Correction: A previous version of this article had an incorrect first name for the commander of the U.S. Army Markmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Ga. The commander’s name is Lt. Col. Daniel Hodne.
Josh Richmond didn’t have to ride silently in a convoy, creeping along the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, with unknown explosions occasionally detonating in the distance. He did not have to be separated from his pregnant wife and their 2-year-old son. He did not have to subject himself to war. Someone else would have trained the Afghan natives. Someone else would have done his duty. Richmond could have stayed home.
Except for this: “I’ve got to do it,” he said. “It’s your patriotic duty.”
Richmond is a soldier, and Richmond is an Olympian. That is the order in his mind, and the order in which he wants others to consider him. This summer, he will represent the United States at the London Games, wielding his shotgun as a favorite for a gold medal in double trap shooting. But every day, Richmond represents the United States as a member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. It is in that capacity that last fall he flew to Kuwait and was bussed to Kabul for three months of training Afghan soldiers in the ins and outs of weaponry.
His identity, then, is clear: Staff Sgt. Joshua Richmond, U.S. Army.
“I’m a soldier who’s also an Olympian,” Richmond said. “I’m a soldier 24 hours a day. Being a good soldier is what’s also helped me become an Olympian. So everything’s kind of around the root of being a soldier, just by the way I’ve trained, the lessons I’ve learned, what it’s taught me.”
In Richmond’s mind, there is no end to what he has learned since he enlisted in the Army after finishing high school in his tiny home town of Hillsgrove, Pa. That was eight years ago. Now 26, he has spent anywhere from 180 to 200 nights a year on the road, touring with the marksmanship unit, conducting exhibitions in which he and others shoot from behind their heads, from their hips, from all sorts of angles.
They serve, he said, as a connection between “America’s people and America’s Army.” The unit is also responsible for research and development and training. In that capacity, Richmond has been allowed to compete for USA Shooting, just as Glenn Eller, another member of the marksmanship unit and Richmond’s daily training partner, did en route to winning gold in Beijing four years ago.
This is not, in any way, to suggest that Richmond is not a soldier. Because of his international success over the past two years — including winning the world championship in 2010 — he secured his spot on the Olympic team last summer. He then went to both his superiors in the army and his USA Shooting coaches with a plan: Deploy to Afghanistan that fall, abandoning stateside training for three months.
“It absolutely scared me to death,” said Bret Erickson, USA Shooting’s national shotgun coach, a four-time Olympian and former member of the marksmanship unit himself. “Of course, it’s a very safe deployment, and it’s important. But here’s a kid that is No. 1 in the world. He already made the Olympic team. We’re really counting on him to go over there and win us a medal. And it’s like, ‘Oh, crap. What’s going on now?’ ”
What was going on, it turns out, is a sort of cart-before-the-horse line of thinking. Rather than holding him back — while he was overseas, there was no formal way to train — Richmond believed his deployment would enhance his preparation.
“The unit’s accomplishments in raising the proficiency of Afghan soldiers, coalition soldiers and U.S. soldiers are a source of pride for the unit,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Hodne, who commands the group based at Fort Benning, Ga. “For Sgt. Richmond, I think he believed the broadening experience that he would gain would also be a personal source of pride that would also give him a competitive edge at the Olympics. . . . He is the epitome of a professional soldier.”
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.”