Soldier of the Year: USAMU shooter reflects on "Best" win
February 23, 2011
One thing is clear when you meet Sgt. Sherri Jo Gallagher: She isn't letting success go to her head.
The 26-year-old, Fort Benning, Ga.-based Soldier is used to the limelight. As an instructor and shooter with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, Gallagher holds 21 national rifle-shooting records, and was the first military shooter in more than two decades to win the National High-Power Rifle Championships at Camp Perry, Ohio.
Being named the Soldier of the Year in October 2010 rounded out an amazing year, said the Prescott, Ariz., native, who enlisted in 2008.
"She enjoys the competitions but doesn't want the accolades," said her mother, Nancy Tompkins, who lives in Prescott with Gallagher's stepfather Middleton "Mid" Tompkins. "She's very down to earth and loves challenges. I taught (Sherri and her sister) when they were little not to get a big head."
Gallagher and her older sister, Michelle, learned to shoot at a young age. Their mother was a national rifle champion-and the first female winner of the National High-Power Championships. Michelle is a four-time national shooting champion. Mid has won the National Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio, six times and is a world shooting F-class champion.
"I remember my mom laying in position with a .22-caliber rifle and she'd let me pull the trigger for her. That is one of my first memories of shooting," Gallagher said.
At the age of seven, Gallagher competed in her first small-bore rifle match. Three years later she was competing in high-powered matches against competitors that included the USAMU.
"Before, during Nationals, it was always my Family shooting against the USAMU. Now, I'm with the USAMU and we shoot against my Family. They take it well," she joked.
Gallagher's father, Joe Gallagher, said his daughters have a low-key sibling rivalry.
"They want each other to do well and yet both of them want to win. Michelle was doing better than Sherri for the longest time and I told her, at some point, Sherri would catch up," Joe said.
In 2002, Gallagher won the world championships in England.
"If there was an Olympic sport for what we do, that would be it," she said, adding that competing from an early age taught her maturity and how to accomplish goals she set for herself.
"She's a very driven person," her mother explained. "I couldn't be prouder of her, whether she won or not."
Lieutenant Col. Dan Hodne, commander of the USAMU, said Gallagher's impact on the unit could be measured by her accomplishments.
"Sergeant Gallagher is one of a kind. There's no one in the Army that has the skill that she does in high-power rifle competition," he said. "She competed for the Army's best Soldier title...and she prepared for that at the same time she was showcasing the Army. She trained hundreds of Soldiers throughout the force on the service rifle. She's raised the marksmanship proficiency of the unit."
Gallagher said the keys to her success at the Best Warrior Competition were the support she received from the USAMU and other Fort Benning units, and the mentorship from her sponsors and fellow instructor-shooters, Staff Sgt. Walter Craig and Sgt. 1st Class David Steinbach. Craig helped her train early on as she prepared for unit-, brigade- and command-level Soldier competitions. Craig was tapped to deploy shortly after she was named Training and Doctrine Command's Soldier of the Year. Steinbach, an Army Ranger and fellow team member, stepped up to help Gallagher prepare for the Army-level competition.
"We had 10 weeks to train and it was a pretty intense calendar," he said. "She and I sat down at the (National High-Power) competition and identified the tasks she'd be tested on...and developed a nine-week program culminating with a situational training exercise," Steinbach said. "It was intense. We came in at 6 a.m. and left at 6 p.m. for nine solid weeks. I really wanted her to peak at the competition-physically and mentally-and not be on the downward slope.... When she won, I felt like a proud dad. You felt like you just watched one of your kids do something amazing."
The 192nd and 198th Infantry Brigades, the 75th Ranger Regiment and other units from across the post helped the pair prepare by offering range time, instruction in combat tasks and specialized training. At the USAMU, the 23-member service rifle team continued its training mission of providing marksmanship courses at all levels, from basic rifle marksmanship to sniper. "Where we missed her most was in instructing," said Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Ward, platoon sergeant for the service rifle team. The team stepped up so Gallagher would have the necessary time to train.
Gallagher spent hours each week reading field manuals cover to cover, then having her mother and sister quiz her.
"I read two field manuals a week for two months. It was very riveting...I drank copious amounts of caffeine," she recalled.
Gallagher's sponsor said the areas the two focused on the most were land navigation and combatives.
"In the last five weeks, we fought three to four times a week," said Steinbach of the sparring. "She needed to be prepared to fight guys who outweighed her by 60 pounds and were a foot taller. She was able to develop her own style."
Steinbach recruited Soldiers at the Combatives School to work with Gallagher. It all paid off during the double-elimination combatives matches when Gallagher didn't tap out-a first for women in the history of the competition.
"She didn't get choked out-it was quite a testament to her skill. She didn't lose, she just ran out of time," said Steinbach, who noted that the matches were timed events and her opponents won by points.
Gallagher also used her combatives skills to disarm opponents during other phases of the competition.
In one scenario, Gallagher had to locate a person with classified photos of U.S. personnel, retrieve the photos and detain the suspect.
"I tackled her and...ended up ripping her pants," Gallagher said. "I felt bad-she was really little and she was a nice lady. She'd worked with me the day before at the urban orienteering course. I recognized her the second I pinned her to the ground. She took it pretty well though."
At the Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting in Washington, Oct. 25, 2010, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston named Staff Sgt. Christopher McDougall and Gallagher the Army's NCO and Soldier of the Year, respectively.
"The Best Warrior Competition is designed to ensure any Soldier from any occupational specialty has a chance to compete and win," said Erika Wonn of the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs. "The tasks tested are all subjects Soldiers learn early in their careers and that is what makes this competition great. Any Soldier has a chance to win."
Following the win, Gallagher said she was ready to tackle new challenges. She graduated from Airborne School in mid-November and Fort Benning's Warrior Leader Course Dec. 17.
"I've learned a lot about the Army that will help me to be a better leader," said Gallagher.
As one of the best years in her young career comes to a close, the sergeant said she's looking forward to what 2011 will bring.
Is Air Assault School next on the horizon' Gallagher's laugh is noncommittal.
After training so hard for so long, the shooter said she's looking forward to some downtime to get back into her hobbies-riding horses, four-wheeling and helping out at a local veterinary clinic-which have been sidelined since April.
Gallagher was also preparing for a deployment.
In late 2009, the USAMU launched its first constant presence overseas since the Vietnam War. Six-person teams from the unit began rotations to Afghanistan as part of the NATO weapons fielding plan, to help the Afghan National Army transition from the AK-47 to the M16A2 rifle.
"We're training (Afghan) instructors so they can turn around and train their people. It takes (the need for our military) out of the focus so they can actually take care of themselves," Gallagher said.
Her father, Joe, said he's nervous but understands it's her duty.
"She's tough, somebody you'd want beside you," he said. "She's a very positive, aggressive woman."
Kristin Molinaro writes for the Fort Benning Public Affairs Office
About the Best Warrior Competition
The 2010 Best Warrior Competition, comprising the Army's NCO and Soldier of the Year competitions, was held at Fort Lee, Va., Oct. 17-22, 2010. Twenty-four Soldiers from across the Army were tested in their warrior tasks and battle drills, physical fitness and Army aptitude.
The competitors went before a selection board, composed of six senior sergeants major from across the Army. The board, chaired by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, evaluated competitors on their appearance, military bearing and knowledge of critical Army topics.
Winners were announced Oct. 25, 2010, at the Association of the United States Army annual meeting in Washington. Sgt. Sherri Jo Gallagher represented the Training and Doctrine Command at the Army competition.A-a,!A