He grew up living on a military base. Marine Corps, as "a reader and a loner". Marine Corps at the age of 18, and shortly after he turned 20 he was deployed to Riyadh , Saudi Arabia , awaiting the start of the Persian Gulf War. He was uncomfortable with the notion that he was a hero, and deliberately missed the homecoming parade near his base. Marine Corps following the end of the war in the Gulf, Swofford at first found it difficult to adapt to civilian life, due to extreme combat-related PTSD. In his own words, it felt "strange to be in a place without having someone telling me to throw my gear in a truck and go somewhere".
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Claiming that he joined the military because he "got lost on the way to college", Swofford finds his time at Camp Pendleton difficult, and struggles to make friends.
While Swofford feigns illness to avoid his responsibilities, a "lifer", Staff Sergeant Sykes, takes note of his potential and orders Swofford to attend his Scout Sniper course.
Eager for combat, the Marines find themselves bored with remedial training, constant drills, and a routine monotony that feeds their boredom, and prompts them to talk about the unfaithful girlfriends and wives waiting for them at home. They even erect a bulletin board featuring photographs and brief notes telling what perfidies the women had committed.
Swofford obtains unauthorized alcohol and organizes an impromptu Christmas party, arranging for Fergus to cover his watch so he can celebrate.
Fergus accidentally sets fire to a tent while cooking some sausages and ignites a crate of flares, waking the whole camp and enraging Staff Sergeant Sykes, who demotes Swofford from lance corporal to private and puts him on "shit-burning" detail. Swofford learns from Sykes that Troy concealed his criminal record when enlisting and will be discharged when the unit returns home. Troy becomes distant from his friends. Knowing that Troy will not be allowed to reenlist, the Marines attack him with a red-hot USMC branding iron, marking him as one of their own.
Following an accidental air attack from friendly forces, the Marines advance through the desert, facing no enemies on the ground. The Marines march through the infamous " Highway of Death " on the northbound road leading back to Iraq from capital Kuwait City , strewn with the burnt vehicles and charred bodies of retreating Iraqi soldiers, the aftermath of a bombing campaign. The Marines later catch sight of distant burning Kuwaiti oil wells , ignited only moments before by retreating Iraqis, and they attempt to dig sleeping holes as a rain of crude oil falls from the sky.
Before they can finish, Sykes orders the squad to move upwind. Near the end of the war, Swofford and Troy are finally given a sniping mission. Lieutenant Colonel Kazinski, their battalion commander, orders them to kill at least one of two high-ranking Iraqi Republican Guard officers at a nearby airfield.
At the last second before Swofford takes the shot, Major Lincoln interrupts them to call in an air strike. Swofford and Troy protest, but are overruled and look on in disappointment as airplanes destroy the Iraqi airfield. The war ends without Swofford ever firing his rifle. During a monologue, Swofford realizes that all of his training and effort to achieve the elite status as a marine sniper is meaningless in modern warfare.
After returning home the Marines parade through a town in a jovial celebration of victory. Swofford returns home to his family and girlfriend but discovers she has a new boyfriend. Fowler is seen with a prostitute in a bar, now as a Lance Corporal, Kruger in a corporate boardroom, Escobar as a supermarket employee, Cortez as a father of three children, and Sykes continuing his service as a first sergeant in the Iraq War.
He attends his funeral, reunites with some of his old friends and afterwards reminisces about the effects of the war.