ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- After five days of competition that pushed four Soldiers' physical abilities and technical expertise, Staff Sgt. Markus Whisman and Pfc. Joshua Inserra earned honors March 30 as the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's Noncommissioned Officer and Soldier of the Year, respectively.RDECOM's enlisted corps serves an important role by acting as Soldier representatives with the Army's scientists and engineers, Command Sgt. Maj. Lebert Beharie said.RDECOM Director Dale Ormond and Beharie presented the winners Army Commendation Medals; gift certificates from AAFES and Morale, Welfare and Recreation; and an RDECOM backpack filled with T-shirts.Ormond recognized all the participants for their important role in RDECOM's mission of empowering, unburdening and protecting American Soldiers."Thank you for your service. Thank you for your enthusiasm, motivation, leadership and commitment to excellence," Ormond said.Whisman, a research and development adviser assigned to Army Research Laboratory at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and Inserra, a signal support systems maintainer assigned to Communications--Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center at APG, now advance to the Army Materiel Command NCO and Soldier of the Year competitions.Also vying for the honors were:-- Staff Sgt. Sharalis Canales, a behavioral health NCO assigned to Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center at Natick, Mass.-- Staff Sgt. Christopher Duff, an explosive ordnance disposal team leader assigned to the EOD Technology Directorate at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.The Soldiers discussed their backgrounds, family lives, personal goals and combat tours with the RDECOM public affairs office during the competition week.GAINING LEADERSHIP, EDUCATION, SKILLSThe Soldiers agreed they have benefited tremendously from their decision to enlist.Inserra, the junior Soldier among the competitors with 22 months of service, said he enlisted because of his family's positive experiences in the military. His brother served in the Army, and a cousin served in the Marine Corps."They had that feeling of knowledge, training and confidence. I wanted that," Inserra said.Inserra is planning to use the Army's educational benefits to complete his degree in electrical engineering. He praised his NCOs for their leadership and hopes to emulate them as he progresses during his Army career."I have a great bunch of NCOs in front of me. I want to be like them. I want to have the leadership that they have," he said. "I've gained so much more confidence in myself than I could have ever imagined. I'm enjoying that confidence. I'm more confident in my writing. I'm more confident in the way I speak to people."Canales has changed her life dramatically since enlisting six years ago."I was homeless. I was living in a shelter in Times Square for six months. I needed a sense of direction. I went to the recruiting station and I joined," she said. "The Army has been my family, and it's been everything to me."Canales completed her associate's degree three weeks ago. She is now studying for a bachelor's degree in psychology and then plans to pursue a master's degree in social work. After retiring from active duty, she hopes to return as an Army civilian employee."[I want] to continue serving in the mental-health field to help Soldiers, families and retirees," she said. "It's weird how I went from being homeless and before that living in a foster home with counselors."When I joined the Army, the roles reversed. Now I am a counselor, so I'm able to give back. I think it's wonderful that I can do that. My experience before I joined helped shape what I've learned."COUNTERING MISCONCEPTIONSThe Soldiers said the American public holds misconceptions about the Army that are reinforced by incidents such as when Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians."One of the misconceptions is that we all go to Iraq, run around, shooting guns at whoever we see, and killing everyone," Duff said. "That's not what we're there for at all. It's not what it's all about."There is a mission over there. We are all over there for a small piece of that mission and to come home safely."Canales echoed Duff's comments. She said her military experience differs greatly from the images seen on TV news of infantrymen on patrol in Iraq or Afghanistan."I think a lot of civilians who don't know much about the Army believe that all we do is go to war, fight, and kill people," Canales said. "Even my brothers believe I carry a gun at all times. I wish they could come and see what we do in the Army. I'm a counselor, and I've been in the hospital setting for the last six years."COMBAT BRINGS A NEW PERSPECTIVEWhisman and Duff have deployed to the Middle East, and they gained a better understanding of the military's objectives in the area."When you deploy, you get to see a little bit of the bigger picture," Duff said. "You see why we do what we do and what we're there to do. For a family, it reassured my wife that she can get through a deployment and keep the house under control."Whisman said he has a new appreciation for life as an American."I saw some things that definitely put my life here in perspective. They have so little. I'll never again take for granted what I have at home," Whisman said. "It could be so much worse. As bad as you think you might have it, it could always be a lot worse."