By Brady Rhoades
Deshauna Barber’s father was a Green Beret and drill sergeant in the Army. “He had a way of dealing with us,” said Barber in an interview with U.S. Veterans Magazine. Her mother was in the service, as well, and had her own child-rearing ways.
Growing up in North Carolina, Nebraska, Minnesota, Virginia and Washington, D.C., Barber learned foundational principles from her parents that she carried into her military career.
Self-discipline. Teamwork. Endurance.
But she had to learn other principles and skills that hadn’t crossed her mind on her way to winning the 2016 Miss USA title.
Army captain and Miss USA don’t seem to add up until you hear Barber, a veteran, CEO and motivational speaker, tell audiences, “The most important thing is to move.” And: “Be terrified of regret.”
Rewind to 2006, when Barber, 17 at the time, joined the United States Army Reserve. She attended Virginia State University, graduating with a degree in business management (she’s a member of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority).
She then earned her master’s degree in management information systems and services from the University of Maryland University College and worked as an IT analyst for the United States Department of Commerce.
Barber went on to become president and chief executive officer of Service Women’s Action Network, the nation’s leading 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization advocating on behalf of service women and women veterans in the country.
In the Army, she was commissioned as a quartermaster officer, then became a logistics commander and captain. She served her country for 11 years.
“The Army Reserve taught me how to balance, plan, multi-task and prioritize,” she said. Not to mention, being in the Army can be somewhat intimidating, depending on who is in the room with you… It was scary, but I think I’ve been in scarier situations.”
She has spent much of her career focused on supporting Soldiers suffering from PTSD and women who’ve faced sexual harassment in the military. She said one in four women will experience sexual trauma while serving. These are strong women who aren’t in the business of sharing their feelings, and there are 350,000 of them in the United States forces and 2 million women veterans.
“We try to break the stigma attached to it,” she said. “It’s really about catching that stigma and making sure they don’t go to that darker place.”
“It’s important to get help and get therapy,” she added. “I am still in therapy at 33. These types of trauma can manifest in subtle ways.
“You may not get the sorry you deserve, but it does not mean you have to lock yourself into the sadness and sorrow.”
She said it was a pivotal move when “President Joe Biden signed into law that sexual harassment is against the law as far as military justice.”
When Barber was crowned Miss USA 2016, she became the first member of the military to win the honor and the first African-American woman to wear the crown since Crystal Steward in 2008. Her platform: promote veterans’ issues.
Barber is diligent about fitness, and she’s a polished speaker, two qualities that were honed in the military (as a captain, she gave presentations to companies and battalions). But she wasn’t prepared for one thing.
“I got to tap into my femininity, my girly side,” she said. “But the military doesn’t prepare you for six-inch stiletto heels.”
Her parents and siblings supported her throughout her pageantry endeavors, but it wasn’t easy for her father.
“He’s not a pageant guy,” she said. “He would come to the pageants, but if I didn’t win, he’d be waiting for the judges outside.”
Seven years after being crowned, Barber is on the move, per usual. She’s a speaker—preacher T.D. Jakes and TV host Steve Harvey have influenced her style—and an activist.
For her, the two go hand-in-hand. A survivor of sexual abuse, she frequently talks about dealing with trauma and loss.
Her Apple podcast will launch in late spring or early summer of this year—the title: Sour Loss, Sweet Lessons.
Barber suffered a profound loss when her mother died. There’s no getting over it, but there is the matter of getting on, so she’s taken her own advice, advice she’s doled out to audiences for years in her work as a motivational speaker.
“Sometimes, when people are dealing with sorrow, they allow themselves to drown in it,” she said. “I tell people to swim through it and ask them what direction they’re headed.”
These days, when Barber speaks to the media, corporations, universities, the military and even the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, you can see the Army captain, the pageant queen, the corporate executive, the survivor.
She walks upright, like a Soldier, paces the stage with the confidence and charisma of a Miss USA, and issues words that have been polished through many rewrites.
“People connect to the beauty of words, and that’s what preachers have mastered,” she said.
Most recently, at the Life Vantage Global Convention 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona, she talked about overcoming doubt, be it internal, external or both. Her words excited the crowd in front of her but were meant for everyone—women, men, survivors of abuse, those struggling with mental health issues, active military personnel and veterans.
“You have been promoted for a reason. You’ve been placed in your role for a reason,” she said. “Put on your bulletproof vest and allow the doubts of others to bounce off you.”