The US Army named its soldier of the year on Monday. He’s a special forces-connected sergeant, an officer-in-training, an Afghanistan vet… and a recent immigrant to the United States from Nepal.
Sgt. Saral Shrestha, a native of Kathmandu, came to America in 2007 and enlisted in the Army in 2009; according to his parents, he came on a student visa but was granted US citizenship in an Army naturalization ceremony. He currently serves as a power-generator technician with the 3rd Special Forces Group, supporting their missions overseas, and reportedly tore up the stiff competition for the service’s coveted prize.
“The competition included urban warfare simulations, board interviews, physical fitness tests, written exams, and battle drills simulating what soldiers would encounter in combat,” the local Ft. Bragg newspaper reports. That probably wasn’t hard for Shrestha, who’d already deployed to the Afghan war zone and plans to take an officer’s commission after he finishes a master’s degree. (As motivation, Shrestha cited his great grandfather, who served in the British Army during World War II. “I heard his stories when I was growing up and I guess that inspired me to some extent,” he told the Republica, a Nepali daily newspaper.)
Frankly, this isn’t a hugely remarkable development as far as the military is concerned; between 9/11 and 2011, the armed forces naturalized close to 75,000 foreign-born service members. But both the Republicans and Democrats have tacked right on immigration of late, and (depending on which day you ask him) Mitt Romney has opposed a DREAM Act-style path to citizenship, even for service members. (It’s hard to “self-deport” when you’re sitting behind the wire on an Afghan forward operating base.)
Obviously, Shrestha’s case is a little different: He came to the US and enlisted in the service on an approved visa, while the proposals for a military DREAM Act would offer a path to citizenship for undocumented foreign-born service members. But the principle remains the same: If you prove your commitment to the United States, you deserve the benefits conferred to US citizens.
That shouldn’t be controversial. What should be controversial is that, even for military DREAM Act proponents, young undocumented immigrants have to prove their worth in a way most American-born kids—or presidential candidates—don’t.