CAMP PENDLETON — Boyish-looking and Midwestern to the core, John Ethan Place loves football games in the fall and traipsing through the woods hunting quail and deer with his dad, a retired school administrator.
Back home in Lake St. Louis, Mo., he's a regular at the nearby Baptist church.
He's also an expert at one of the most difficult aspects of warfare. He's a sniper, able to kill an enemy at 1,000 yards or more with a single shot.
On Friday, the 22-year-old sergeant received the Silver Star, the military's third-highest honor for bravery in combat.
In the battle for Fallouja, Iraq, in April 2004, Place had 32 confirmed kills, from April 11 to April 24, of insurgents who were trying to sneak into position to attack Marines from Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment.
Many of the kills came after he maneuvered amid the rubble of the Sunni Triangle city and then waited for hours in a concealed position for just the right moment to pull the trigger. It's likely none of the 32 knew Place had them in his rifle sights.
Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division, said Place has earned a spot among the Marine Corps' top heroes, including the legendary sniper from Vietnam, Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock.
To the public, the sniper may be seen as a killer who strikes from ambush. But the troops of Echo Company are certain there are Marines who made it home alive solely because of Place.
"He didn't kill 32 people. He saved numerous lives by protecting our perimeter," said Sgt. Maj. William Skiles. "That's how the Marines look at it."
Natonski said the insurgents were so afraid of Place and other snipers that they pleaded with the U.S. to withdraw them while negotiations were underway. "It's hard to believe that one individual could have had such an impact on our combat operations," Natonski said.
The citation accompanying the Silver Star does not mention the figure 32, and the sniper mission is described in military-ese: "Place's keen observation skills ensured his supported rifle company maintained a lethal, long-range response to enemy attacks."
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Saville, the battalion chaplain, told Marines and civilians gathered for the award ceremony that although all life is precious "evil must be restrained sometimes by force."
The sniper school here, where Place was an honor student, has a motto taken from the Chinese: "Kill one man, terrorize a thousand." That's the role of the sniper: Keep the enemy off-balance, deny him the opportunity to rest and regroup, destroy his morale and will to continue fighting.
Looking slightly overwhelmed at the praise from Natonski and others, Place sought to deflect the compliments to his instructors at sniper school. "I just had the right training," he said.
At sniper school, Marines are put through a 10-week course in marksmanship, concealment and detection. The attrition rate is high.
Snipers and their spotters work as teams separated from the rest of the battalion. There is no time to ask for orders from higher authority before taking a shot.
"They're independent operators," Skiles said. "If they don't have the maturity, it's suicide for them. That's why the course has to be so severe: so that they can survive in combat."
During the assault on Baghdad in 2003, Place served as a radio operator.
Afterward he decided to attend sniper school. His mother, Lynn Place, an elementary school principal, said the Sunday school at the Baptist church in Wentzville, Mo., prayed for him to make the right decision.
During the Fallouja battle, she and her husband, Richard, heard only sporadically from their son. Even when he contacted the family, he offered few details.
"It's difficult," she said. "You send off your little boy and he comes back a man who has protected everyone."
Place is now a marksmanship instructor assigned to get Marines ready for sniper school.
Unlike other combat forces, snipers see their targets clearly through high-powered scopes and can study them before, during and after firing the fatal shot.
Place mentioned the names of Marines killed in Fallouja and said they were the true heroes.
And he said he would never forget the faces of the enemy he killed to protect his fellow Marines.
"You can make your peace with it," Place said.
"But you think about it every day."