By Sgt. 1st Class Andy Yoshimura
USACAPOC(A) Public Affairs Office
FORT LEE, Va. – When the Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler III announced Sgt. 1st Class Jason Manella, an Army Reserve civil affairs specialist from the 445th Civil Affairs Battalion, as the 2013 Department of the Army Noncommissioned Officer of the Year during the DA Best Warrior Competition here, Manella was frozen and in complete shock.
“I was hoping to come in second or third because I am with such great competitors that I had no confidence that I was beating them in any way. So when they called my name, it was such a surprise that it definitely took a minute to comprehend.”
“It is an honor and I want to represent other traumatic brain injury wounded warriors and speed them into recovery,” added Manella.
Many had called Manella the underdog, just recovering from TBI last year when his convoy hit an improvised explosive device in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. During his rehab, he decided to pick up the Army Study Guide and numerous manuals to help with his therapy.
Some have also doubted that he could compete at the Department of the Army level, which only pushed Manella harder.
“I talked to a few soldiers when I was overseas and told them that I wanted to be the U.S. Army Reserve Command Noncommissioned Officer of the year. They didn’t believe me, and that disbelief drove me. That was a year and a half ago, and here I am today.”
“Here I feel as an Army Reserve soldier that automatically they assume I am the underdog,” said Manella. “They don’t feel that since we only work one weekend a month and two weeks out of the year that I would be the soldier that really stands out.”
For Manella, the two weeks out of the year is just the minimum. He feels that there are many opportunities for soldiers to better themselves, such as utilizing the Noncommissioned Officer Education System and even volunteer for missions.
“I feel that it was advantageous to me because of my multiple deployments by having my boots on the ground,” he said.
In 2006, Manella competed as a junior enlisted soldier finishing runner-up as the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) Soldier of the Year. Seven years later, he missed competing at his battalion’s Best Warrior competition due to a deployment and was given an exception to compete at the 351st Civil Affairs Command Best Warrior Competition earlier this spring at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif.
“The timing was perfect because I was not going to school at the time and I just got back from deployment,” said Manella.
There Manella went on to win and competed against the top soldiers during the USACAPOC(A) Best Warrior Competition at Fort Bragg, N.C. in May.
As the USACAPOC(A) NCO of the Year, he represented his unit and command at the USARC Best Warrior Competition in Fort McCoy, Wis. where once again finished first, landing him here at the Army level.
“This competition is much more intense than I expected. It is much more rapid getting through many events and it is definitely challenging and fun,” said Manella.
Day one was challenging for most of the competitors where the 23 competitors took part in a grueling 18-mile, 16-station evaluation course. The competitors were graded and timed in Humvee tire changing, weapons assembly and qualification on the M9 Pistol, M4 Cabine and the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, reaction in a chemical environment, village engagement, map reading and overlay, a grueling four-mile 40-pound ammunition can carry, SINCGARS assembly and communication check, react to an ambush, clearing casualty during an IED attack and performing first aid.
“I felt like I was able to take various events from the previous competition and after each competition I learned where I was weak at and capitalized that training to the next competition,” said Manella. “So the idea was to be well rounded for every event and had a good idea where I was weak and focused on what I needed to do to come here and to win.”
Manella is the first Army Reserve soldier to win the DA Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. In 2008, Spc. David Obray, also an Army Reserve soldier, was the DA Soldier of the Year.
“I thought as an Army Reserve soldier, it might be harder to compete with the other active duty guys but they have been very receptive and we talk about overseas stories,” said Manella. “We are all NCOs and we are all getting along very well. I feel that it doesn’t hinder me at all as far as the events themselves. There is some sort of expectations that Army Reserve soldiers are out of shape, ill-prepared, not as competent as active duty soldiers. We train just as hard to the same standards we just don’t do it as often.”
What drove Manella over the edge when competing against his peers is his tenacity. He was able to grip and understand each task at all of the competition that he competed in.
“The whole competition is about finding a well-rounded soldier. So I may not have been the best in each event but I felt that I did all of the tasks pretty well.”
Manella, a Fremont, Calif. native, will now spend the next few months with television interviews and in preparation for the 2014 351st Civil Affairs Command Best Warrior Competition, not as a competitor but as an adviser and sponsor.
“I want to take this knowledge and experience back to my unit. I had a great time. This is definitely unique in my military career and will cherish this moment forever. I can take this experience back and train other soldiers to do best warrior. This has helped me out personally as a leader,” added Manella.
Quitting was never in Manella’s mind as a 112-pound private in basic training, as an injured soldier in Afghanistan, and as a noncommissioned officer competing in four Best Warrior Competitions paving his way as the Army Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.