As Miss USA, Deshauna Barber Used Her Beauty And Strength To Support Veterans.
By Connie Aitcheson
Most beauty contestants struggle during the interview portion of the contest, especially one as big as Miss USA. Not Deshauna Barber. When celebrity fashion judge, Joe Zee, asked her opinion of the Pentagon’s decision to open up combat roles to women, Barber didn’t flinch.
“As a woman in the United States Army,” she said to a rousing applause from the audience. “I think it was an amazing job by our government to allow women to integrate into every branch of the military. We are just as tough as men. As a commander of my unit, I am powerful. I am dedicated. And it is important that we recognize that gender does not limit us in the United States Army.” With that answer and more, Barber was propelled to win the 2016 Miss USA crown and represented America at the Miss Universe contest where she made it to the final 13 contestants.
It might seem hard to imagine a beauty queen as a soldier and a soldier as a beauty queen, but that’s what we had in Barber. She is the first Miss USA who actively served in the U.S. Army Reserve. Two days a month, Barber, 27, reports as the Logistics Commander for the 988th Quartermaster Detachment Unit in Rockville, Maryland, where she oversees a petroleum detachment unit and has 12 soldiers who work under her. She has never been deployed but wouldn’t mind if that happens.
“Unfortunately, there are those stereotypes that ‘military women aren’t feminine, we aren’t pretty, we are butch or masculine like,’ so I was happy I was able to break down that stereotype,” she says. “And then in regards to pageant competitors, I’ve found there’s a whole set of stereotypes for them. So I’m happy that I’m able to show the career side to pageant women. I’m able to show the educational side; I’m able to show that there’s so much more than just a pretty face. We’re more authentic than that.”
An Army brat, Barber, calls being in the military a “family tradition,” since her parents, two siblings and stepmom all served in the Army. Her parents met at Fort Benning in Georgia, and the family lived in five states when she was growing up. She joined the ROTC at 17 and was 20 when she became a commissioned officer.
It was natural for her to choose Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the cause she’d promote for the year of her reign as Miss USA. She says a lot of her soldiers have suffered or are currently suffering from PTSD. The problem Barber finds with PTSD—she doesn’t call it an illness—is that soldiers are ashamed of it, and they’re ashamed to the point where they don’t want to talk about it.
“I feel as Miss USA I’m able to use my voice as a way to discuss this disorder, to discuss the need that we have for soldiers to feel it’s okay to come out and say that you are suffering from this mental battle and it’s okay to get help,” Barber says. “You’re having a reaction to trauma. You’re seeing things that most people will never see in their lifetime. That is something that you signed up for willingly to make that sacrifice for the freedom of everyone that lives in this nation and for that we applaud you.”
Barber’s father, Darren, an Army Master Sgt., served two tours in Iraq after 9/11 and was in the military for 21 years. Mr. Barber, 52, says when he was in the Army he and others suffered from PTSD. He recalled one deployment when he was driving from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and a machine was cutting down a tree by the roadside. A piece of the tree trunk hit his car and “I immediately went into maneuvers and reaching to grab a gun that wasn’t there. That’s a form of PTSD,” he says.
He and his fellow soldiers didn’t know its clinical name but knew some had a hard time readjusting to civilian life after a deployment. His house became a safe place for many of these soldiers, and his daughter witnessed those struggles and bonds growing up.
“Back in my day in the military, it didn’t necessarily have a title the way it is now,” he says. “It was something that we dealt with. We looked at it from a perspective of here we are just taking care of our fellow soldiers.”
Mr. Barber says his home was open all the time, filled with friends of his he affectionately calls “my brethren.” These were soldiers who came home and weren’t necessarily coping and getting into it with their significant other and having issues that were not easy to handle. As their team sergeant, Mr. Barber often told them to come over to his house and stay for a couple of days. “Deshauna was around that type of family, comrade-type thing,” he says. “It’s one of those subliminal things where she was probably a little bit too young to realize what was going on but she’s always been around individuals with that disorder.”
Barber’s trek to beauty queen was not conventional. She didn’t start out as a little girl looking to own a crown. It wasn’t until two years after she entered the ROTC that Barber competed in her first beauty pageant, which at that time was a part-time pursuit. She got a Masters of Science in computer information systems and worked as an IT analyst in the acquisition department of the Department of Commerce.
For six years she lost every beauty contest she entered until 2015 when she won Miss District of Columbia. As she prepared to enter Miss USA, the Department of Commerce was put on notice, “If I win then I won’t be coming back,” she told them. Those are words she wouldn’t have said to the Army. But even after winning Miss USA she was squeamish about how soldiers would react to her title.
“I was incredibly nervous when I first won because not many people in my unit knew that I was Miss District of Columbia and that I was going to be competing for Miss USA,” she says. “I just didn’t know what the reaction would be. I didn’t know if when I came back to my unit they’d be like, ‘oh, look at the pageant girl, the queen girl.’ ”
Instead, the military has been one of her biggest supporters. “I feel like everyone has really taken a positive point of view on my being Miss USA,” she says. “I find that it inspired a lot of soldiers to be able to chase their dreams and not feel limited. I think that in the military when we’re serving we kind of feel that obligation to focus our energy and our efforts on being a soldier, and that’s all well and good, but at the end of the day we all have lives outside of the uniform.”
Barber says it’s important for everyone to be able to spend their life chasing goals and doing the things they want to do. If that includes being a soldier, then there’s nothing wrong with balancing that with other things that you may want to do in life.
Her philosophy came from her biggest supporter, her mother, Cordelia, who passed away in August of 2016. At the time of the Miss USA pageant, Barber’s mother had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and was in hospice. Although Barber didn’t know the severity of the illness, her knees seem to buckle on stage when she was announced as the winner. She didn’t speak about the passing of her mother much but confessed on her Instagram page why she was so overcome.
“Now that my mother has passed on I can be honest about my crowning moment. I have lied to a lot of people. Telling interviewers that I was so dramatically emotional because I worked so hard to be on that stage. The truth is, I was emotional because my mom was in her home fighting for her life and there was nothing I could do to help her. I told myself that the least thing I could do for my mother was to make her proud by bringing the Miss USA crown home to our family. I cried because I was shocked that I accomplished that goal. I knew she was screaming with joy and probably felt the happiest she will ever feel during her lifetime.”
Despite the severity of her illness, Cordelia made the family swear not to tell Barber how ill she was and lived longer than expected so she could watch her win the title. “Her mom was extremely, extremely proud of her,” says her dad, “to the point that, I will say, she held on with terminal cancer so that she could see her become Miss USA. The doctors and the caregivers, when she was in hospice, were just really baffled that she was still here.”
It’s unlikely Barber would have won the Miss USA title without the help of her family. Both of her siblings relocated to North Carolina, and eventually transitioned out of the military, so they could care for their mother allowing Barber to concentrate on the pageant. Her dad says every time the family gets together, Deshauna thanks her siblings for the sacrifice that they made to help and allow her to compete for Miss USA. “So when we say this is a family achievement, this is why we say it’s a family achievement,” her dad says, “Because we all made a lot of sacrifices to help her get there.”
Since her win, Barber has visited several VA hospitals and always speaks about PTSD. At one hospital in Maryland, about 30 older veterans left their rooms and lined the hallway in their wheelchairs waiting to greet her. Afterward, the nurses told Barber it was the first time many of them had left their rooms for a social event.
“I feel very inspired by that, and I think that is incredibly important that people like myself, who are in the spotlight, give these veterans that time, that they’re able to come out and see them because we want them to feel some sense of purpose,” she says. “We want them to feel as though they have something to look forward to tomorrow. And it’s sad to hear that some of these veterans don’t even want to leave their room.”
As Miss USA, Barber never got involved in a policy debate about PTSD, but she will continue to raise awareness and thank as many veterans as she can. Traveling to different VA hospitals, she highlighted the facility while thanking the veterans. She says it was important to be face-to-face with soldiers and thank them in person for the sacrifices that they make and also to thank the people that work in these VA hospitals because they’re doing the best that they can to take care of our veterans. She’s cognizant of the many ways soldiers affected by PTSD, especially those who have been sexually violated. “Sexual assault is definitely a huge thing in the military,” she says. “It’s not necessarily my platform but it is obviously a serious issue, and I’m hoping that even being Miss USA and a soldier I’m able to really shed light on all the issues that we have in the military, and we have in the country as a whole.”
Whether as a beauty queen showing her grace and elegance or as a soldier showing her strength, Barber says winning Miss USA was awesome. “I’m shocked that I had this opportunity to represent the country,” she says.
Given her capabilities as a soldier, there should have been no doubt she would represent the country well.