Sarasota native Bob Keller is a legend in the Special Operations community.
Editor’s Note: For this series, the Herald-Tribune agreed to withhold certain information that, if published, could endanger U.S. military forces deployed overseas.
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by Lee Williams
SARASOTA — Bob Keller is one of the most elite commandos this country has ever produced, and certainly one of the most experienced.
He’s been deployed to dozens of foreign countries, surviving more gunfights than he can count.
A Sarasota native, Keller began his military career in a Ranger Battalion, part of a storied regiment that’s considered the best light-infantry unit in the world.
He later joined the U.S. Army Special Forces, earning a coveted Green Beret.
But for the past 10 years, Keller has been a member of the Army’s most elite Special Operations unit.
Since 9/11, Army Special Operations took on new missions and new roles. Much has been written about their exploits, which include hunting SCUD missiles in the deserts of Iraq, chasing down high-value targets in Baghdad, rescuing hostages held by terrorist groups, pulling Saddam Hussein out of a spider hole at a farm near Tikrit and, most recently, killing ISIS leaders in Syria.
Keller, 43, is prohibited from mentioning the name of the secretive unit in which he currently serves, much less where he’s been deployed or what’s he’s done downrange.
But his former teammates, who have since retired, are able to add a little more detail.
Special Operations veteran John Schaible served with Keller “overseas.”
“We got into a lot of live-fire engagements with the enemy,” Schaible said. “People would ask if I shot anybody. The truth is, I shot at people who were probably already dead, because people like Bob got on the trigger faster. I did an okay job out there, but guys like Bob did a better job than me. Bob was absolutely on time in serious situations that required that split-second decision making process that kept a lot of his buddies alive. I’ve seen it happen on numerous occasions.”
Now, as he nears retirement, rather than seeking a lucrative consulting or contracting job, Keller is giving back — giving back to other Special Operations veterans through extensive charity work and giving back to local law enforcement officers. He’s teaching SWAT teams the shooting techniques that kept him alive through countless engagements — for free — through his start-up training firm, Gamut Resolutions.
“The quality of training he’s capable of delivering is simply the best. If you think of it on an academic scale, Bob is at the PhD level in terms of tactics and shooting — even better than a PhD level. He goes above and beyond,” said retired Sgt. Major Jeremy Morton, who served with Keller in Special Operations. “His research and his thesis are based upon his own experiences.”
Keller is a humble man.
He’s plain spoken and becomes somewhat ill at ease when discussing his accomplishments.
He’s exceedingly polite. He adores his parents, and they’re extremely proud of his accomplishments, even though they don’t know all the details of his deployments.
His world view is shaped by potential threats — terrorist groups, foreign militaries, hostile militias.
He’s got the bearing of a senior NCO, which he is, with none of the associated gruffness. After all, he’s not serving in the “regular Army.”
Keller handles weapons like surgeon. It’s the kind of familiarity that only comes after decades of training and real-world experience.
He’s an incredibly fast yet extremely accurate shot. He shoots smoothly with little wasted effort using either hand.
In addition to SWAT teams, Keller teaches beginner and female students.
“The females work out best,” he said. “They don’t have preconceived notions and they listen.”
Like most special operators, Keller is in incredible physical shape.
His workout regimin is classified.
His former teammates say he’s a gifted athlete.
Now stateside, Keller lost the beard and long hair — the “modified grooming standards” that have become de rigueur for special operators serving overseas.
He and his older sister were both born in Sarasota. Their father, Bob Keller Sr., also is a combat vet. He served as a helicopter door gunner during the Vietnam War.
After he was discharged, the elder Keller worked as a golf pro at the Palm Aire Country Club, until he also was hired by a country club in Minnesota.
“For years, we were doing summers in Minnesota and winters in Sarasota, until us kids got involved in sports,” his son said. “Then we stayed in Minnesota.”
Their family home was outside of Duluth — a five-acre wooded lot surrounded by hundreds of acres of pine forest.
The younger Keller has lost all traces of his Minnesota accent.
“I pretty much played any and all sports,” he said. “If I wasn’t playing sports, I’d be hunting, camping or screwing off in the woods.”
Keller turned his private preserve into his own mini “Ranger School.”
“I had bunkers I’d dug out. I had forts all over the woods — tree forts. I had obstacle courses, three wheelers, dirt bikes,” he said. “Even at a young age I practiced doing Army stuff.”
In high school, Keller focused on hockey and golf. After he graduated, he returned to Sarasota and started playing golf full-time.
“At 22, I turned pro,” he said. “I played on the Hooter’s Tour. I played on all the mini tours around Sarasota, Tampa and into Georgia.”
Despite his professional status, the money just wasn’t there.
“I earned enough to survive and some sponsors were paying my travel,” he said. “Basically, I learned a lot of valuable lessons.”
A week after he missed the cut for a tournament in Louisiana, Keller quit golf and enlisted in the Army.
“All my golf friends were like ‘What the hell?'” he said. “It really just came down to this — I knew what I wanted to do. Running around the woods playing GI Joe, forcing myself to sleep outside — that was my passion.”
After basic training, infantry school and Airborne training, Keller was assigned to the 1st Ranger Battalion in Savannah, Georgia.
He was 24 and “non-tabbed,” since he’d yet to attend Ranger School and earn the distinctive shoulder patch.
Life for a non-tabbed Private First Class was difficult. They’re on the low end of the pecking order and are often fodder for work details and other duties.
“I was 24 when I got there,” he said. “I was older than most squad leaders. It wasn’t fun to be non-tabbed.”
Ranger School soon followed. It has been described as the most arduous training the Army has to offer.
“It’s a great course for finding out what your body can take — no sleep, little food and constantly walking with heavy weights,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a leadership school, but it tells you how much your body can actually take. I went in at 195 pounds. I was 155 when I graduated. I looked like Skeletor.”
Keller’s class went through Ranger School in the winter, which added its own set of challenges, especially when patrolling through freezing Florida swamps at night.
“It was cold. You’re constantly miserable. I was walking through this swamp carrying the big gun in freezing water up to my neck,” he recalled. “I thought to myself that at least my head was dry — at least I had one dry spot. About the time I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I hit a tree root and fully submerged.”
After he returned to his battalion, the unit deployed several times overseas.
It was pre-9/11. The related wars hadn’t started yet.
Keller learned what soldiering was all about as a young Ranger.
“Rangers are a great group of guys who you knew always had your back,” he said. “They’re hard-charging kids that wouldn’t ever quit.”
When his enlistment ended, Keller left active duty, transferred to the National Guard and went back to school.
He earned an associates degree in criminal justice from Manatee Community College, now State College of Florida.
He had thoughts of becoming a cop, but the Army still beckoned.
He was selected by the 20th Special Forces Group, which is one of two Army National Guard SF units with battalions in several states.
His battalion sent him to the Special Forces qualification course — known as the “Q-Course.”
It’s a bit more cerebral than Ranger training, but still a difficult course.
Keller became an “18-Charlie” — a Special Forces engineer sergeant — a specialist with extensive knowledge of construction, demolition and explosives.
“During one phase of the Q-Course, I jumped in with a toilet seat so we’d have some comfort. Since I was the engineer sergeant, I knew I’d be responsible for building the pooper,” he said.
After he was “tabbed SF” and returned to his unit, he and several teammates provided surveillance support to several federal law enforcement agencies in “counter-drug” operations.
Then they deployed to Iraq.
“We did regular SF missions. I got lucky being able to deploy with those guys. We were very active working over there,” he said. “Our mission tempo was very heavy. We were gone all the time doing stuff.”
Citing “operational security,” Keller declined to describe specific missions.
“Obviously, you work with the host nation. We were doing actual missions with host-nation guys — traditional SF-type s—,” he said. “I came back, worked at the counter-drug stuff again, but not for too long, and then I went to the other selection.”
Alex — who, for security reasons, did not want his last name used in this story — served with Keller in Special Forces and later in Special Operations.
Fo”As a soldier, one thing sticks out about Bob. Before we went (Special Operations) and were on the SF team, there was a certain ‘good-enough’ mentality,” Alex said. “Bob was always the guy who said we gotta train harder. The good-enough mindset was not the mindset we needed to have, he’d say. That encapsulates Bobby.”
It’s typical of Special Operations personnel, Alex said, to “without any qualms run into harm’s way.”
“That’s Bobby. When things go bad, there’s never a question. He’s running toward the gunfire and using a gun to accomplish his mission,” Alex said. “It’s hard to quantify and put into words. It’s not bravado. It’s a selfless desire to do what’s right, regardless of the personal outcome.”
Within the close confines of the Special Operations community, everyone knew their teammates’ foibles as well as their accomplishments, Alex said.
“All I heard about was Bob’s bravery,” he said.
Just getting chosen for selection is an arduous process, much less making it through the course, said retired Sgt. Major Jeremy Morton, another soldier who served with Keller in Special Operations.
“There’s a certain personality type and character that people are looking for in an operator,” Morton said. “Because people were chosen for these traits, they can be trusted. They can function at a high level during periods of extreme stress of long duration, and operate morally, legally and ethically. If resources are made available, great, but a lot of time they find their own resources. If a guy gets selected, he’s already gone through a lot in his career.”
The actual selection course, which some have said is far more difficult than Ranger School, has an attrition rate of around 90 percent. Many of those who fail come from elite units themselves, such as Ranger battalions and Special Forces teams.
Even if a candidate is successful and passes the course, the challenges are not over. Months of training, testing and personal evaluations lie ahead. They claim an additional 10-20 percent.
“Selection is really an ongoing process no matter where they are in their life as an operator,” Morton explained. “From start to finish, selection is an ongoing process. They can’t rest on their laurels. They have to perform today. Everyone is subject to peer pressure and performance-based goals.”
Keller won’t talk about his time in Special Operations.
His teammates are proud to talk about it.
Asked if Keller was brave, Morton said: “Bravery is moving to the sounds of gunfire, not moving away. We’re a group of people with uncommon valor, who march to the sound of a different drum — gunfire. The psychology behind what is brave is doing your job. Bob did his job very well, despite the risk out there.
“We try to mitigate the risk as much as we can. We try to put yourself aside and move forward with the mission, putting others above self, the unit above self, country above self and your brothers on your right and left above yourself by moving through direct fire to save a buddy who’s been shot. Is Bob brave? Yes, he’s brave,” Morton said.
“It’s impressive when you see men who literally, without any qualms, will run into harm’s way. That’s Bobby,” he said. “When things go bad, there’s never a question, he’s running toward gunfire and using his gun to accomplish the mission.”
Schaible, the veteran who served with Keller “overseas,” pointed out the unique nature of the extreme over-achievers who comprise Special Operations.
“Over there, at that building, generally speaking, it’s really hard just to be average. Bob didn’t have to work real hard. He’s a gifted athlete. I almost hated him because he’s so good,” Schaible joked. “As an operator, he’s totally competent. A lot of people had to try real hard to be good. Bob was better than most people around the building. He was really good, and only had to work at it a little bit to get even better.”
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— Senior investigative reporter Lee Williams, The Gun Writer, can be reached at 941-284-8553, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or lee@TheGunWriter.com, or by regular mail, 1741 Main St., Sarasota, 34236. You also can follow him on social media at facebook.com/TheGunWriter or Twitter.com/ht_gunwriter.
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