Sgt. 1st Class Jason Manella, left, and Spc. Adam Christensen were named the Army's 2013 Noncommissioned Officer of the Year and Soldier of the Year, respectively. (Army)
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If Sgt. 1st Class Jason Manella had managed to simply compete for Best Warrior, it would have been a triumph. But he defied expectations and took home the title.
Manella’s win at Fort Lee, Va., among 23 competitors from across 12 commands, was an inconceivable outcome when he started more than a year ago. Suffering from a handful of concussions from improvised explosive device blasts in Afghanistan, he had trouble with concentration, dizziness, balance and coordination.
“One of the things I did was set goals in therapy around this Best Warrior competition,” Manella told Army Times. “I’ve been blessed with a full recovery and competed my way up to this level.”
Hard work and dedication led Noncommissioned Officer of the Year Manella and Spc. Adam Christensen, named Soldier of the Year, to victory in the contest that wrapped up Nov. 22.
Christensen’s obstacles weren’t physical. At 26 years old, he fought through the insecurity he faced in oral boards, when he often was interviewed by soldiers much younger than him but with a longer list of accomplishments.
“They have so much more experience, and it’s kind of the feeling of what have I done with my life, compared to what have they done with theirs,” said Christensen, of Logan, Utah.
A Las Vegas plumber who turned soldier in 2011, Christensen credited his mentor, Staff Sgt. Robert Norton, with working long hours to help him adopt a more confident, positive mindset, which improved his military bearing.
“What Sgt. Norton would have me do is put me in the situation as an actor, loosen me up, and remind me that I’m going in there to represent myself, my family, my unit and at the same time competing against the Army, and they’re representing the same thing,” Christensen said.
The competition is a laundry list of grueling situations, including an 18-mile, 16-station evaluation course. Participants are graded and timed in Humvee tire changing; weapons assembly and qualification on the M9 pistol, M4 carbine and the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon; a four-mile 40-pound ammunition can carry; an Army radio assembly and communication check; a simulated chemical environment, village engagement, ambush, casualty during an IED attack and performing first aid.
Christensen said that in a talented field of competitors, he never knew if he was winning or not.
“You’re there with soldiers who love what they’re doing and the Army as a profession, and they want to be the best,” he said. “So while I’m there, I get to see what their strengths are and what my weaknesses are, and we learn from each other. It’s amazing.”
As humble as Christensen is, he gets to bring bragging rights back to his unit, the 472nd Military Police Company at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
Manella brings his title back to the 445th Civil Affairs Battalion after a long road — more than a year of rehab and training after he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
Manella used the win to stick up for the Reserve, which he said sometimes doesn’t get the respect it deserves. He pointed out the next runner-up was also a reservist.
“Being a reservist, I think there are a lot of times where I’m underestimated, and I use that to push myself,” Manella said.
In Kandahar province, Manella went on missions to woo Afghans away from the Taliban, often on foot, into villages littered with roadside bombs. He survived three major and 20 minor blasts.
In rehab, Manella picked up the Army Study Guide and numerous Army manuals to break from his video-game-driven cognitive therapy. Back then, he couldn’t read for 10 minutes without a headache, so he would slow down and take frequent breaks.
“Going from looking after soldiers to sitting in a room with a hand-held battery-operated video game, you lose a sense of importance, a sense of being a soldier, so I wanted to find something I could do that would test me cognitively,” Manella said.
He credits his recent win to the support of the TBI and behavioral health clinic, his family and his unit.
“Having brothers in arms going through the process with you is very helpful,” he said.
Now he wants to inspire wounded warriors to overcome their limitations — but not by themselves.
Because he didn’t seek help for his brain injuries early on, they may have worsened, and he doesn’t want anyone else to make the same mistake.
“Any wounded warrior, whether their injury is physical, will have new limitations, but don’t get down on yourself about those limitations,” Manella said. “There were a few times when I was down about myself, but I had great soldiers pick me up, and I used other soldiers as inspiration.”