By Brooke Brown
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany (Dec. 18, 2012) -- Soldier, leader, husband, and student -- these are some of the other important titles balanced daily by Staff Sgt. Matthew Senna, the U.S. Army's Noncommissioned Officer of the Year for 2012.
After competing with 24 of the Army's most talented Soldiers at the Best Warrior Competition, he was named the winner and presented with an award in Washington, D.C., Oct. 22.
"It was truly humbling and an incredible honor," said Senna, an infantryman with Bravo Company, 7th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy, in Grafenwoehr, Germany. When asked how he excelled, he points to a focus on constant self-improvement through education.
This year, the Best Warrior Competition challenged Soldiers in a new realm of competition -- mental toughness -- based on cognitive and creative thinking abilities. Scheduled between grueling road marches and PT tests were essays and written exams.
Senna credits higher education offered in military communities overseas for keeping him sharp by expanding his knowledge and reinforcing traits like self-discipline.
"Part of the reason why I got here is my education with (the University of Maryland, University College)," he said. "We had to take written examinations and write essays, and that experience and practice is what led me to where I am."
The Sacramento, Calif., native has recently completed his associate's degree, and plans to continue and earn his bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
According to Senna, taking time to get an education is well worth the sacrifice.
"In this time where the Army is changing getting an education will help you get promoted and also increase your ability to be a critical and adaptive thinker and an exceptional leader," he said.
Senna's wife, Danielle, is the driving force behind his focus. As his number one motivator, she helped him study constantly -- going through manuals and quizzing him during the competition.
"It's the same thing we do before our exams [in college]. We work together, quiz each other, and collaborate," said Senna.
Danielle, a fellow student, is about to complete her bachelor's degree in criminal justice. They would like to walk at UMUC Europe's commencement ceremony in May, if not for Ranger School and, of course, the possibility of an unpredictable change-of-duty station.
However, Senna's recent incredible accomplishment proved to be a great way to celebrate all of their hard work. At the award ceremony, Danielle couldn't hide her excitement at the surprise announcement of Senna's award.
"They could hear me scream for joy from the back of the ballroom," she said, "I know how hard he has worked and I'm so proud."
Recently selected for a promotion to sergeant first class, Senna contributes his college credit and academic experience. As a leader, he encourages other Soldiers to prioritize education.
"By taking a little bit of time and sacrificing, you can get a lot of stuff accomplished," he said.
From tuition assistance and financial aid to flexible programs and on-base classes, getting an education overseas has never been so accessible. Senna believes the major barrier holding service members back from pursuing higher education is lack of motivation.
"They have to look to the future, not just what's happening on that next four-day weekend," he explained. "Just a minimal amount of sacrifice can really make their lives."