Haley Koko shouldered an AK-47 and aimed uncertainly at the human silhouette on a paper target 25 yards away.
Standing next to her, Lt. Col. Chris Robishaw, an active-duty Green Beret, leaned in to offer a word of advice about handling the Russian-designed assault rifle, raising his voice to be heard over the rapid explosions of heavy weaponry in the shooting gallery. Brass shell casings littered the floor, and an acrid whiff of gun smoke sneaked past the air filtration system.
Koko, a 21-year-old bartender, fired off a few rounds — blam! blam! — and then swung around to look at her group with a broad smile.
“That big gun was absolutely insane,” she said later.
Here at Shooters World, a Tampa-based temple of American gun culture, Koko and about 50 people took turns on a recent Saturday firing pistols, military assault weapons, an Uzi machine gun and a .50-caliber sniper rifle.
It was a charity event called Shooting With SOF, which stands for special operations forces. Organizers say they have raised $75,000 for military and veterans causes by allowing car dealers, insurance brokers, makeup artists and other ordinary folks to live out fantasies firing some of the world’s deadliest guns while being tutored by 20 current and former commandos — seasoned, seen-it-all veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and places they can’t talk about.
Scott Neil, 46, a former Green Beret who was awarded the Bronze Star, founded Shooting with SOF last year, hoping to tap into Americans’ reverence for elite military operators and love affair with guns. In places like Tampa, home to the headquarters of U.S. Special Operations Command, shooting ranges are as popular as bowling alleys.
Tampa businessman Tom Pepin, 60, who operates a beer distributorship, said he relished the chance to hang around some of the nation’s most accomplished warriors.
“There are a lot of good stories of bravery and valor here,” he said.
It was also an opportunity to experience the power of the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, a belt-fed machine gun used by the U.S. Army. Neil took Pepin and three of his employees into a different part of the complex, a seven-lane, 100-yard range, where they took turns firing off several rounds. Each man was hesitant at first, firing off short bursts while feeling the explosive kick. They squeezed out longer bursts as their confidence grew, reveling in the gun’s destructive power.
“So badass,” said Shad Dean, 39. “So badass.”
A big part of the draw for donors, who each paid $500, is the coaching from special operations soldiers, once-shadowy heroes whose public popularity has surged with recent films such as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Captain Phillips.”
The soldiers occasionally went for shock value. Explaining the differences among weapons, Neil noted with a smile that small-caliber bullets are less effective at close range because they don’t kill quickly enough. Heads nodded.
The soft-spoken Robishaw, 43, who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the events give him the opportunity to share his craft. His fellow Iraq veteran, retired Col. Bob Parsons, added, “It becomes a way to reconnect with your past.”
Neil, director of strategic development at the Green Beret Foundation, envisioned Shooting with SOF as a chance to do good while helping his special operations colleagues succeed after retirement. The proceeds go to nonprofit organizations that cater to special operations veterans, families of fallen soldiers and charities, such as Neil’s Green Beret Foundation and Support the Troops.
“People were always coming to us with ideas about a golf fundraiser or a fishing fundraiser,” Neil said. “I don’t know how to play golf, and I don’t fish. I do know how to shoot.”
Neil was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions leading an assault in Afghanistan in January 2002, a battle that involved close-quarters shooting and hand-to-hand combat, he said. He later saw combat in Iraq and Africa.
Many of those paying for the chance to fire weapons have a connection to the military. Koko’s father, John Koko, is a former Army Ranger who retired after getting wounded in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and became an insurance executive.
Koko said he gave up shooting when he left the Army in 1991, and he never let his five children take it up. The recipient of a Bronze Star for an engagement he said he couldn’t discuss, and a veteran of clandestine campaigns in Central America in the 1980s, he had never talked much with his children about his military career.
“I’m still putting lead on target — it’s muscle memory,” he said with a laugh. “I have middle-aged eyes and I’m a little heavier, but put me in, coach.”
Four of the charity’s six fundraisers have been held at Shooters World. When the shooting stopped, the group gathered to drink beer, eat catered food and listen to war stories next door in Rob Elder’s Jaguar dealership showroom. A 2001 Harley Davidson Road King motorcycle was raffled off, yielding $11,380 for a group that trains guide dogs for blinded veterans.
Elder, 42, chatted with Mark Nutsch, a retired Army captain who led one of the first special forces teams into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — a group whose members famously rode into battle on horseback.
“We talked a lot about the weapons we had just fired. But I also got to know him as a person — a guy with a family,” Elder said. “You don’t realize the sacrifices these people make for us.”