FORT BRAGG — The U.S. Army recruited Saral Shrestha under a program that gave legal immigrants a shortcut to citizenship in exchange for the promise to serve as a good soldier for at least five years.
Shrestha proved he could be the very best soldier.
The native of Nepal was named Soldier of the Year after winning the Armys annual Best Warrior Competition, a four-day test of physical ability, combat skills, military knowledge and stress endurance.
Its starting to sink in, Shrestha said on his return to Fort Bragg after the competition in Fort Lee, Va., and several days in Washington, where he met military VIPs. Im starting to realize I really did win this.
The Best Warrior contest is the Super Bowl of Army skills tests, the culmination of a year or more of training, drilling and advancing through six or seven levels of competition starting at the company or battalion level. Only 24 competitors go to Fort Lee: 12 non-commissioned officers and 12 enlisted soldiers.
Shrestha, a power-generator technician in support of the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, competed in the soldier category against representatives of 11 other major Army commands from around the country, though he and several others had been promoted to sergeant before they arrived at Fort Lee.
Shrestha, now 24, entered the Army three years ago.
He had wanted to serve in the military or police in Nepal, a mountainous country between India and China, since he was a child, he said, but his mother wanted him to come to the United States to further his education.
I respected her wishes, he said, and came to the U.S. on a student visa in 2006 to study computer science at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb. In 2009, with a couple dozen credit hours left to go, he joined the military through its then-new MAVNI program, Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest. The Defense Department uses MAVNI to recruit legal immigrants to fill personnel shortages in certain medical and language skills.
The Defense Department says more than 7 percent of the 1.4 million people serving in the military were born somewhere besides the U.S.
Shrestha, who learned five languages growing up in Nepal, passed the militarys proficiency test in Urdu, which is spoken in Pakistan and India. He was accepted and sent for basic training at Fort Benning, Ga.
I graduated basic training and was granted my citizenship on the same day, he said. That is a really special day for me.
Shrestha finished his college studies while he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.
It was difficult, he said, because he was assigned to a remote base with limited Internet access. A sympathetic commander allowed Shrestha to use his computer an hour each day, as long as Shrestha was able to fulfill his other responsibilities.
Shrestha got interested in the Best Warrior competition after returning from Afghanistan to Fort Bragg last fall.
I asked my squad leader: Give me the chance to compete for soldier of the month, soldier of the quarter, Shrestha said. I just asked for a chance, and I kept performing better, and I kept winning.
Always a runner, he had to step up his physical training. He also began studying the Constitution and military history and doctrine, and he memorized Army regulations and standards. He made flash cards that his wife, Elisha, used to test him constantly. All along, he said, his colleagues cheered him on and helped him find the time to study.
This is extremely difficult to do, said Sgt. Jason Rogers, the senior quartermaster in Group Service Support Company, Group Support Battalion, Shresthas unit. Hes a group leader, so he has regular tasks he has to do, and he has to deal with any issues with his soldiers in the motor pool hes assigned to. Then he has a ton of stuff to study, and he has to get ready physically.
Its not one of those situations where they say, Were removing all your other responsibilities.
Best Warrior competition started on Oct. 14, as soon as the soldiers arrived at Fort Lee. Their first test was a proper military inventory of all the gear they were assigned for the event. For the next four days, everything they did and said was judged against military procedure and protocol.
The first night, Shrestha said, competitors were awakened by a call from one of their soldiers who had a scripted problem an incident of sexual harassment, for example and judges watched to see how each competitor responded. They had written exams to demonstrate their Army knowledge. They ran two miles and did sit-ups and other physical tests. They did land-navigation exercises in the woods during the day, and in town at night. They were awakened the second night to a simulated enemy attack with mass casualties where they had to perform first aid. They had to search for insurgents and detain them in mock-up villages populated with role-players. They worked their way through an obstacle course while carrying out a casualty and returning fire. They searched for IEDs.
In between, they each had three soldiers assigned to train at any opportunity.
The event ended with a board exam, with each soldier facing a panel of six senior sergeants from across the Army, including Raymond F. Chandler III, the current sergeant major of the Army.
Through it all, Shrestha said, judges never told competitors how they were doing.
They want you to give 100 percent all the time, he said.
The winner wasnt announced until last Monday at the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army, which sponsors the Soldier of the Year and NCO of the Year competition. Up to that moment, Shrestha said, Anybody could win.
Shrestha said he plans to make a career of the Army, and hopes to get Special Forces training.
Rogers, who traveled to Fort Lee with Shrestha and was there in Washington when he was announced the winner, said Shrestha faced some tough, smart soldiers in the competition.
Hes had to overcome some obstacles, Rogers said. When he came to this country, he didnt even speak English all that well. For him to do what he did in such a short time, I think its an inspiration to his peers.