By Capt. Austin Liu, 6-52nd Air Defense Artillery, 35th ADA Brigade Public AffairsMay 16, 2011
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea - It is a common feeling shared by young Soldiers arriving at their first duty station overseas - the feeling of homesickness and loneliness in a foreign country.
Pfc. Ryan Winner was no stranger to that feeling.
But what separated Winner from others is that he has effectively turned his emotion into the very motivation that propelled him to capture the title of 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade Soldier of the Year during the annual competition held here this month.
"This is a great moment in my life, I did this [winning the competition] for my family and even though they are thousands of miles away, I know they are all very proud of me right now," Winner said after winning the prestigious award.
Indeed, when asked what was the secret behind his success, the 25-year-old communication specialist assigned to Alpha Battery, 6-52nd Air Defense Artillery Battalion, smiled and said that "his dedication to his family and God is what drove him every day to do his best in the Army."
This same dedication also drove Winner to excel above his peers during the grueling week-long competition that consisted of rifle marksmanship, warrior tasks and drills exercises, a day and night land navigation course, first aid courses, various boards and a culminating 12-miles forced ruck march.
Winner confidently outperformed his competitors in every event.
However, the top Soldier in the Dragon Brigade's journey to success has not always been an easy one. When Winner first arrived at the Republic of Korea, he was struck with loneliness unlike any he has ever experienced before.
"Korea was my first duty station after graduating from advanced individual training," said the Ohio native, "And being so far away from my family in a foreign nation was really frustrating to me."
Winner, who came from a "very close-knitted Christian family in Maria Stein, Ohio," said, "I remember that my sister was getting married during that time [when I first got to Korea] and the fact that I had to miss her wedding made the situation worse."
"I think he [Winner] was pretty shell-shocked from his first duty station during the initial few months in Korea," said Sgt. Billy Smith, who has been a mentor and squad leader for the young Soldier from early on. "But everyone saw that there is something in him that sets him apart from the rest ... and he quickly rebounded."
Winner quickly pulled himself up and began placing his attention on something else.
"One day, I heard about the Soldier of the Month Board that our unit does and I said to myself that I want to be part of that great honor," Winner said. "I think the competitor inside of me really came out that day and I knew that drive is what will get me through this difficult time."
Winner was no stranger to competitions. After all, he was a star athlete in high school, excelled in multiple sports and even played college hoops at Wright State University.
Soon, Winner began piling up accolade after accolade from various boards he won at the battalion level.
"I can only describe Winner as always going above and beyond in everything he does," said Smith, who was his sponsor during most of the boards.
He continued, "Winner never ceases to amaze me ... his calm demeanor and maturity really served as an inspiration to all in the unit."
"I think his devotion to his family and religion were the main reasons he did what he did," Smith concluded.
It was unusual in the contemporary American society for a recent college graduate to enlist in the military and forgo the commissioning route. And that was exactly what Winner, who earned a computer science degree from Wright State University, decided to do after receiving his diploma.
"My family was very supportive of my decision every step of the way," said Winner. "They understood perfectly that I needed the challenge in my life."
As Winner stood tall receiving the recognition from winning the Soldier of the Year title, he could not help but think of his parents and siblings back at home.
"I called them [my family] and told them the good news the first opportunity I got," said Winner, "and I remember my mother was crying on the line out of pure joy."
The next step for Winner is to win the title of the Eighth Army Warrior of the Year competition coming up in a few weeks.
Winner is already preparing for the competition with a rigorous training program.
"I feel very confident about it [Warrior of the Year Competition], I am going in with a positive attitude and I know nothing can startle me," Winner said, flashing a confident smile. "And I know between the support of my family and the drive inside of me, I will be able to go further and climb higher than I will ever expect myself to be able to do."