HAYWARD -- Sgt. Jason Manella has scored a victory for underdogs, overcoming brain injuries suffered in combat to win a rigorous Army competition and boosting morale for an oft-maligned part of the military: reservists.
Manella, who has served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, was named the Army's Noncommissioned Officer of the Year after becoming the first noncommissioned reservist to win the Best Warrior Competition, an annual contest measuring physical and mental strength.
Manella's historic win in Virginia two weeks ago was as unlikely as it was inspirational. Little more than a year ago, he was in a hospital, wondering if he'd ever fully recover from his injuries.
"My dad and the Army taught me to never give up," said Manella, who grew up in Fremont and now lives in Hayward. "That sounds like some '80s 'Rocky' movie, but once you do it, you realize that, as long as you have heart, you can do anything."
Rep. Eric Swalwell, who represents Manella's East Bay stomping grounds, recently took to the House floor in Washington, D.C., to praise the soldier's achievement.
"He represents the best and the brightest among us, and overcame serious setbacks to win this grueling competition," Swalwell said. "Sgt. Manella's service and success can be an inspiration to all of us."
His journey began 18 months ago, when he was placed in a traumatic brain injury clinic in Afghanistan after reporting bouts of dizziness, memory loss and speech problems. Military doctors attributed those symptoms to the multiple concussions suffered from being near at least three improvised explosive devices during combat.
"I was around enough blasts almost every day, both incoming and outgoing," said Manella, 27.
At the clinic, he battled depression and boredom. The repetitive physical and mental exercises so crucial to his recovery also chipped away at his self-esteem. So, he decided one day to train for the Best Warrior Competition. It was an ambitious goal, maybe overly so, given that he couldn't read for more than 10 minutes at a time without getting severe headaches. "I was at the lowest point in my life, with total uncertainty as to whether I would ever recover," he said.
Undaunted, he began studying Army manuals and U.S. history books to prepare for the competition's mental tests, which include answering questions on military regulations and writing an essay on a randomly given topic. But the most important section is the oral test, in which a board of senior enlisted officers peppers young soldiers with questions.
"Some guys focus only on physical fitness," Manella said. "But if you can't communicate and write effectively, that's when people start dropping off."
The physical portion isn't exactly easy, either. Contestants must race each other while carrying a 50-pound rucksack for 6 miles and compete in rifle marksmanship. Also, two soldiers are pitted against one another in hand-to-hand combat. "There's somewhat of a risk of injury, but it's heavily monitored," he said. "They usually put that one at the very end."
Manella is attending Ohlone College in Fremont, working toward his goal of transferring to Santa Clara University to pursue a degree in business.
As a member of the Reserve's 445th Civil Affairs Battalion in Mountain View, Manella said his recent victory proves that the negative stereotypes some military personnel have about reservists are false.
"I get tired of the stigma, of people assuming you're less qualified or competent because you're a reservist," Manella said. "My winning proves that all soldiers are just as competent, no matter what component we belong to or train in. It's definitely a great feeling."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.