ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - When all was said and done, the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command Soldier of the Year had the last word.

After receiving a trove of trophies, cash awards, U.S Savings Bonds, an Army Commendation Medal, and an eagle from the Aberdeen Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army , Sgt. Julio Cesar Castellanos, a 36-year-old combat engineer from Guatemala City, Guatemala, stepped aside as Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, RDECOM commander, addressed the noncommissioned officers gathered for the lunchtime awards presentation.

"You make a difference every day," Justice told the 35 NCOs in the room. He extolled the group for their Soldierly skills, for their qualities as systems engineers and organizers.

"I tout your skills everywhere I go, to everyone I talk to," he said.

Following Justice's remarks, Command Sgt. Maj. Hector Marin, RDECOM senior enlisted advisor, dismissed the Soldiers.

"Can I have everybody's attention!" Castellanos shouted just above the din of the disbanding group. He moved to the front of the room as others turned to hear what he had to say.

"I'm not very good at talking to groups of people," Castellanos began.

"What' An NCO who can't talk to a bunch of Soldiers'" Justice said, kiddingly.

"I just want you all to know that this recognition today has made this Soldier -- a new American Soldier -- very proud to be an American," Castellanos said. "Thank you all for coming today."

"Well," Justice said after a few seconds of silence. "Nobody can top that."

None of the five other Soldier of the Year hopefuls from RDECOM - a command of few Soldiers -- could top Castellanos during the week-long evaluation of their Soldier skills.

Castellanos became a naturalized American citizen during a 2009 deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I was a legal resident when I enlisted in the Army. And when I was in Iraq, I applied to become a U.S. citizen and then became a U.S. citizen in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 15, 2009," he explained with an undercurrent of pride in his voice.

A Soldier for the past three years, Castellanos reenlisted for his current assignment as Explosives Team Leader with the Night Vision Lab, Counter-Mine Division, Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, Fort Belvoir, Va.

He has an associate's degree in architecture from the University of San Carlos de Guatemala, an associate's in civil engineering from Northern Virginia Community College and is currently working toward a bachelor's degree in engineering with Old Dominion University.

Castellanos said he had a limited understanding of RDECOM before being assigned.

"I was in the same position as most Soldiers when I arrived at the night vision labs," he said. "Until I got completely disclosed to everything... I am surprised - and thankful - there is a command like RDECOM that worries about the Soldier and makes sure that we get the right equipment to the Soldier at the right time when we're in theater."

Castellanos' wife, Miriam, is also Guatemalan. The couple has two teenage sons and a young daughter.

He will now travel to Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., in two weeks' time to compete for the Army Materiel Command Noncommissioned Officer of the Year award.

Other RDECOM Soldiers vying for the honor were: Sgt. 1st Class Brian Verderber, Army Research Laboratory; Sgt. Kenneth Elliott, Communicatons-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center; Sgt. Anthony Gentilo, Army Materiel Command Band; Sgt. Richard Strandberg, U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center; and Spec. Natanael Afanador, Army Materiel Command Band.