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'Soldier of the Year' to be guest of honor at Army-Navy game

Sgt. Saral Shrestha, the 2012 Soldier of the Year, receives the Army Commendation Medal from Gen. Raymond T. Odierno on Dec. 3, 2012.

PHILADELPHIA — By the U.S. military’s exacting standards, Saral Shrestha is the embodiment of the modern super soldier — brawn and brains.

The former Bensalem, Pa., resident can crank out about 100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups in four minutes, and, when finished, tell you about it in any of the five languages he speaks fluently.

He also is a native of Nepal and the beneficiary of a program that gives eligible immigrants a shortcut to U.S. citizenship in exchange for military service.

The benefits to Shrestha’s new country were evident when he was named the best of the best in 2012, the Army’s “Soldier of the Year,” based on his performance in a grueling months-long competition and four-day final exam of physical ability, battle readiness, and judgment.

Assigned now with Special Forces at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Shrestha returns to Pennsylvania on Saturday as a guest of honor at the Army-Navy game, the annual classic that will be played Saturday for the 113th time.

He was 17, fresh off the plane from Kathmandu with a student visa in 2005, when he went to live with an uncle in Bensalem. The white-capped Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountains, border his native land.

“Oddly enough,” he said in a recent interview, “I first saw snow in Pennsylvania.”

The Army recruited Shrestha, now 24, under a program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI. It expedites citizenship for legal immigrants who speak any of 44 strategically important languages, or are licensed health care professionals in critically needed medical specialties. Instead of having to wait five years or more, they can get citizenship immediately after completing basic training.

“I have an immense pride to be a citizen of the United States. It’s the greatest nation,” said Shrestha. “I am here because I made a choice. It’s not something I take for granted.

“At the same time,” he added, “I am forever indebted to Nepal, because the heritage and traditions of Nepal made me who I am.”

In its first year, MAVNI welcomed 789 recruits with special language skills, and 143 health care professionals.

Recruiting closed in February 2010, pending “enhanced” security measures, and reopened three months ago.

“Through MAVNI,” said a program officer, “the Army obtains highly skilled recruits who help us operate effectively in the many countries where soldiers serve.”

In addition to English, Shrestha speaks Nepali, Newari, Hindi, and Urdu. He picked up Hindi as a child while watching Bollywood movies.

He was a student at Bellevue University in Nebraska in 2008 when a Facebook posting introduced him to the Nepalese immigrant who would become his wife. He completed basic training Nov. 24, 2009, at Fort Benning, Ga., and was sworn in as a naturalized American that same day. He married in December 2010. Three months later, he deployed to Afghanistan as a power-generation-equipment repairman.

“I was a private at the time,” said Shrestha, now a sergeant. “I had a lot of property to manage.”

He returned from Afghanistan in August 2011.

The Army’s Best Warrior Competition, which began a decade ago and leads to the selection of the Soldier of the Year, has been described as the Super Bowl of Army skills tests. Starting at the company or battalion level, competitors advance through six or seven tiers of competition, culminating at Fort Lee, Va., in the four-day finale that tests their stamina and mental acuity.

A dozen soldiers, including one woman, were finalists; a dozen noncommissioned officers competed in a separate category.

Shrestha, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 165 pounds, said he did not hesitate to toss his hat into the ring among 800,000 active-duty soldiers.

“If there is a challenge,” he said, “I will volunteer myself.”

Sgt. Maj. Ray Chandler, who oversees the competition, told reporters for Army publications that this year’s contest “was not all about warrior tasks and battle drills,” but included more “cognitive thinking” and “creative thinking.”

The idea, he said, was to “stress (competitors) mentally and see how they perform.”

For one test, the soldiers were unexpectedly awakened at 4 a.m. and told there was a mass-casualty incident on the football field across from their barracks. There, they found soldiers made up to look like bloodied victims. The contestants were evaluated on how well they stabilized the mock victims and evacuated them.

For another test, the competitors were called and told that a female soldier assigned to them for the competition had been sexually assaulted. How would they report it? What would they do?

The soldier of the year is an ultimate role model, said Chandler: “It’s important for us to be able to show the Army what ‘right’ looks like.”

Maj. Carol Stahl, assigned to MAVNI, said the selection of Shrestha was important on a wider scale, too.

“It says a lot about America that our soldier of the year wasn’t born here,” she said. “That’s what America is about. We are a land of immigrants and a land of opportunity. They are doing the right thing, pledging themselves to this country, fighting for this country. … These are people who have done everything legally.”

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