After joining the Royal Marines aged just 16, Aldo Kane passed through the gruelling Commando Sniper Training Course and served in Iraq in Operation Telic, as part of a Reconnaissance Troop, fighting behind enemy lines. What he learnt during his training and in combat would change him, and lead to a life of adventure beyond the battlefield. Most of us are unlikely to find ourselves setting up Claymore mines and camouflaging our sniper position, but Kane says there are lessons we can all learn from his experiences…
RISING Why is being a Royal Marines Commando Sniper such a special skill?
AK ‘It’s not just about shooting. It’s about operating on your own. It’s about stalking, map reading and all these other fieldcraft skills. It basically takes them all and wraps them up into what the pinnacle of being a soldier is: to be able to move across open ground without being seen.’
RISING Sounds ninja – what was the toughest part of the Royal Marines Commando Sniper training?
AK ‘The Stalk during the Badge Test Week where every single assessment is pass or fail. Four observers are sat with binoculars here and you get dropped off 3-4 kilometres away in a place where they know you are. You have to make your way over open ground to within 300 metres of them and take a shot using blank ammunition. Any movement, any sign, any birds flying up or cows moving can give you away. If you then take the shot and they can't see you, they ask a following observer on the radio to come and stand within ten metres of you, and they’ll check again. If they can't see you they’ll ask you to take a second shot. If they see you taking the shot it’s a fail. If they can’t see you they’ll get the observer walk within five metres of you. If they spot you, that’s a fail. He’ll then move to within one metre and put his hand out and say, “Down, down, down, down, down; hand on sniper's head.” If they see you then, that’s a fail. He will get up and move away and then the sniper will have to extricate from there without being seen.’
RISING That sounds about as tense as slack-lining over a volcano – was your success partly down to luck?
AK ‘No, they train you a lot. It’s always about putting cover, lots of cover, between you and them, but it’s a double-edged sword because you also need to be able to shoot clearly, so you need gaps. It’s all about using shadow and light, using nature and so it’s a bit of both. That’s why they call it a dark art. You know you can train as much as you can, and then the rest of it is… instinct.’
‘Being a sniper does very much teach you about being present and about being mindful’
RISING It seems you have to be 100% ‘in the moment’ for that. Do you think you unconsciously tapped into the current trend for ‘mindfulness’ even back then?
AK ‘Well, as a Commando sniper you have to be more aware of your surroundings than anyone else has ever been. If you’re changing from hedgerow to field and you haven’t changed the camouflage and made it exactly the way it is in nature – or you've turned a leaf upside down and it has a slightly different coloured underside – as a trained observer 300 metres away, I can see that. So you have to be super-aware of your surroundings and camouflage, and the bigger picture too. Probably out of all the stuff that I learned in the Marines – you know a lot of it’s just a hard slog and you bang your head off a brick wall physically and mentally. But with being a sniper it very much does teach you about being present and about being mindful, which I wasn’t really aware of until very recently, and since I did the trans-Atlantic row. So yeah, you have to be super-present and very much in the moment.’
RISING You fought in Iraq during Operation Telic – what was the biggest challenge in doing your job?
AK ‘The most challenging part of being a sniper is that you’re working with two-man teams so there's a lot more self-induced pressure on you. You know you don’t have that back up because you can be one, two kilometres behind enemy lines or off to a flank somewhere, so you have to be very efficient, confident that you’re doing the right thing and you’re working together. It’s very disconcerting when you know you’re two kilometres away and you’re on your own. You’ve got your Claymore Mine set out, and you’ve got your ammunition and you’ve got your automatic rifle there, but the bottom line is there are only two of you.’
RISING But modern armies are so well connected – can’t your comrades help you out?
AK ‘Well it could, in theory, be a long time before the rest of your lads can get to you. And then there’s also the other side: has your information been passed on to everyone? Do people know where you are; friendly forces, because it’s just as easy for them to stumble across you as it is the enemy.’
RISING So, things must have got sticky in Iraq – did combat have any after-effects?
AK ‘You know when you go to war you get bombed. We’ve been mortar bombed, ambushed and you’re doing active, you know, shooting [targeting enemy soldiers]. You’re doing the job that you trained for. So I guess it has an effect, mentally on you and it probably took me quite a few years afterwards to realise what an effect it did have on me. In lots of ways and sort of mental – not mental health – but in how it’s changed you and then become… Yeah, your mindset, and your appetite for risk, whether it’s decreased or increased.’
‘In absolute shitholes, in horrible situations you just have to smile and get on with it’
RISING Do you mean you found yourself chasing risk and danger afterwards?
AK ‘Not initially. I left and went offshore to work on oil rigs and did that for three years and that was the safest job, even though the perceived risk of working on an oil rig is: it’s risky. It’s actually one of the safest jobs you can do. You do round about three hours of work a day and the rest of it’s safety meetings and eating pies and doughnuts! I kind of went away from risk and danger. But it wasn’t long coming back. I always felt unfulfilled and then you do end up going into chasing that sort of work. So for the last six years or seven years what I’ve been doing is going to remote, extreme, hostile environments with film crews, and on my own. I think in the last year I’ve done 26 countries…’
RISING Is there anything you took from the Commandos that you use in everyday life, that we could learn from?
AK ‘The one thing that I use everyday is The Commando Spirit: Courage, Determination, Unselfishness and Cheerfulness In Adversity. That’s drilled into you as a soft skill in the Royal Marines, and I pretty much use it on a daily basis – being mindful. But I never thought about it until I started writing talks to give to kids. The more I thought about it, the more it’s in every part of the jobs that I do out of the country now, relying on what I was taught when I was 16. I don’t think I could do the jobs that I do now without those soft skills drilled into me. Take Cheerfulness In Adversity: there are so many pictures of me round the world in absolute shitholes, in horrible situations where you just have to smile and get on with it. The Commando Spirit is probably the most important thing I take away from the Royal Marines over everything else.’
WHAT NEXT? Want to hear more about Kane’s other career as a behind-the-scenes expedition leader and stunt rigger on Hollywood and BBC productions? Oh, and how about the time he set a world record for rowing across the Atlantic from Europe to South America? We did, so we asked him – read it here…