(RALEIGH, North Carolina) — There are hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the U.S. Army but only one can be named Female Soldier-Athlete of the Year.
While her accomplishment is being heralded as an historic win for Samoans, it'd be an injustice to exclude half of her identity.
"I like to say my full name is Salaia Latoya Nicole Marshall Salave’a," the U.S. Army's Female Soldier-Athlete of the Year told tautalatala from Raleigh.
"I tell people that I am Samoan and Black. Most people want me to be one or the other but I’m both so they either accept it or not."
In the military ranks, she is Sgt. Latoya Nicole Marshall, U.S. Army Recruiter with Wilmington Recruiting Company, Raleigh Battalion, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Born on a naval base in Great Lakes, Ill., raised in American Samoa with roots in Ili'ili and Leone, she hit her six-year mark in the U.S. Army on March 6, 2018.
Last month, Sgt. Marshall was presented the soldier-athlete award during a ceremony in Huntsville, Ala. at the Association of United States Army Symposium and Expo.
Recipient of the Male Soldier-Athlete of the Year is U.S. Army Sgt. First Class David Moore (softball). U.S. Army Coach of the Year is Capt. Jeff Fearing (hockey).
"Most people don’t know that I am Samoan because of my name," Sgt. Marshall said. "However, most say I have an accent from up north (lol) and that’s how they can tell that I am mixed."
Sgt. Marshall says lessons learned growing up in the islands, paved the way for an outstanding and lengthy list of awards in volleyball and basketball.
She's works hard and is a hall of famer at the University of Nevada, Reno. This is her list of sports accolades for last year alone: 2017 All Army Volleyball Team Member; 2017 All Army Volleyball Collection for the 5th time; 2017 USAG Humphreys Female Athlete of the Quarter; 2017 Osan Holiday Basketball Classic Womens All Tournament Team; Korea Wide Peninsula Basketball Champions; Guam March Madness Invitational Basketball Champions; American Samoa National Volleyball Team, Gold Medal and Counsell International Du Sport Militaire (CISM) Women's Volleyball, Silver Medal.
"The best thing to me about being a soldier is I’m taught so many skills to help me be a versatile individual which is not only beneficial to my Army career but to my personal life as well," Sgt. Marshall said.
"People are very responsive and receptive to me because of my story. When they get to know me it amazes them how similar my life story is to theirs even though I’m from the islands and they’re from the mainland."
She became a recruiter last year, saying the job has created a bigger platform to impact the lives of young people, providing more opportunities to volunteer and meet people.
Tasked with her official job as a soldier, sports training is an extra challenge.
There is physical training in the morning, she watches film during lunch break (when she does get a lunch break), then trains some more after work.
"I have friends come out and help train me. I do basketball training to help me get in shape for volleyball...I try to look for open gym sessions so I can work on my ball control for volleyball," Sgt. Marshall said.
"The unique thing about being an Army Soldier-Athlete is that your experience and impact goes beyond sports. You have to do well in your job as a soldier and excel in your specific sport as an athlete."
The celebration for the Soldier-Athlete honor was offering up a prayer of gratitude for "the blessing" received, she said — and extending thanks to her teammates, coaches, friends, commanders, colleagues, "and especially my family for their love and support."
At the time of this interview late March, Sgt. Marshall was preparing for an Army Physical Fitness test and her sixth All Army Volleyball tryout as a player/coach.
Asked how the islands helped to shape this athlete for her current calling in life, Sgt. Marshall notes: "A strong family support system that always put God first is important."
"Being grateful for the many lessons that I’ve learned from family members, mentors, teammates, coaches, teachers, church leaders, and youth advisors," she added. "I didn’t have much growing up but I had the necessities. I was always taught to EARN things and that’s what has helped me."
In American Samoa, she played volleyball on cement, out in the hot sun, practiced under the pulu tree on dirt, even turned a house foundation into a volleyball court.
"And never once complained. It made me tough, grateful, and the athlete I am," Sgt. Marshall told tautalatala. "With God’s love and blessings that everything goes well, retiring from the United States Army is the ultimate goal of mine."