Badlands near Grandfield serve as training ground

Thursday, December 29th 2005, 6:09 am
By: News On 6

GRANDFIELD, Okla. (AP) -- Welcome to the real badlands.

Located on 2,000 acres west of town, some true badlands await.

Dried grass gives way to red dirt washes and gulleys filled with rock and debris on 2,000 acres west of town.

A southern breeze momentarily rustles the tall grass. Then silence.

A "boom" explodes through the arroyos. The sniper's presence is announced. A target has been hit.

From his observation post, Steve Settles calls on the shooter, and other snipers-in-training, to show themselves. A stack of buffalo grass pops up, followed by another, and another until five trainees undergoing a 36-hour course in sniper skills are accounted for. As an instructor at Badlands Tactical Training Facility, Settles once was a stack of tall grass. He served as a sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps for a couple of tours in Vietnam.

Today, he is leading the students through the middle third of the training course.

"These skills might save someone's life," said Bobby Whittington, owner and operator of Badlands. Whittington is a retired soldier who served four months in the first Gulf War. He retired as a Lawton police officer in 2003 and serves as the Tillman County undersheriff.

A CLEET-certified instructor, Whittington was approached in 1999, while still in Lawton, to teach a novice to learn to shoot. While instructing his first class of eight students, they suggested to Whittington that he needed to open a school. So he opened the school later that year.

The school is actually made of two parts: a brick building downtown used to house the students and also some classroom and urban training, and the prairie west of town where everything from long-range shooting to small arms target practice is conducted.

"We stay busy from March through November," Whittington said, with 20 classes offered annually. All the instructors are CLEET or military certified, or both, he said.

"Our graduates have had to take shots in real life," Whittington said. Law officers from throughout Oklahoma, including several task forces and county deputies, have honed their skills at Badlands. SWAT snipers in Ardmore and in Tishomingo, former students, had situations a couple of years ago where their expertise paid off.

They studied at Badlands. In the introduction class, focus is on marksmanship during the four days of training. The first phase of advanced training includes land navigation, moving targets and angle shooting techniques. In the second phase, shooters learn to coordinate team movements and improve stalking skills.

One exercise is for the students to get within 200 yards of the target without being observed by the instructors, Whittington said. "Getting close to the objective is very important," he said. "Observation and intelligence collection are very essential in the field of law enforcement."

Accuracy isn't the sole determiner of a sniper's performance: concentration, discipline, confidence and patience must be honed to fire a single shot successfully under pressure. All the training and exercises contribute to a shooter being psychologically and physically prepared to neutralize a suspect, one of the most pressured situations found in law enforcement.

"I hope I never have to take that shot," said Mike Watson of Fort Smith, Ark. He is a reserve officer for Sebastian County, Ark., in his second round of training in Grandfield. Watson said it "gives me the confidence to know my abilities."

Steve Cox said the whole package of training at Badlands helps him with his law-enforcement role. He is the primary sniper on the Sebastian County SWAT team and also a deputy sheriff. This is his second session at the facility.

"I've used the training here in real-life situations and it has helped," he said. Whittington said the 36-hour advanced training pushes the students' endurance. Daylight and nighttime training is involved and when finished, he said, graduates are equipped mentally to deal with situations.

Military personnel have trained at Badlands, Whittington said.

"Some came on their own and others were sent here," he said. "We've had Army and Air Force snipers train here prior to going to Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. But not everyone who comes to Badlands is in the military or law enforcement fields.

"I use the knowledge gained here in hunting and in sniper competitions," said Dave Pyle, a property manager from Tulsa. "It makes me a better hunter."

Decked out in his camouflage, fellow Tulsan Ken Mason said he keeps learning helpful information each time he returns to Badlands.

A four-time student at the academy, Mason, a physician, finds the training helps him with his outdoor and survival skills as well as marksmanship and hunting. Also on his fourth visit to the facility, David Wilson, an information technology manager from Mount Joliet, Tenn., finds the skills learned as a form of martial arts. "It's a craft I study," he said. "It blends field craft, marksmanship, stealth and camouflage and communication skills," he said.