finger tickling the trigger. In, out. In, out. Behind him, McMeekin gazed through his Vector, reconfirming the precise distance one last time. "Stand by," Furlong said.

The first shot missed. A second round missed too, but not by much. It pierced the man's backpack. "They had no fear," Furlong recalls of his target. "They didn't run. I guess they've just been engaged so many times." He immediately reloaded the chamber and lined up his rifle for a third try, checking to make sure his grip was flawless. Furlong knew exactly why that second shot missed; instead of following a perfectly straight line, he had squeezed the trigger a tiny smidgen to one side. Even a fraction of a millimetre can make a huge difference on the other end - in this case, the difference between a man's knapsack and his heart.

"Stand by," Furlong said again. Another loud pop echoed through the valley, sending a .50-calibre shell - rocket-shaped, almost as long as a beer bottle - slicing through the Afghan sky. Four seconds later, it tore into the man's torso, ripping apart his insides.

By that point, Rob Furlong, Tim McMeekin and three other Canadian sharpshooters - Graham Ragsdale, Arron Perry and Dennis Eason - had spent nearly a week in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan's Shahikot Valley, reaching out and touching the enemy from distances even they had never trained for. But that shot was something special. Rob Furlong had just killed another human being from 2,430 m, the rough equivalent of standing at Toronto's CN Tower and hitting a target near Bloor Street. It was - and still is - the longest-ever recorded kill by a sniper in combat, surpassing the mark of 2,250 m set by U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock during the Vietnam War.

It should have been a moment of pride for the Canadian army. Five of its most talented snipers - men trained to kill without remorse, then turn around and kill again - did exactly that. They destroyed al-Qaeda firing positions, saved American lives and tallied a body count unmatched by any Canadian soldier of their generation. U.S. commanders who served alongside the snipers nominated all five for the coveted Bronze Star medal. "Thank God the Canadians were there," is how one American soldier put it.

Yet days later, their heroics on the mountain would be overshadowed by suspicion, including stunning allegations that one sniper, in a subsequent mission, sliced himself a souvenir from the battlefield: the finger of a dead Taliban fighter. Military police launched a criminal investigation, but uncovered nothing but denials. As the months wore on, there emerged so many conflicting accusations and supposed explanations that no charges were ever laid. Even Rob Furlong's record-breaking shot became lost in the confusion. In fact, until now, a different sniper has been widely - and incorrectly - credited with pulling the trigger on that long-distance kill.

Today, more than four years later, three of the five decorated snipers who served in Afghanistan are no longer in the army, brushed aside by a military machine that seemed all too willing to watch them go. Persecuted instead of praised, they fell victim to what many still believe was a witch hunt driven by jealousy and political correctness. Arron Perry was pushed out the door. Furlong left on his own, so disillusioned that he could barely stomach the thought of putting on his uniform. Graham Ragsdale - the leader of the unit - suffered perhaps the worst fate. Stripped of his command and later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he has spent the ensuing years battling deep depression.

How those snipers went from standouts to outcasts is now the focus of another investigation, this one by Yves Côté, the Canadian Forces' independent ombudsman. For more than 19 months, his staff has revisited the saga, trying to determine whether the army's chain of command deserves some of the blame for the demise of a few good men. An answer is expected in the coming weeks.

"It's sad to see what happened over there," Furlong says now, recalling how the accusations ripped apart his unit. "It took the shine off what really took place there, and I think in the long run destroyed people's lives."

It was still dark on March 3, 2002, when hundreds of camouflaged troops piled into the Chinook helicopters humming on the runway at Bagram Airfield. Dressed in full battle rattle, their pockets and rucksacks stuffed with food and ammunition, the soldiers were minutes away from being dropped into the heart of America's boldest combat mission in more than a decade.

Among those waiting to climb aboard the choppers was a small contingent of Canadians, including Master Cpl. Graham Ragsdale. "Rags," as the boys called him, was the leader of a small cell of snipers, part of the 3rd Battalion of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. He was a popular boss, revered as much for his patience as for his talents with a rifle. "I only wished that I could have an ounce of his knowledge," one fellow soldier recalls. Those who knew Rags best considered him a shoo-in to one day reach the rank of "master sniper," a fraternity that includes barely two dozen sharpshooters in the entire Canadian army.

Ragsdale's unit was a tight-knit bunch, a small group of Type A personalities who respected one another simply for having reached the rank of sniper. Completing the training course - a gruelling combination of classroom work and on-the-job drills - is so demanding that in a typical batch of a dozen recruits, maybe three or four will walk away with a passing grade. The few who make the cut share a special bond.

That bond soon extended to Afghanistan, where 900 Canadian soldiers deployed as part of the U.S.-led retribution for Sept. 11. Like most of the troops, Ragsdale's sniper cell spent its first few weeks in theatre guarding the fenced perimeter of Kandahar Airfield. It was mind-numbing work. For days on end, they stood watch in the towers, their .50-calibre rifles ready to engage an enemy that never appeared. But as February blended into March, the brass ordered the snipers to pack. They were flying north to Bagram, hand-picked as Canada's lone contribution to Operation Anaconda.

Simply put, the goal of Anaconda was to kill or capture al-Qaeda and Taliban warriors cloaked in the Shahikot Valley, an enemy hideout protected by towering snow-capped mountains and sympathetic locals. U.S. special forces, bolstered by a small army of Afghan fighters, were to do most of the fighting, while hundreds of other conventional troops would guard any possible escape routes. After weeks of precision air assaults, Anaconda would be the biggest ground offensive in the war on terror. The Canadian snipers were asked to come along, just in case. "It was incredible," recalls Master Cpl. Arron Perry, who was among the Canadians squished inside a Chinook that morning. "We were in the right place at the right time and lucky enough to do it."

At 30, Perry was a massive man, a relentless weightlifter who moonlighted as a bouncer in downtown Edmonton. Born in Moncton, he joined the reserves at age 17, and by the time he landed in Afghanistan he had already served one tour in Croatia and two more in Bosnia. He had been a paratrooper, an instructor in unarmed combat and, most recently, a sniper. But he was also a recurring thorn in the side of his superiors, an outspoken soldier with an intimidating frame. Just weeks before deploying, his regimental sergeant major complained - in writing - that Perry had "an attitude problem" that "has gone unchecked for a long period of time."

Nevertheless, Perry was in Afghanistan, about to be lowered into a combat zone for the first time in his career. Following standard protocol, he would be one of three snipers working in tandem around a single, high-powered rifle. Each member of the trio was more than qualified to pull the trigger, but for this mission, Perry would be the primary shooter. Ragsdale would be his spotter. And Cpl. Dennis Eason, another Newfoundlander, would stand guard behind them - the eyes in the back of their heads.

Down the runway, the other half of Ragsdale's cell - a second trio of snipers - hauled their gear toward a separate chopper waiting in the early morning darkness. Carrying his team's .50-calibre rifle was Furlong, a soft-spoken infantryman who seemed destined for sniping from an early age. At 10 years old, back home on the East Coast, he and his friends would spread rotten fish on a piece of wood, wait for the flies to show up, then try to shoot them out of the air with their pellet guns. Born a righty, Furlong even learned to fire left-handed. It reached the point where he actually preferred it that way. In fact, when he took his sniper course in 2001, he performed all his target practice left-handed.

Furlong's spotter for Anaconda would be Master Cpl. Tim McMeekin, a Manitoba-based sniper who was seconded to the unit just before the tour. Though an outsider, McMeekin - tall, with a rock-solid build - fit in right away. Sgt. Zevon Durham, an American soldier, rounded out the trio.

The Chinook carrying Perry, Ragsdale and Eason twisted its way onto the mountain just before dawn. Within minutes, enemy fighters opened up, feeding the new arrivals a steady stream of small-arms and mortar fire. Perry, hauling his rifle on his back, headed for higher ground. "Anyone who says they are not scared is crazy," he recalls. "But it was great." In that first hour, Perry fired at target after target, some as far away as 1,500 m. "His shots were incredible," says Sgt. Maj. Mark Nielsen, a veteran of America's 101st Airborne Division. "One shot, one kill. If I had to send him a sweatshirt, that's what it would say."

McMeekin and Furlong were minutes behind their friends, but as their Chinook approached the landing zone, an unseen enemy opened fire. The pilots immediately veered right, turning the chopper all the way around. Furlong was furious. His friends were in the centre of a hornet's nest, and there he was, on his way back to Bagram.

When the helicopter returned to the mountain a few hours later, dozens of troops spilled out the side doors and onto the valley floor, scanning the horizon as they sprinted through the dust kicked up by the rotor blades. The enemy was nowhere to be found, but that didn't mean the troops were alone. "We were nervous," Furlong admits. "You can feel it. You know when something is wrong."

His instinct was right. As dusk approached, mortars and muzzle flashes lit up the sky, hammering the ground all around their position. Furlong planted his head in the dirt, shielding his face. "McMeekin had already started to grab the rifle and engage targets," he remembers. "The guy was an absolute machine." Amid the onslaught, the snipers pummelled at least one enemy hideout. Everyone else took cover.

For the next nine days, the Canadian snipers disposed of rival fighters with diabolical precision. They became an all-star unit of sorts, shuttled from hill to hill as needed, sometimes by foot, sometimes by four-wheeler. Their bullets destroyed enemy lookouts, protected U.S. troops as they moved through the valley, and, in those moments when all hell broke loose, annihilated the source of fire. Along the way, they reset the bar of their elite profession, breaking - then rebreaking - the record for longest-ever combat kill.

First it was Master Cpl. Perry, hitting an enemy forward observer from 2,310 m. Days later, Furlong took out the man with the RPK, eclipsing his friend's mark by a mere 120 m. "These guys - regardless of what country they were from, what flag they fought under - they were just excellent military professionals," says Capt. Justin Overbaugh, the commander of a U.S. scout platoon that worked alongside one of the sniper teams. "We didn't want to give them up. I would have brought them home with me if I could."

By the time the snipers flew back to Bagram, their American commanders were already filling out nomination forms for Bronze Stars, a U.S. medal that recognizes heroism on the battlefield. All five names were submitted up the American chain of command: Perry, Ragsdale, Eason, Furlong and McMeekin.

Lt.-Col. Pat Stogran, the Canadian commander in Afghanistan, was waiting to meet his snipers when they touched down in Bagram. He was like a proud father, boasting and patting them on the back for a job well done. All they wanted was a shower and a phone call home. They'd had neither since heading overseas more than a month earlier. Furlong was so filthy he tossed most of his clothes in the trash. "They had been on for so long they kind of stood up on their own," he laughs.

The two sniper teams had not crossed paths during the nine-day mission. Reunited, they exchanged a few hugs and a few tales. They also made a vow, promising never to reveal - outside the circle - how many people they actually killed. That was for them to know. To this day, none has broken that pledge.

Hours after their showers, the snipers and hundreds of their Canadian comrades departed for another mission: Operation Harpoon. Their destination was "The Whale," a mountain range where, according to intelligence reports, dozens of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters had fled for cover during Anaconda. Canadian troops were assigned to find them, but after five days of sifting through caves and blowing up bunkers, they came up empty. The few enemy fighters they did encounter were long dead.

As uneventful as the mission was, it would be that assignment - not Operation Anaconda - that would forever define the snipers' tour in Afghanistan. Everything they had accomplished just days earlier was about to be destroyed.

As soon as the sniper cell returned to camp, an officer pulled them aside, warning them that one of their own - Perry - was under investigation for allegedly desecrating an enemy corpse. Among the gruesome accusations were that he cut off a dead man's finger, stuck a cigarette in the corpse's mouth and posted a sign on his lifeless chest. "Fuck Terrorism," the note read. Military police also suspected that Perry defecated on a second body.

The allegations were devastating, not just for Perry, but for the entire team. "Five days earlier I got off the plane and was met by the colonel who said: 'You guys are outstanding,' " Furlong remembers. "And then five days later you're told you're under investigation, so everything that happens before goes to shit. You can build a hundred bridges and rob a bank, but you'll never be known as a bridge builder. You'll be known as a bank robber. It only takes one bad thing to erase every good thing you've ever done."

Lt.-Col. Stogran called in the National Investigation Service (NIS), the major crimes unit of the military's internal police agency. Investigators dove in. On March 21, 2002 - under heavily armed guard - a team returned to the mountain to exhume one of the two corpses at the heart of the case. They took notes, snapped photos and collected a swab of DNA. They also found the "Fuck Terrorism" sign.

As investigators searched for clues, senior officers stripped Graham Ragsdale of his command, giving control of the sniper cell to Tim McMeekin. Then the NIS showed up at Perry's tent with a search warrant, tearing apart his barracks box and seizing a knife. A Canadian chaplain later claimed that Perry swore at him in a threatening manner - an allegation that landed the soldier under arrest for "conduct unbecoming."

Three short weeks after taking lives and saving lives in the Shahikot Valley, Arron Perry was on a plane back to Canada. His tour was over, replaced by a looming court martial. "From day one, we're taught to trust," he says. "Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty. Then all of a sudden, you're abandoned and dropped."

Two days after Perry left camp, an American general visited Kandahar Airfield to distribute Bronze Stars. Included in his box of medals were five ribbons reserved for the snipers. The awards, however, never left the package. It seemed that someone in the Canadian military refused to rubber-stamp the U.S. honour, certainly not with such a sensitive investigation going on.

American troops were irate. Why aren't the snipers standing here with us? "They represented Canada's best," Sgt. Maj. Nielsen says. "It's a grave mistake to allow something like that to go unrecognized."

Morale sunk even lower. Ragsdale, still stunned by his demotion, was crushed. As for the rest of the unit, they did little else but sit around and wait for assignments that never came. As one of them later put it: "We just breathed oxygen and collected pay."

It made for an awkward few months. While the Canadian military tiptoed around its tainted snipers, U.S. soldiers regularly stopped by their tents to say hello. Many had served in Anaconda, and they wanted to personally thank the boys for saving their asses out there. As a token of appreciation, some left behind cans of tuna or bags of Mr. Noodles - heaven compared to standard army rations.

Allegations aside, the camp was also abuzz with whispers about Furlong's record-breaking kill. The young corporal even agreed to grant a few media interviews, but only on the condition that his name never be printed. He wanted anonymity, not recognition.

Back home in Alberta, Perry chose a different approach, going public in late April 2002. His story sparked the inevitable outrage. A court martial for swearing at a chaplain? The fact that he was a celebrated sniper - a member of a unit that now boasted a world-record kill - only fuelled the media circus. In interview after interview, Perry denied that he swore at the padre, saying his cuss was a general rant aimed at nobody in particular. As for the finger investigation, he was adamant that he never mistreated a corpse or staged a so-called trophy photo. He even went so far as to say that although he was innocent, he still supported the words written on that sign. Fuck Terrorism? Who can disagree with that?

When Rob Furlong returned home to Edmonton in July 2002, he and most of the other soldiers who served in Afghanistan were granted a leave of absence, a couple of months off to unwind and relax. But the NIS - still consumed by what Perry might have done on that mountain - repeatedly phoned Furlong at home, asking if he could drop by the base and answer just a few more questions. They were always the same. Did you see anyone cut off the corpse's finger? Who wrote the sign? Was it Perry? Like the questions, his answer never changed. I don't know what happened. Your guess is as good as mine.

The men in the sniper cell did their best to stand behind Perry. He was, after all, one of their own. Around the battalion, fellow troops quietly complained that the entire investigation was a sham, a chance for senior officers to finally do what they had always wanted: get rid of Arron Perry. Few enlisted men had more run-ins with higher-ups than he did. His personal file read like a laundry list of insubordination. Maybe this was payback for years of bad behaviour?

Perhaps, but Perry's fellow snipers took as much heat as he did - if not more. Over and over, the NIS grilled the men behind closed doors, hoping to catch one of them in a lie. "It was a really, really hard emotional time," Furlong remembers. "We fell apart when we came back."

Furlong tried to soldier on. After Afghanistan, he had set his sights on a new goal: qualifying for special forces, perhaps a spot in the military's ultra-secret Joint Task Force Two. Everything he did - from his workout regimen to his reading habits - coincided with that dream. And what did the army do in return? "Harassment," he says. "There were times I'd go home and I'd tell my wife: 'Look, I can't take this anymore.' I just didn't want to put a uniform back on."

Graham Ragsdale had already reached that point. He showed up for work at the Edmonton garrison, but remained heartbroken over his demotion. "He just didn't want anything to do with anything," Furlong recalls. "His motivation to carry on was gone."

As for Arron Perry, he enjoyed a small victory in the summer of 2002, when the military announced it was dropping the lone criminal charge laid in connection with his alleged threat against the chaplain. However, he would remain suspended with pay pending the outcome of the finger investigation. Barred from the base and under strict orders not to venture outside Edmonton, Perry passed most of his nights working the door at a local club. That Christmas, he spent the holidays alone, unable to leave the city and visit his family on the East Coast. "I was treated like a second-class citizen," he says.

Two months later, on a Friday morning in early February 2003, the NIS made a sudden announcement: despite a gruelling 10-month probe, investigators failed to uncover enough evidence to lay criminal charges. They never figured out who printed the sign. They never found a finger. And most importantly, the DNA from that corpse did not match anything on Arron Perry's knife.

"At some point in any police investigation, you've got to draw a line that says, 'We believe there is adequate evidence and we're laying charges,' or, 'We don't,' " says Capt. Mark Giles, an NIS spokesman. "The evidence might be five millimetres shy or it might be miles shy." Only investigators know for sure just how shy the evidence was, but regardless, Perry was exonerated, free to put on his uniform and return to work. "It's great," he told one reporter. "I am in the clear."

With the case now closed, the military bureaucracy decided it was probably time to finally give the snipers their due. All five were awarded a Mention in Dispatches, a pin that recognized their "impressive professionalism and dedication to duty." Headquarters also approved the U.S. Bronze Stars. On Dec. 8, 2003 - 19 months after the snipers were nominated - Paul Cellucci, then the American ambassador to Canada, flew to Edmonton for a ceremony that was long overdue.

"The whole thing took a while, and I don't know why it took so long," Cellucci, who stepped down as envoy in March 2005, recalled recently. "We were certainly proud to honour them, and I'll just leave it to others to comment about what the Canadian government should have done."

All five members of the sniper unit stood at attention as Cellucci pinned on their medals. McMeekin. Ragsdale. Perry. Furlong. Eason. For someone who did not know better, it sure seemed like a happy ending.

It was anything but. Not only were three of those five men on their way out of the army, but countless questions remained unanswered. Did someone really chop off a finger? Did the chain of command - petrified it might have another Somalia on its hands - jump to conclusions? Was it retribution? Envy? Or was it really Arron Perry's fault? Did his big mouth and hard head bring everyone down with him?

Pat Ragsdale, Graham's father, wanted some answers. After the tour, he watched his son suffer through an unthinkable depression, and he wanted to know why. For months, he wrote letter after letter to government officials, from the Prime Minister to high-ranking generals. "I wasn't happy with the treatment they got in Afghanistan or the treatment they got subsequent to Afghanistan," he told one reporter.

In September 2004, Pat Ragsdale finally received a response. Gen. Ray Henault, then the chief of the defence staff, personally asked the ombudsman to launch his own investigation. Unlike the NIS version, this one would focus not on fingers and signs, but on whether the military mistreated its snipers. In other words, did these men - lauded as heroes by the Americans but treated as criminals in Canada - deserve better?

Amid news of the investigation, another strange development: on websites across the Internet, military buffs and bloggers began to identify Perry as the Canadian sniper who killed another man from 2,430 m. The origin of the error is unclear, although it seems that a few well-intentioned supporters simply made a wrong assumption. Others followed, bolstering his legend with each new chat room posting. "I hope the record stands forever," one American wrote.

It was only a matter of time before some in the mainstream media started to repeat the mistake, crediting Arron Perry with the longest-ever combat kill. Because the real shooter - Rob Furlong - chose to remain anonymous, the error was never corrected.

Rob Furlong still wears a uniform to work, but not the green army fatigues he slid on every morning for seven years. He is a police officer now, a beat cop with a side arm. He loves the new job, but not quite enough to make him forget about his time in the army. Some days, he even thinks about re-enlisting.

He never does, though. Instead, Furlong - Bronze Star winner and Canadian war hero - lives a life of relative anonymity. Even when his world record somehow became Perry's property, he chose to keep his mouth shut. "It's quiet professionalism," he says, his Newfoundland accent still thick after a decade in Alberta. "That's what we've always been taught."

Only now, more than four years after Anaconda, has Furlong finally agreed to show his face and tell his story. He did not go searching for the spotlight. Maclean's found him, not the other way around. "Me coming here today was not to seek credit for anything, and I want that to be known," he says, sitting in a small Edmonton hotel room. "Do I care? No, I really don't. Do I need to set the record straight by saying that I was the one who pulled the trigger when that shot was made? No, I don't."

What he does say is typical Rob Furlong. The entire sniper cell - not him - should have been credited with the record. No names. No fame. "It's not going to make a difference if Ragsdale did it or Perry did it or I did it or McMeekin did it or Eason did it," he says. "It doesn't matter who did it. That guy was taken out and he didn't have an opportunity to kill anybody else, and that was it."

If Furlong holds any grudge, it is against the NIS, not Arron Perry. For months, he watched his once-proud unit crumble to pieces - all because of allegations that, in the end, were never proven. Along the way, one of his closest friends, Ragsdale, plummeted into such a state of despondency that the army no longer wanted him around.

"They kicked him to the curb," he says of his one-time pal. "The way the military is - and I've seen it for the seven years I was there - they don't care what you bring to the table or how much talent you have or whatever. They'll just get someone else to replace you."

Arron Perry keeps his military files neatly organized in a light grey binder. Everything is in there. His Mention in Dispatches. Newspaper articles. Even the discipline reports, like the one outlining his "attitude problem" over the years. "I sometimes walked that line of insubordination," he admits, flipping through the pages. "I'm not perfect."

Nobody is. But in the sniping universe, Perry is as close as it comes. He is a household name, the standard by which all sharpshooters are now measured. Punch his name into Google and you will still uncover dozens of hits praising "his" kill from 2,430 m. "I don't want to talk about all that stuff," Perry says now, nodding his head from side to side. "It got so mixed up, the less said about that the better."

Looking at him, it is easy to think the worst, that he purposely lied in a desperate attempt to be something he isn't. Maybe he needed a silver lining, something positive to latch onto amid all the bad publicity. Or maybe he just liked the attention.

None of that is true, Perry insists. He never tried to mislead anyone. He never tried to hog the credit. Somebody on the Internet simply got his facts mixed up, and a few others followed suit. "They totally got it wrong," he says. "Rob's the one that made this great shot, and I wish people would understand."

Arron Perry is a fidgety man, a fast talker whose sentences spill out so rapidly at times that he is difficult to understand. Yet he chooses his words carefully, convinced that the NIS is still after him. "They would love to see me do something bad," he says. "They would love to see me hang myself."

After investigators stopped digging, Perry stayed in the military. But the scrutiny didn't stop. His chain of command launched an internal board of inquiry into his character. Behind closed doors, witness after witness took the stand to testify. Perry was called a bully. Disrespectful. Uncontrollable. "They put a drop of water on your forehead constantly until you snap," he says.

He hit that breaking point in April 2005, opting, at 33, to retire from the service. Since then, he has started his own nightclub (it didn't last), looked for mercenary work overseas (nothing yet), and trained to be a pipefitter. That's what he is doing now, working shifts in Edmonton and pocketing decent money. Because he lasted 12 years in the army, he also collects a half-pension.

But what happened to him in Afghanistan and in the years after continues to define his life. "There is no one I trust 100 per cent," he says. "I'm going to be very upset for the rest of my life, for sure. There is no other way around it. So if that's what they were looking for, then they won."

Perry insists, as he always has, that he did nothing wrong on that mountain. The entire thing, he explains, was a case of battlefield humour gone horribly wrong. The way he remembers it, he tossed another soldier a Tootsie Roll sealed in a Ziploc baggie, joking that it was a severed finger from one of the bodies lying around. Another soldier who overheard the conversation misinterpreted the joke, Perry says. And the rest is history.

As for the cigarette and the "Fuck Terrorism" sign, Perry says hundreds of people - officers included - walked by that corpse, but nobody felt the need to do anything about it. "I know for a fact that I didn't do it," he says of the sign. "And to the best of my knowledge, no one from the Canadian sniper detachment did it."

By now, Perry has pleaded his case so many times to so many people that it's hard to picture him talking about anything else. When asked about the ombudsman's upcoming report, he says he is anxious to read the findings, but not overly anxious. It might bring vindication. It might not. Either way, it won't change what already happened. "I'm out of the military now," he says. "A little too late."

Pat Ragsdale has waited 18 months for the ombudsman to finish his job. He has remained patient the entire time, well aware that answers are not always easy to find. He is so committed to the process, so careful not to jeopardize the results, that he would rather wait until it is all over before offering his opinion. "If I'm not satisfied with the outcome of their report, then who knows what might happen," he says. "But in all fairness, I've got to give them the opportunity to investigate it properly and come up with their results."

In the meantime, he remains fiercely protective of his son, declining, on Graham's behalf, repeated requests for an interview. "The results of what happened to these guys has not been told to the Canadian public," is as much as he will say. (Tim McMeekin and Dennis Eason, both of whom still serve in the army, also declined to be interviewed in person for this article.)

Whatever the ombudsman concludes, it is sure to spark a wave of unwanted negative publicity for a military that is focused on its current mission in Afghanistan - not the one that happened four years ago. It is a safe bet that officials will try to counter any potential criticism by insisting that things have changed, that important lessons have been learned since those snipers boarded the choppers for Operation Anaconda.

Indeed, much has changed. Four years later, the Canadian public has grown increasingly desensitized to flag-draped coffins and military funerals. With 2,300 troops now back in Kandahar, newspapers are filled with almost daily accounts of violent gun battles and enemy body counts. Not so in 2002. Of all the Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, the snipers were the only ones to actually kill rival fighters - a reality that the military seemed anxious to sugar-coat. Speaking to the press, commanders praised the snipers for saving allied lives, not shooting people in the face.

Perhaps Ragsdale and his men would have been better suited to today's deployment, where political correctness is not the overriding order of the day. Perhaps the ombudsman will say exactly that when he finally unveils his findings in the coming weeks. His report is nearly complete, but Gordon O'Connor, the defence minister, will have a chance to review the results before the public gets a glimpse.

For his part, Mark Giles, the NIS spokesman, says he is confident that the military's police force acted professionally during its investigation. There was no "vendetta" against any particular soldier, he says, and no "predetermined agenda." Every interrogation was done in the name of discovering the truth, not harassment. "Police, whether they be military or civilian police, have a tough job," he says. "So where you draw that line between what is thorough and exhaustive in an investigation and what is over the top, it's obviously fairly subjective from different people's viewpoints."

Among the American troops who served with the snipers, the viewpoint is unanimous. "These are the type of people that I would want to put up on a pedestal and say: 'This is the very best that we have to offer,' " Justin Overbaugh says. "I am not big on apologies, but if they are owed an apology, I hope that they get one. I am quite certain that is all they want."

Staff Sgt. Corey Daniel, who marched through the mountains with Perry and Ragsdale, says they deserve much more than that. "A guy goes out and puts his life on the line, and then what happens? He comes home and he's not really recognized for what he did. That's a rough pill to swallow."

Maclean's May 15, 2006