Richmond’s mission was to join six other instructors and three interpreters near Kabul, training top-of-the-line Afghan soldiers so they could, in turn, train their own men. The initial encounters were awkward, somewhat standoffish. But over days and weeks, the two sides began communicating better, Richmond said. They would train all morning, then sit in the dirt at lunchtime, sharing meals, as important an indication that the Americans had broken through, culturally, as there is.
Richmond worked with roughly 300 men during his stay. When the training began, the Afghans had a 22 percent pass/fail rate. When Richmond and his group left, it was up to 96 percent.
“Marksmanship is a paramount soldier’s skill,” Hodne said. “And marksmanship is the key to an army’s combat readiness.”
Richmond believed the work was important, even essential. The mission, though, wasn’t without its tense moments. Explosions would come from what seemed like the distance, but who or what was affected wouldn’t be known until the next day’s news. Rides to and from training grounds were often in silence. Soldiers, even those on the fringes of combat, are always aware.
“You can’t really grasp it till you’re on the ground smelling it, breathing it, eating it,” Richmond said.
So he smelled it, breathed it, ate it. When he returned to the U.S., by his own account, he had changed. There is no direct line to be drawn between serving his country during a war and representing it well in athletics. But he believes he is more suited to winning gold now than before he left.
“Just the mental stability knowing — and the confidence going forward — that, ‘Hey, I deployed to a combat zone; I successfully made it home, and I achieved my mission over there,’” he said. “To have that confidence behind you, it turns you almost into a different person — in a very good way. If you’ve deployed to a combat zone, there’s not a whole lot more out there.”
Since returning from his deployment, Richmond has competed in two World Cup events. He won both, including his most recent, in May in Lonato, Italy, against a field every bit as strong as that he’ll face in London.
“That kind of put away any indecision or fears that he wouldn’t be ready,” Erickson said.
He will be, he believes, even better prepared. When he thinks about those few moments of stepping onto the podium, of hearing the “Star-Spangled Banner” played, he pauses. The tears come quickly. He isn’t just an Olympian.
“How much more patriotic can you get?” Richmond said. “An Olympian wearing the red, white and blue, and oh by the way, he’s an active duty soldier.”