FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Feb. 6, 2018) -- Nine months ago, Spc. Jisook Castro was learning how to salute, march and fire her weapon at basic combat training. Since then, she has proven to be an exceptional Soldier and was named U.S. Army Fort Drum Dental Health Activity Warrior of the Year.

It started when Castro was told to report for the quarterly board appearance because it would be invaluable experience for her.

"I was a little surprised by that because I'm a brand-new Soldier," she said. "I had only gotten to Fort Drum four months ago, just out of training. I had not even heard of a board or what you have to do."

Castro said that she didn't have a lot of time to prepare for the board, but the noncommissioned officers at the clinic - to include Sgt. Lolita Stone and Staff Sgt. Mark Alston Turner - provided all the support she needed.

"Our NCOs showed me how to attend the board and how to present myself," Castro said. "I had no idea how to do anything, but they showed me everything and I would go home and practice."

Sgt. 1st Class Scottie Bullock, Stone Dental Clinic noncommissioned officer in charge, gave Castro pages of study material to review and memorize. Bullock, having attended regional-level Best Warrior events, knew the range of knowledge that Castro would be tested on.

"It has made it so much easier for me to study," Castro said.

She also had a great study partner in her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Roxan Castro, who is assigned to 33rd Financial Management Company, 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade.

"All I was feeling was nervousness and feeling like I would make mistakes - I did - but it was a really good experience," Castro said. "When I started I did not know anything, but then I kept practicing and I got better. It really builds your confidence."

Still, she said that she never got comfortable in front of the panel of NCOs.

"I see them every day, but in that position with everyone looking at me and asking me questions, all I could feel was nervous," Castro said.

She said that she wasn't able to answer every question presented to her, but it gave her a foundation to prepare for the annual board that would determine the DENTAC Warrior of the Year.

"I was still nervous but I think I had more confidence going to the second board," Castro said.

Master Sgt. Erick M. Espinosa, Fort Drum Dental Health Activity senior dental NCO, said that he knew that Castro was nervous during her first board but that she presented herself as a confident and poised Soldier throughout the event.

I believe the biggest difference in her performance between the first and second board was her belief in herself," Espinosa said. "During the second board, she simply felt like she belonged and earned the right to be named the DENTAC Warrior of the Year."

She was also tested on basic Soldier skills and physical fitness in a series of eight activities to include a 4-mile ruck march, weapon qualification and a mystery event. One of the more strenuous events was the modified functional fitness course at Magrath sports Complex where she had to run a mile, then complete 100 pushups, 200 situps and 300 air squats, ending with another mile run.

"I was so happy to finish," she said. "The ruck march is hard for me, probably because I'm so small."

She said that having achieved this accolade so early in her Army career sets the bar high for herself.

"I didn't expect to win. I'm really happy and so proud of myself," she said. "I never thought that I could do this. I'm really thankful that my NCOs gave me the chance and how they have helped me. Now I need to do better, to be better, which I'm trying to do."

Castro said that she has set her goal to succeed at the next level of competition. She enjoys the preparation required because she said it makes her a better Soldier. Castro exercises in the gym with her husband and also does physical training with her first sergeant. In her spare time, Castro studies from her smart book and she said that it is no longer just about improving upon her next board appearance.

"I study as much as I can because one of my long-term goals is to retire from the Army, and so I want to know as much as I can," she said.

Sgt. 1st Class Scottie T. Bullock, Marshall Dental Clinic noncommissioned officer in charge, was impressed by Castro's willingness to take on this challenge while she was still in-processing and learning a new work environment. He said that can be overwhelming for some, but Castro has shown exceptional self-discipline and a dedication to excel at any task.

"Within the DENTAC we have a diverse group of Soldiers from various countries and continents who, in addition to having a strong grasp of the English language, speak a number of languages, all possessing degrees and certificates from highly regarded universities both in the United States and abroad," Bullock said. "I believe SPC Castro is assimilating into Army life very quickly possibly due to being familiar with it prior to being a Soldier, but primarily due to her eagerness to learn and challenge herself."

Castro arrived to the U.S. in 2014 and lived with her husband in Hawaii for three years. They met while he was stationed in Yongsan, South Korea.

"I was just a housewife still learning to speak English before I joined the Army," she said. "I started to learn English because of my husband. We started as friends, and I wanted to talk with him, know more about him, and that made me study more English."

She taught herself the language through books because she said she didn't have enough time to take classes.

"Hearing the language is one of the hard parts for me, and also writing because I have to think about the grammar and not just write how I am saying the words," she said.

She enlisted in the Army in May 2017.

"I had seen the Army life through my husband, and I really liked it," she said. "Leaders care about their Soldiers. They can lead me, they can develop me, and I thought that there are so many opportunities I could take if I joined."

Castro said that she prepared herself for the physical demands of basic training, and she had her husband help her learn things such as the proper way to salute and how to stand at the position of attention. She watched online videos about basic combat training to familiarize herself with what she would experience. Castro said that she did not have an easy time during basic training because she didn't always understand everything the drill instructors said.

During advanced individual training, Castro said she was comfortable delving into the material that would make her a dental specialist.

"I had no background in the medical field, but I found out that they teach you everything so you could work in a dental clinic," she said. "It doesn't matter what your experience is because they train you."

Although she prefers being part of a team rather than leading one, Castro said that she is learning more about Army leadership because she knows, eventually, there will be an expectation for her to do more than just follow when she advances in rank.

"I'm the kind of person who follows the direction of others," she said. "But as a Soldier, I realize that you are going to have to be a leader someday, and it doesn't matter what kind of person you are, you need to lead your Soldiers. That's one of the things I'm learning in the Army. The NCOs here are really good leaders and I'm learning from them about how they care for their Soldiers."

Bullock said that Castro has unlimited potential and has demonstrated critical thinking abilities that makes her a reliable asset at the clinic.

"What I've noticed about her is she writes everything down, she is detail oriented and focused when given the simplest instructions," he said. "She carries out tasks in a timely and eager manner which makes a world of a difference that not only reinvigorates me to mentor and coach, but also to learn from her how to better lead those looking for it."

Espinosa described Castro as an extremely smart, eager and motivated, and that during her short time in service she has demonstrated the drive to overcome all obstacles.

"She has approached all challenges with a smile on her face and serves as a constant reminder to 'duty first.' As a leader, she has inspired me to give my best in everything I do," he said. "I am not afraid to admit that I have learned from a subordinate Soldier, nor am I ashamed to say that Spc. Castro has inspired and motivated me to be better. I see a Soldier who makes zero excuses as she continues to give maximum effort in all that she does."

Castro is now preparing for the next round of competition, Feb. 27-March 3, at Fort A.P. Hill, Va., and hosted by the Dental Health Activity from Fort Stewart. The winning NCO and Soldier will represent their region in the Regional Health Command-Atlantic Best Warrior Competition.