Despite being raised in a city that stands about 300 feet above sea level, Spc. Spenser Li was drawn to the mountains at an early age.

A passion for climbing quickly led to mountain guide work and later college in Colorado, where he started working with search and rescue teams.

As he gained more training and helped with high-altitude rescue teams, the twentysomething Li looked to the Army as a place he could continue to help people and further improve his life-saving skills.

By all accounts, the 2018 Army Times Soldier of the Year finalist is accomplishing exactly those goals.

Sergeants, senior noncommissioned officers and a captain in his chain of command called him either the best or one of the best medics in the 4th Infantry Division’s 52nd Brigade Engineer Battalion.

“He’s the No. 1 requested medic by other units,” said Capt. Elyse Vail, his senior officer. “As a specialist, he’s very much filling that E-5, team leader role.”

His medical and rescue work and leadership skills got him a spot on his current deployment to help build up the airfield at Tarin Kowt north of Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Reached by satellite phone recently, Li said he’s doing his medic job, but he has also been pulled into the engineering tasks of his unit by operating heavy equipment and other duties.

“Day-to-day life? A lot of construction. I put on a different hat, primarily carpenter and machinist,” Li said.

The 27-year-old soldier is taking the work in stride, at least according to Staff Sgt. Richard Mellott, who is deployed with Li.

“Spc. Li is one of the most sincere and motivated soldiers I have ever had a pleasure of working with,” Mellott said. “He has the best attitude helping with any type of backbreaking construction we do, just works alongside us. We often make jokes about Spc. Li getting in his 20-hour days every day.”

Spc. Spenser Li uses off duty time to help search and rescue teams, also teaches youth rock climbing. He has been named a finalist for the 2018 Army Times Service Member of the Year Award. (Courtesy photo)
Spc. Spenser Li uses off duty time to help search and rescue teams, also teaches youth rock climbing. He has been named a finalist for the 2018 Army Times Service Member of the Year Award. (Courtesy photo)

Li joined the Army in November 2015, shortly after finishing his college degree. His wife, Lynda Li, told Army Times that he opted to enlist rather than seek a commission so he could do more of the hands-on medical work.

Li is aiming to bring his skills to the next level as he pushes to become a flight medic.

The pair met while volunteering at a local rock climbing gym in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they assist young children with physical and cognitive disabilities in climbing.

But the volunteering isn’t limited to the gym.

Outside of his medic tasks and soldier duties, Li also volunteers with El Paso County Search and Rescue, giving more than 500 volunteer service hours in the past two years and participating in five real rescue missions.

Beyond the lifesaving and climbing expertise, the search and rescue work has helped Li train in land navigation, wilderness medicine, avalanche rescue and other skills.

Sgt. Normalinda Escalante thought enough of the specialist that she nominated him for the Soldier of the Year award.

Those extra duties, volunteering and skills that Li is gaining are helping the unit back on base and forward deployed as well, she said.

Spc. Spenser Li uses off duty time to help search and rescue teams, also teaches youth rock climbing. He has been named a finalist for the 2018 Army Times Service Member of the Year Award. (Courtesy photo)
Spc. Spenser Li uses off duty time to help search and rescue teams, also teaches youth rock climbing. He has been named a finalist for the 2018 Army Times Service Member of the Year Award. (Courtesy photo)

“He pours all of his experiences into our mission, not just teaching combat lifesaver skills,” she said.

In her experience, Escalante said, the level of volunteering coupled with his excelling as both a specialist and a medic are rare.

First Sgt. Justin Duff, Li’s former senior NCO at the engineer battalion, made observations that comes with experience dealing with new soldiers.

He said that sometimes medics can simply learn all that is taught at their initial job training and stop there. But great medics push themselves to learn more, do more and advance their skills beyond the school level.

Li does that, he said.

Also, Li came in at a higher rank because he has a college degree. Sometimes, he said, the soldiers who do that struggle in the rank initially. Not so with Li.

“He’s an interpersonal, caring, genuine guy,” Duff said.