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Quest for perfection: Airman strives for flawless execution

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

It’s a sport in which a fraction of an inch could mean the difference between a first place finish or dropping 30 spots. Competitive rifle shooting requires patience, accuracy and control. Lt. Col. Mark Gould started the sport more than 23 years ago and he has been pulling the trigger ever since.

Gould, a foreign liaison officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Office of Partner Engagement at the Pentagon, picked up the art of competitive rifle shooting while he was stationed at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, as a cruise missile technician in the early ‘90s.

“(I) went to the base library on a whim, just to look around, and ended up in a section (where) there was a book called ‘Position Rifle Shooting,’” Gould said. “It talked about concentration, being steady, being patient – a lot of the things I was good at -- as a sport. When you look at the world of sports, things I was not good at – I was not fast, not coordinated, not any of that stuff you need for your standard, what I’d call American sports.”

Growing up, he didn’t do much shooting. He wasn’t into hunting, but would join his father on trips to camp and occasionally shot a .22-caliber pistol or a shotgun. One year, Gould and his father built a muzzleloader.

The sport intrigued Gould so much that he found a local rifle club, and the community there is one of the primary reasons he took up the sport and still participates.

“This guy just met me, an Airman from the local base, and he brings his $2,000 rifle with an $800 scope on it -- and this was 1991 -- (and he also gave me) ammunition, which was about $7 a box at the time, (and said), ‘Here shoot this, see if you like it,’” Gould said about the first time he went to the club.

He doesn’t believe anybody could find another sport where somebody would offer up the best equipment – not to mention their personal equipment – and say, “Have a good time.”

This would be the first time the Lowell, Arkansas, native would really invest his time into honing his marksmanship skills.

After spending some time at the range, Gould would go on to buy his own air gun and equipment; and after spending all day fixing missiles on Minot AFB, he’d spend his evenings at the club’s range. He practiced three-position, which included shooting standing, kneeling and prone.

As his skills progressed, Gould said he began to participate in postal matches: a process in which an organization would mail out targets and participants would shoot them and mail them back in to be scored. After a couple years of getting comfortable, he went on to shoot in his first live competition in Marshall, Missouri.

He recalled doing OK, but didn’t really start getting good at his craft and competing at national-level events until 2006. At that point, he would decide to master and compete in the prone position.

“By nature I’m very meticulous, tedious ... I shoot very slowly (because) the name of the game (is) to try and do everything the same way every time, conditions aside, (and) I think it appeals to my meticulous nature,” Gould said. “(I) call it relentless pursuit of perfection.”

This philosophy has helped Gould set numerous Air Force and National Rifle Association records, with his most recent national record set at the Dave Cramer Memorial Smallbore Regional Prone Metric NRA Regional Tournament in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, June 27.

Perhaps one of the most amazing things about Gould’s success is that it comes with limited practice. With the help of a computer-based program, Gould shoots indoors at his house about twice a week, or whenever he can find time to practice. The program uses an infrared laser to track his shots, as well as monitor his rifle movement and breathing pattern leading up to the shot. This way he knows if he has to control his breathing or re-situate his setup.

He also tries to get out to the range at least once a week, as he said nothing can replace live fire.

Gould has been a member of the Air Force International Rifle Team for 17 years and captained the team for more than a decade. In late 2013, he handed over the reins to Special Agent Robert Davis, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Det. 212 commander.

“I continue to rely on Lieutenant Colonel Gould for advice on running the team … especially with administrative issues,” Davis stated. “He's helped ease me into this position and I've learned to follow his practices for organizing our team schedule, recruiting and making match arrangements.

“As far as shooting, I'm constantly amazed by how good of shooter he is with as little time as he has to practice, due to primary duty and family commitments,” Davis continued. “If he could train full time, I'm confident he would make the U.S. Olympic team.”

The Olympics is something Gould has come close to during his 17 years on the team. He made the finals for the 2004 trials, but failed to make the finals for the 2008 Games; however, he placed 14th in the country that year. He was attending the Air Force Air Command and Staff College during the 2012 Games and hasn’t had time to try out for next year’s games in Rio de Janeiro because he is planning for an upcoming permanent change of station and has a demanding job. The opportunity to make the team hasn’t fallen off his radar, as he said that he’ll continue to train and compete in hopes of representing the U.S. in the 2020 Games.

Gould considered one of his other major accomplishments to be participating in the International Shooting Sport Federation World Championships in Granada, Spain, in September 2014. There, he competed in the 300m standard rifle and 300m free rifle events, where he not only represented the Air Force but also the U.S.

“I was there for the experience,” he said. “I knew going in that I was not going to win a medal. It just isn’t going to happen. It wasn’t realistic (and) I try to be realistic about things.”

The reason for his doubtful outlook was because Gould wouldn’t be shooting just in the prone position. He was notified several weeks earlier of the event and that it would be three-position, something he hadn’t practiced for quite some time. He accepted the bid and went on to practice daily in the weeks leading up to the event. He would go on to place 38th out of about 2,000 participants from 92 countries.

Gould said he’ll set his sights on his long-term shooting goal, which is to go back to the world championships in 2018. He said that the experience alone is one of his best memories, and success is something he would like his fellow team members to experience.

According to Davis, Gould cares about his team and wants to see them succeed, something that’s noticeable through his interactions.

“He is very disarming with his personality,” Davis said. “He manages to integrate himself into conversations with people from all walks of life. I think this allows him to gain a wealth of knowledge on shooting and also opens a lot of doors for the team.

“He praises good performances and shares his experiences and knowledge of the sport to help other shooters on the team,” Davis continued.

Something Gould tries to pass on to his teammates is the mind set they must instill in themselves in order to fire accurately and be successful.

“Once you get to where you can shoot a 10, you should be able to do (it), no problem,” Gould said. “But your brain gets in the way, you start over thinking it and you start doubting yourself and that’s the worst.”

Unlike other sports where athletes might amp themselves up before a game or match, it’s completely different for shooting, Gould said.

Where having a calm, cool attitude before shooting is one of several keys to success.

“I strive to execute as well as I can,” Gould said. “The shots are gonna go where the shots are gonna go.”