CAMP BULLIS, Texas (Oct. 26, 2017) -- Above the din of seemingly nonstop gunfire and combat boots running across a dusty shooting range -- pierced by the pings of bullets striking steel targets and the ricochets of errant slugs making dirt fly -- one voice could be heard: "Alright, now that you've got that practice, you're about to go against me, and if you lose, you have to do pushups," boomed the most successful rapid-fire pistol competitor in U.S. history.
Sgt. 1st Class Keith Sanderson closed out his 25-year military career with two of his favorite duties: instructing fellow troops in marksmanship and competing for another Team USA spot in the International Shooting Sport Federation World Championships.
Sanderson, 42, a three-time Olympic marksman in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, led Soldiers through two days of a stress shoot event at the 2017 BOSS Strong Championship at Camp Bullis, Texas. Between those sessions, he traveled to Fort Benning, Georgia, and won the 25-meter rapid fire pistol event at the 2017 U.S. Rifle/Pistol Fall Selection Matches.
Sanderson was so determined to get back to Texas in time for his last instructional event as a Soldier that he accumulated an insurmountable 15-point lead in two days of Fall Selection Match qualification shooting at Fort Benning, enabling him to bypass the final round of competition and return to the BOSS Strong Championship.
"I knew going in [to Fort Benning] I had to miss the [Fall Selection Match] final to catch my flight [back to San Antonio]," said Sanderson, who delivered with a win-win for the Army.
As a founding Soldier of the Total Soldier Enhancement Program, or TSET, Sanderson was eager to provide his version of the program to Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers troops at Camp Bullis.
Developed by Soldier-athletes in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, TSET is an elite level, Soldier-led training specifically designed to increase performance enhancement and resiliency. The program increases readiness and resilience of Army units through facilitated, team-based training events that expose Soldiers to mental skills training that sets conditions for more consistent and high levels of performance.
"In Total Soldier Enhancement Training, we're taking skills that we as WCAP athletes and Army Olympians learn in international competition against the very best in the world to our troops to make our Army better," Sanderson said. "Bits and pieces of every one of our sports is combat relevant. That's what TSET is all about."
Sanderson explained the format of the stress shoot event to BOSS Strong Championship coaches and team captains, who planned how to assault the mission at hand: shoot several targets with a handgun on a relay run on a shooting range as quickly as possible.
"It teaches them how to get up from a prone position, which is a combat-relevant thing, and sprint, grab a pistol, then sprint again, then grab a magazine, load that pistol, then they have to slow down when they are engaging targets, which was hard for some of them to do," Sanderson said. "If you're assaulting an objective, you need to get there quick, but when it's time to shoot, you need to know when you need to slow down, and then when you need to go fast. That's really hard to do, but it's an incredibly vital skillset in combat."
Each team in the BOSS Strong Championship had two videographers shadowing them throughout the competition to gather footage for a series of shows Army Entertainment is producing for broadcast in early 2018.
"It was good to have the cameras around because that added to the pressure of all the shooters -- everyone watching them and everyone relying on them as teammates because everyone's independent time counts. When you hear the steel [targets getting hit and knocked down] and you hear that the team next to you is going faster than you, it brings up those distractions."
The Soldiers' reactions to those distractions factored into their success rate, Sanderson said, just as it would in combat.
"Having the intestinal fortitude of 'I don't care what it takes, I'm going to get this done,' is an incredibly important skill for a Soldier to have," Sanderson said. "This would help a squad leader or a platoon sergeant identify Soldiers who need help with that combat mindset piece.
"How you handle distractions in peacetime is very similar to how you handle distractions in wartime. … Although not quite as extreme, it's the way you handle both of those distractions, which is focusing back on the fundamentals, staying in the moment, thinking of what you have to do to get this done. That's how you succeed in this event and that's how you succeed in combat. We were testing and taxing several different aspects that are used in combat by Soldiers."
The troops' ingenuity and willingness to learn from their peers during the stress shoot exemplified the goals of Total Soldier Enhancement Training.
"Everyone did it a little bit differently, which I liked," Sanderson said. "I don't think anyone did it perfectly because they didn't crack the code, but now I feel confident that every single one of these Soldiers, in combat, would be able to run, grab a pistol off the ground, grab a magazine, load it under pressure, and be able to engage and shoot bad guys."
Earlier in the BOSS Strong Championship, the Soldiers participated in a more physical-fitness oriented version of TSET at the Fort Sam Houston Theatre, which included kicking, punching, running, lifting, pushing and pulling on functional fitness tools, anchored by the Alpha Warrior Battle Rig, to the sounds of upbeat music and roars of peer-to-peer inspiration.
"The BOSS Strong guys went through the traditional round-robin TSET hour-long thing and that's what was told to them: 'This is TSET.' And that is TSET," said Sanderson, who often communicates with the precision required to shoot perfect 10s. "But a Ford is a car and Ferrari is a car, but a Ford isn't a Ferrari. That was a piece of TSET.
"This thing out here, we didn't call this TSET. We called it a stress shoot. I called it training, or a lateral movement table of marksmanship. But this is under the umbrella of TSET, which is Soldier-athletes training Soldiers from lessons learned from international competition, and that's what TSET is all about."
WCAP distance running coach Lt. Col. Dan Browne, a three-time winner of the Army Ten-Miler who doubled in the marathon and 10,000 meters at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, participated in the stress shoot as a BOSS Strong Championship assistant coach. Browne and WCAP Strength and Conditioning Coach Maj. Jason Barber brainstormed with Sanderson about developing a run-shoot TSET event.
"We would teach Soldiers how to run and how to shoot, and then how to run and shoot together," Sanderson said. "There's no course like that in the entire U.S. military."
U.S. Army retirement time, however, came calling on Sanderson, who, despite all his accomplishments, wanted to do more.
"I'd like to think my time isn't done helping Soldiers and Marines, Sailors and Airmen," he said.
Sanderson then went full circle one more time, perhaps for retirement's sake.
"When I became a marksmanship instructor, I wanted to be proficient at what I taught," he recalled. "I always wanted to lead by example. So I ended up competing in division matches at the Marine Corps and at the next level, the Marine Corps Championships, and then the Inter-Service Championships, followed by multiple U.S. National Championships, which ultimately led to the Olympics.
"I started getting addicted to it. I was pretty good in America -- always in the top three -- but I knew they were competing elsewhere. I knew the Germans and the Russians and the Chinese were out there, and I wanted to beat them, too.
"I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a relatively small fish in the ocean," Sanderson said. "I've grown a little bit. I'm not the biggest fish in the ocean yet, but I'm up there -- usually among the top 10 in the world."
And in the end, Sanderson was out on a Camp Bullis range instructing young Soldiers and Marines.
"As an infantryman, I want to watch my corner and watch my lane, and my corner is marksmanship," Sanderson concluded. "I'm confident now that all of the [BOSS Strong Championship] Soldiers are going to be relatively combat effective with an M9. They aren't afraid of gunfire. They aren't afraid of reloading. They know how to run and grab a pistol and shoot a target. I'm confident that they're going to take that back to their units.
"The instruction piece of WCAP and TSET has always been very important to me. It is our moral responsibility to give back those lessons we've learned as athletes."
[Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles about the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program's Total Soldier Enhancement Training, or TSET.]