By: Darci Miller
PUEBLO, Colo. – When Deshauna Barber was onstage for the question rounds of the Miss USA pageant in 2016, she was floored when she got her question.
How did she feel about the Pentagon allowing women to integrate every branch of the military?
Barber, a captain in the United States Army Reserve, then commanding a patrolling unit out of Rockville, Maryland, knew exactly how she felt about the new legislation that had just been passed.
“I basically said that I think it was an amazing job that the Pentagon allowed women to integrate into every branch in the military, that we’re just as strong as men, and as a commander, gender does not limit us in the United States Army,” Barber said. “I take it very seriously. Although I don’t have any intention of entering into any combat arms branches, I still think it’s something that women should have access to if they choose. So I don’t think there should be any level of discrimination based on gender within the military as a whole.”
While Barber may be best known for being Miss USA 2016, it’s really the military that has her heart.
She grew up in a military family, with both of her parents serving in the Army – she and both of her siblings followed the family tradition. Her only debate was how to go into it. She ultimately decided to accept a military scholarship and commission through Virginia State University’s ROTC program, through which she became a quartermaster officer.
From there, she commissioned as an officer into the Army Reserve and has been doing that for 11 years, spending two days a month and two weeks a year with her unit. She’s also a Howard University cadre member, helping with their cadets going through their scholarship program and recruiting incoming freshmen.
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“I did love not only the uniform and what it represents, I just love to be able to say that I serve my country I’ve done my time, to be able to support and defend this country,” Barber said. “So I think it’s an amazing, patriotic feeling to be able to say that you’ve served.”
Barber got into pageants by accident – she was discovered by a pageant recruiter at 19 years old when she was working at Target. She was completely new to the pageant world and had grown up a rough-and-tumble tomboy.
“Both my mom and my dad both served in the military, so we didn’t really indulge in pageantry, as you can imagine,” she said with a laugh. “But it was really just a way for me to get in touch with my feminine side, I discovered, and I just ended up falling in love with it, and started doing it back to back until I finally won my state title (Miss D.C. USA 2015).”
From there, Barber went on to win Miss USA in 2016 and place in the Top 9 of Miss Universe in January 2017.
It was also in 2017 that Barber attended several PBR events through the league’s parent company, Endeavor, which also owns the Miss USA pageant. She helped kick off the season in New York City and was also on hand for Helldorado Days in Las Vegas with several other pageant girls.
“We wore heels and stuff like that. We definitely were not prepared,” she said, laughing. “It was definitely different, but we loved every moment. Bulls are definitely another level of intimidating.”
Barber spent her year-long reign as Miss USA advocating for men and women in uniform. When she gave up her Miss USA crown in May 2017, she began speaking full-time and, while she enjoyed it, something was missing.
“I felt kind of disconnected from my true purpose, which I believe is serving veterans in some way, shape or form, but specifically women service members,” Barber said.
So when she got an email from the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) in October 2019 saying that they were looking to fill their CEO position, she says she jumped for joy.
According to its website, SWAN, which was founded in 2007, is the voice of all military women. The organization advocates for and supports the needs of both service women and women veterans, regardless of rank, military branch, or years of experience.
Barber says that SWAN’s main purpose is advocacy and research, working directly with legislators on Capitol Hill to pass bills and legislation that benefit women in the military and women veterans.
This, of course, includes the legislation allowing for full integration about which Barber was asked onstage at the Miss USA 2016 pageant.
“You’re dealing with a lot of congressmen and congresswomen that are subject matter experts in their own right, but they don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of being a service member, let alone a female service member,” Barber said. “So a lot of the discrimination that women experience – the lack of access to proper healthcare and women-specific services through the health system, access to proper-fitting equipment, access to all these things – is something they don’t necessarily have an expertise in. So that’s really the purpose of SWAN, is to be somewhat of a go-to for expert assistance when it comes to passing legislation to benefit women.”
SWAN also focuses on case management, acting as a “one-stop-shop” for all women service members and veterans. They can call SWAN about any of their needs – homelessness, domestic violence, legal issues, etc. – and SWAN will provide access to vetted organizations that can assist them.
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“What we found when the organization was founded back in 2009 was that a lot of the veterans service organizations did not cater to women,” Barber said. “They cater to men, which in a way makes sense because men represent 85% of our military force. However, that 15% that women represent is still millions of women, so it’s still a large population that still needs access.
“When you call into our organization as a service member, we have almost all the answers, and if we don’t have the answer, we find it for you. But the main thing is that we want to be a source for women. What we found when the organization was founded was that a lot of these women service members would call five, 10, 20 different organizations to get a single answer, and there just was no one expert organization catered towards women service members that could answer the questions that they had.”
Barber has been at the helm of SWAN since January 2020. A difficult year to begin any new job, to be sure, but she’s been thrilled to head a company that allows her to fulfill her purpose.
And to think the seeds were planted on stage during Miss USA 2016 when she was asked about gender integration legislation.
“SWAN spent years working alongside the legislators to be able to pass that bill that dismantled a previously very gender-biased bill or stand-in,” Barber said. “That was probably our biggest accomplishment, I would say, over our history, is definitely allowing women to be able to do what they want to do in the military when they join. There should not be branches and units that are inaccessible to us.
“If we pass all the steps required, and we pass any requirements that are there, I feel like women should have access.”
For more information and to contact SWAN, visit their website at servicewomen.org.
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