“Prone position, rifle at the ready, rifle butt tight to shoulder, stock of the rifle just kissing your cheek at that sweet spot …Clear your eyes, focus, gently place the crosshairs on the target … there … just right. Now breathe in a nice, slow deep breath … Let the barrel float ever so slightly in a small circle around the kill zone. When the cross-hairs touch the kill zone where you want it, you squeeze off the trigger … soft and gentle.”
Then you fire, hitting the target dead center.
The two years Kugler spent as a sniper with the during the Vietnam War in the 1960s are still never far from his mind. The retired sergeant, who has lived on a mountainside south of Big Arm since 2000, has written several books about his war experiences, starting with “Dead Center” in 1999, in which he intimately shares his two-year odyssey as a sniper.
His latest book, “Firefights of the Mind: When the Demons of War Follow You Home,” was published in 2014. And he’s still writing, his laptop positioned so he has a panoramic view of Flathead Lake in an upstairs office brimming with war memorabilia, including his two Purple Hearts.
Kugler, 70, has given speeches around the country for years, part of his life’s journey to make sense out of war. He still shares his insight with sniper units.
In a split second, he recalls with vivid detail what it was like to be a sniper with the 4th . He had picked up bush skills while attached to 3rd Force Recon Company, then joined the “grunts.” Capitalizing on that experience he formed the renowned Rogues, a five-sniper team that carried out their missions in the Co-Bi Than Tan Valley in Vietnam.
“You have to detach yourself. In your mind you believe someone is your enemy. You justify it,” he said about the 71 confirmed and unconfirmed kills he carried out. A small notebook he carried in a plastic bag during the war shows the manual tally, an etching added after each kill.
“It took incredible patience,” Kugler recalled. “At the time we were just coping. You have to be able to turn your emotions off and on. I still struggle with that.”
Sharing his experiences has been therapeutic, to a point. In 2002 a reporter for The Telegraph flew from England to interview him about the psyche of a sniper. At the time a sniper was terrorizing the suburbs of Washington, D.C.and had killed 10, wounded three and missed just once during a violent killing spree.
“I didn’t have any feeling,” he told the reporter. “In fact, I worked at not having any feelings, and I paid for that for years afterwards. There was no remorse; there wasn’t anything.”
Kugler likened his first kill to scoring a touchdown. The control he felt was exhilarating, even intoxicating, he added.
It was not only his military mettle that led to Kugler’s sniper assignment, but also his upbringing in the small Ohio town of Lock Seventeen, on the Erie Canal. He thought his childhood was fairly normal in the quaint rural community where kids ice skated on the old canal to wile away the long winters.
A pivotal moment came in the fifth grade when he wrote a book report on “The Story of the U.S. .” Kugler wasn’t much of a reader, or a good student for that matter. He struggled with truancy, skipping 55 days during his junior year, though he squeaked through with a 1.9 grade-point average.
That story about the captivated Kugler and never left him. While the rest of his senior class headed to New York City for a class trip, he headed to boot camp on Parris Island.
He enlisted under the ‘ early entry program, which allowed him to enlist and still graduate from high school. He was just 17.
“They used to say people went into the Corps because they wanted to prove something. I wanted to prove something,” he said.
In hindsight, there were chinks in the armor of Kugler’s family life.
“I was raised with no religion in a dysfunctional home, although at the time I had no idea it was dysfunctional,” he recalled.
Kugler started drinking at 14, encouraged by a local beer joint where even kids could buy a quart of Carling Black Label for a quarter. He was a rebel who did what he wanted, when he wanted.
The Corps quickly took that notion out of him. Kugler was hauled off to a corrective custody platoon after disobeying an order early in his military service. He was supposed to go to a dental appointment, but there was a scheduling mix-up, so he returned to the barracks, laid down on his rack and thought he’d relax for a while. His plan was to quickly rejoin his group when he heard them singing upon their return.
The plan didn’t work.
“The DI (drill instructor) had been real plain with me about reporting to the PT field when I got finished,” Kugler wrote in “Dead Center.”
“There were three DIs in charge of our platoon, and unfortunately for me, none of them had been born yesterday.”
The drill instructor “literally drug me out of the rack, bodily. He was screaming ‘people like you get other people killed,'” Kugler recalled during an interview last week at his Big Arm home.
After being subjected to humiliation, intimidation and monotonous, relentless physical tasks, he and another guy made a plan to jump out of a truck on the count of three and disappear into the woods. Kugler jumped but his buddy didn’t, so he went AWOL by himself.
“I just flat ran away,” he said. “I hadn’t thought it out very well … I can attest firsthand that Parris Island is indeed an island and I hadn’t learned to swim.”
Kugler managed to elude his trackers for three days, drinking only swamp water and suffering scorpion bites before he was caught, handcuffed and taken to the MP barracks.
“I was sure I was headed straight for the brig,” he said. “I figured the next step was some sort of court martial.”
Then something unexpected happen that would steer Kugler’s life in a direction he never could have imagined.
The sergeant in charge of the corrective custody platoon doled out plenty of reprimand — mental and physical — before taking a softer tone with the errant Kugler.
“Do you know I am a Recon and I don’t go three days without eating,” the sergeant told him. “I don’t escape and evade like you did. … I’m going to give you a break. You do your time and then I want you to make me proud. And if you don’t you’ll regret the day you were born.”
It was the first time Kugler truly felt someone cared about him. And Kugler, known as “Kug,” would go the distance for him and the .
Getting wounded in Santo Domingo during the Dominican crisis in 1965 was Kugler’s first brush with the reality of war. Four in his company were killed and 36 were wounded, including him.
“That’s where I saw the first get killed. It was just like the movies,” he said, describing the raw street fighting. His partner had a wound so big “you could put your whole hand in it.”
Kugler went on light duty after he recovered from his injuries, and when guys started coming home from Vietnam he heard their stories and wanted in on the action.
“I gotta go do that,” he insisted. “I had my medical waivers lifted and volunteered to go.”
By that time Kugler was an alcoholic, but in Vietnam boozing was part of the culture. It helped soldiers endure the long, hot days and unthinkable terror.
When a couple of gunnery sergeants began organizing the first sniper units since World War II, Kugler volunteered for that, too. His marksmanship was keen enough. Out of about 900 , some 30 to 40 volunteered and they took 11 soldiers. Kugler was one of them.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he recollected. “I’d already seen combat, and I knew [being a sniper] would be better than charging machine guns. I would be part of a special group.”
Kugler recalls the Vietnam War in raw, unsettling language in “Dead Center,” a blow-by-blow of his time there.
“My team fired and dropped the first seven in their tracks,” he wrote about one ambush. “The four remaining bad guys took to the bush. They didn’t return a shot. I got one of them on the run and Z got another. Nine kills in one setting … what a beautiful day.”
The war had exacerbated Kugler’s drinking problem. Like many Vietnam veterans, he returned home to a world that somehow seemed foreign to him. He missed the adrenaline rush of life as a sniper. Taking a drink would send him back to Vietnam mentally, but in a good way. It exhilarated him.
It took him about five years to settle down after the war. He married Gloria, his wife of 48 years, who helped him sort out his feelings and led him to religion. Kugler was an atheist during the war, then an agnostic. Now he’s a devout Mormon.
Gloria also helped him quit drinking when he was 28, and he’s been sober ever since.
Kugler was wildly successful in his post-war career. Work as a truck driver and mechanic catapulted into executive jobs for PepsiCo. and Frito-Lay. His formula for getting ahead in the corporate world boiled down to this: He was good with people and he loved fixing things.
Kugler was the one who could get things done, the ultimate troubleshooter.
The last leg of his corporate career was a stint as vice president for worldwide logistics at Compaq before he’d had his fill of that lifestyle.
He wanted to write about his Vietnam experience, and got a fortuitous foot in the door of the publishing world when another author tapped him for a segment in a book about snipers. That led to Kugler publishing a short booklet called “A Dozen Things I Learned About Life as a Sniper in Vietnam.”
Several of Kugler’s books delve into the Vietnam War; others offer advice to people coping in Corporate America.
Kugler is still writing and doing some occasional speaking and consulting. He helped start the Lake County chapter of the American Congress of Truth for America, better known as ACT for America, a grassroots organization that in Montana has taken a stand against allowing unvetted refugees to settle here.
These days he’s a doting grandfather who treasures his family and loves spending time at home. But post-traumatic stress continues to gnaw, sometimes more than others.
“It took me until about four or five years ago to express” what he was really feeling, he said. One day he described it to his wife as bumblebees buzzing in his head. Bees have become a euphemism for his stress. When he struggles, she reminds him, “It’s the bees.” She’s always encouraged him to “use the good and leave the bad behind.”
So he does just that, buoyed by a loving wife and family, and a sign right above the couch that reminds him: “Find joy in your journey.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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