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Naturalized Citizen SGT Saral K. Shrestha Earns Soldier of the Year Honors
"It was a culture shock, it's always rush, rush, rush," Shrestha said about his first time being in the United States. "You're working or studying the whole time. There were a lot of tall buildings, a lot of new things. Everything is surprising, so you stop being surprised."
After spending his first month with an uncle in Philadelphia, Shrestha headed to Nebraska to begin his studies in computer networking. Still, he dreamed of joining the military and embarking on a life of service and discipline, but it seemed impossible.
"MAVNI Was a Blessing"
Though Shrestha wished to serve in the U.S. military, he initially had no avenue to join without U.S. citizenship or permanent residence. That changed in 2009 when the Department of Defense introduced the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program. MAVNI allows visa holders with special, highly needed skills - such as having expertise in languages that are critical to military operations - to enlist in the military and earn U.S. citizenship through their service.
Shrestha was close to completing his degree when he found out about the program, but he didn't hesitate to sign-up. After being screened by USCIS and completing the recruitment process, he headed to Fort Benning for basic training in September 2009.
"MAVNI was a blessing," Shrestha said. "When I graduated my basic training, I had one of the USCIS personnel come onto the field with a United States flag and I took my oath." Shrestha considers it the most special day of his life. "I realized I was part of something way bigger," he said.
From Special Forces to Afghanistan to Soldier of the Year
While training as a specialized Power Generation Equipment Repairer at Fort Lee, Va., a recruiter with the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) approached Shrestha, who was then a private. The recruiter knew about his ability to speak Urdu, a language common in Afghanistan and spoken in Pakistan. "He talked me into it, got me excited and motivated," Shrestha said.
In 2011, Shrestha was deployed to Afghanistan and traveled all around the country, including to some of the most remote forward operating bases. He used his language skills to communicate with Afghani locals and Afghani friendly forces working with the U.S. Army. Shrestha worked long hours to keep the U.S. bases supplied with power and fuel, but still found time late-night to complete his college degree.
When Shrestha returned to the U.S., life turned to "garrison mode." This meant staying prepared, sharp, and in-shape. Shrestha also saw the opportunity to take part in competitions for "best soldier." "I tried my best and became my company's top soldier," he said. "The competitions have steps, and it gets tougher as you move up a level. You move from brigade level, to sub-command, to Special Operations Command, to the Army-wide competition."
Shrestha won at the local levels of the competition, and went on to compete against other soldiers at the command level of the competition.
He then competed in the final round, the Best Warrior Competition, which he described as a five-day "Super Bowl for the Army."
The Best Warrior Competition included events such as the Army Physical Fitness Test, day land navigation, urban night land navigation and shooting. A selection board, headed by the Sergeant Major of the Army, judged the competitors. Shrestha said this invoked pride. The winner was announced at the Association of the United States Army's military convention in Washington, D.C.
When he heard his name called as U.S. Army Soldier of the Year, Shrestha said he was shocked. "I didn't know how to react, it was a big moment," he said.
Looking back at his journey from Nepal to the United States and his service to his new country, Shrestha stresses that his accomplishments would not have been possible without support from family, friends, trainers and comrades.
He remembers how his family would call him from Nepal and remind him that he was in their prayers. "A lot of people help you, it's never just about you," he said. Shrestha said that he tries to always live and serve by his motto: "Mission first, soldiers always."