This summer, Army Staff Sgt. Adam Sahlberg of Spokane Valley celebrated the Fourth of July in a memorable way. He and his wife, Kristena, met President Barack Obama and the first lady, and watched the fireworks from the White House lawn.
The 2002 University High School grad received an invitation to the White House because in March, he was named the top noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army Medical Command.
He achieved this distinction by participating in the Army’s Best Warrior Competition, which continues in October.
“I was kind of ‘voluntold’ by one particular supervisor, Sgt. 1st Class Craig Burnard,” said Sahlberg, recalling how he got involved in the intense competition.
Competing to become the Army’s best warrior was the furthest thing from his mind when he enlisted at 19. “I just wanted to serve my country,” he said.
As a combat medic with the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, Sahlberg spent 14 months in Iraq. He said, “I was sent to Baquba, an area coined the “triangle of death.” This volatile region has been a point of intense combat activity and sectarian violence.
The experience had a profound effect on the young soldier. “I did a lot of journaling while I was over there and ended up writing a book about my experience,” he said. “It’s the reflections of a husband who misses his wife, a dad who misses his kids, and a medic’s perspective of Iraq.” Writing, he said, made him feel connected to his wife and two daughters.
Currently stationed at Fort Irwin, Calif., Sahlberg is undertaking a grueling and intense competition. Soldiers are tested in every facet of Army life. Written tests, essays, day and night navigation courses and physical training tests are just the beginning.
Sahlberg also had to show proficiency in tasks like combat casualty care, searching a detainee, and conducting an interview with media.
When it came to the marksmanship challenge, he felt in his element. “That’s where I shine,” he said. “I’ve been shooting since I was 6.” Indeed, he earned the title of grand master at 17, and traveled extensively. He competed in rifle, pistol and shotgun events, earning prize money and sponsorships along the way.
He didn’t feel quite as comfortable with the oral board segment of the contest. “That’s where you sit before four of the highest ranking people you will ever see,” he said. “You’re judged on your appearance, your speech and your knowledge. It’s nerve-wracking!”
But he excelled and earned the top spot in the medical command. The trip to D.C. was an unexpected reward. Sahlberg said, “We found out 10 days before the event.”
He and Kristena spent five days in Washington. “It’s the longest time we’ve spent alone together since we had Peyton,” he said, referring to their firstborn. The fact that his wife is expecting their third child, a boy, in just a few weeks, didn’t slow them down.
Sahlberg was especially pleased the high-ranking Army officials they met recognized the importance of Kristena’s support. He feels her steady presence and encouragement are vital to his success. “A soldier will only go as far in the Army as his wife will let him go,” he said.
On July Fourth, a bus took them to the White House. Sahlberg had planned to wear his dress uniform, but the president requested that the soldiers wear casual clothes so they could relax and enjoy the day with him.
Sahlberg and Kristena were seated directly in front of the podium. “After his speech, he came down and shook my hand,” he said. “It was very exciting to meet the president.”
While the trip was thrilling, Sahlberg is back at work, gearing up for the next level of competition. He’s one of 24 soldiers scheduled to compete in October for the title of U.S. Army best warrior. Described as the Super Bowl of Army competitions, the annual contest names the Department of the Army’s soldier and noncommissioned officer of the year.
When he enlisted, Sahlberg didn’t intend to make the military his career. His experience in the competition has changed that. “It reshaped my image of the Army,” he said. He now plans to become a physical therapist and continue to serve his country.
And wherever his career takes him, he’s clear about one thing: “I’ve always considered Spokane my home. The longer I’m away from it, the more I miss it.”