Hansen: Soldier of the year started American journey at Bellevue U. - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 10:30 am
Hansen: Soldier of the year started American journey at Bellevue U.

He moved into a cramped apartment next to a bowling alley in Bellevue, which is about as far away from Nepal as Saral Shrestha could go.

He had no family in the Omaha area, no friends, and a name no one here could pronounce. (Say it slowly: Srees-ta.)

He showed up in 2006, armed only with a promise he made to his mother back in Kathmandu, Nepal. Yes, I will get my college education in the United States. Yes, Mom, I will make something of myself.

Saral Shrestha — that's Sgt. Shrestha to you — has done a few things since making that promise.

He has become an American citizen. He has deployed to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.

He graduated from college. Accomplished fluency in five languages. Happily married a girl from Oklahoma.

Oh, and the 24-year-old recently fought through a grueling competition, beat out every last grunt in green and grabbed the title of the U.S. Army's Soldier of the Year.

“I was a little surprised when they told me I won the whole thing,” Shrestha says.

I forgot to say: He's modest, too.

Shrestha's voyage to U.S. Army stardom began when he got a student visa and enrolled at Bellevue University in 2006.

He moved into an apartment on the questionably named Chateau Drive in Bellevue. He went to the first day of school and couldn't believe all the colors: Korean-Americans. Recent immigrants from Africa. White dudes with buzz cuts from Offutt Air Force Base.

Shrestha had never seen this kind of diversity. He is from the flat, hot part of Nepal — a long ways from Mount Everest — so he'd never seen snow, either.


“It was a lot of shock,” he says. “I got so much shock that I stopped shocking any more.”

As a child, he dreamed of serving in the Nepalese military. As a college freshman, he pestered the airmen he encountered, asking, “Can I join the U.S. military?” They would answer, no, kid. You aren't a citizen.

But in 2009, the Army started taking immigrants fluent in Middle Eastern and Asian languages. The deal was simple: Join the U.S. Army, translate for us and get fast-tracked to citizenship.

Shrestha speaks Urdu, the language of Pakistan; Hindi, a language in India; English; and two Nepalese dialects.

He completed basic training. The week of Thanksgiving 2009, he became a citizen.

He soon deployed to Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's traditional home base.

He couldn't speak Dari or Pashto, the official languages of Afghanistan. Most of the Afghans couldn't speak English. But he and the Afghans had an important thing in common: Movies. Indian movies.

“I watch Bollywood, and a lot of the local forces in Afghanistan, they watch Bollywood, too!”

So he spoke to them in Urdu and Hindi, the languages of Bollywood, and they spoke back.

Shrestha translated some days. On others, he repaired generators and Army vehicles.

At night, when the rest of his unit slept, he logged onto his laptop and did his homework.

Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.

He wanted to finish his last three courses at Bellevue and get his degree in computer science. Never mind that he went without Internet for weeks at a time while stationed at remote outposts. Never mind that he sometimes had to miss finals because he was fighting a war.

His Bellevue professors proved wildly accommodating, Shrestha says.

Still: “My grades were not that great,” he says. “In some of them, I got a B. But I can't complain.”

He entered the Soldier of the Year competition when he returned to the States in 2012.

After outperforming thousands of soldiers in the preliminary rounds, he reached the finals at Fort Lee, Va. He found himself up against 11 other soldiers he calls “the best of the best.”

For four days, they ran in combat boots and grunted their way through pushups and crunches.

They tumbled out of bed at 2 a.m. to try to solve gut-wrenching hypotheticals: One of your soldiers has been sexually assaulted and is threatening suicide. What do you do?

They commanded troops and fought off simulated terrorist attacks. Then they stood in a room and answered questions about military history and the U.S. Constitution, questions yelled at them by high-ranking officers.

Shrestha aced the Constitution questions. He crushed the crunches.

At the end of the four days, they called out the winner's name: Sgt. Saral Shrestha.

Now they knew how to pronounce it.

Shrestha is stationed now at Fort Bragg and plans to make the Army a career. He entered officer candidate school this month.

He thinks being named the Army's best soldier is the second-best thing that has happened to him recently.

The best: When his mother and father climbed off a plane near Fort Bragg. They hadn't seen their son since 2006. Shrestha couldn't go back to Nepal, so he brought Nepal to North Carolina.

His parents stayed for six weeks. They met his new wife, Elisha.

Finally he could show off his college diploma. Finally he could show them what he's become.

“To me, the military stands for values and honor and discipline,” he says. “I just want to be a part of that.”

Like I said. Modest.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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