Deshauna Barber made history when she took home the title of Miss USA by being the first-ever military service member to win the crown, and hopes her win can be an inspiration to others.
“It means so much to be the first anything, so to be the first soldier as Miss USA is an honor,” Barber, 26, tells PEOPLE. “When the sash isn’t on, the uniform is on, so it’s the most patriotic position to be in. I can’t wait to tell people my story and hear their stories.”
Barber hopes her unique backstory will make her relatable to a wider audience.
“Miss USA is someone that women around the globe aspire to be, and I believe that I’m a great representation of that because I don’t have this cookie cutter background,” she says. “I’ve gone through a lot of hurdles and climbed a lot of mountains to be where I am right now. I think it’s so inspiring, and a motivation to push people to chase their dreams.”
Barber spoke out in favor of the military’s decision to open all combat roles to women during the question round, and hopes to continue to be an advocate for women everywhere.
“There are so many things that make women feel that we’re limited, so to get up there and say that we’re capable of anything, I think that inspired a lot of people,” she says.
In addition to being a pageant queen, Barber is a Logistics Commander for the 988th Quartermaster Detachment Unit at Fort Meade, Maryland. Both of her parents were in the military, and she was inspired by them to want to serve herself.
“It was always ingrained in me to be very appreciative of the freedoms that we have as Americans, and be willing to fight for those freedoms,” she says. “I knew that when I graduated high school that I was going to join the Army. I saw what my parents had gone through, I saw how dedicated they were to the service, so it’s an awesome feeling to know that I’ve carried on the tradition.”
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She admitted that she did worry if her participation in pageants would cause the soldiers in her unit to take her less seriously – but fortunately that has not been the case.
“That was absolutely a concern, but my unit and the battalion that I’m in are all very accepting of people from different backgrounds,” she says. “I do realize that they may look at me like, ‘Oh she’s such a girly girl.’ But it’s not the same when my uniform’s on! Outside of the uniform, I can get into that glamorous aspect of my personality, but when I am in uniform, I’m not the girly girl.”
And Barber feels just as confident in her uniform and a pair of combat boots as she does in a ball gown and heels.
“When you’re in a gown, you feel beautiful and feminine, but the uniform it has its perks for sure,” she says. “The boots are comfortable, the heels aren’t comfortable, so I can’t decide which one [is better]. They both have their perks!”
As the new Miss USA, Barber will work to promote the organization’s platform to raise awareness for breast and ovarian cancer, but will also advocate for PTSD treatment for veterans.
“I want to make sure they have what they need when they return from deployment,” she says. “I have lost a soldier to PTSD, to suicide, so I have been directly affected by it. Right now 22 veterans commit suicide each day, and that is a catastrophic number that needs to make it to zero, so I look forward to bringing awareness to that.”