If someone was to ask Sgt. 1st Class Virginia Avila 10 years ago where she thought she might be today, wearing an Army uniform in Georgia would never have crossed her mind. Then a tragedy struck Avila’s family, leaving her in a place of desperation – one that ultimately led her to the Army.
Avila, information technology specialist training development NCOIC for the U.S. Army Signal School Training Education and Development Division, enlisted in the Army in 2012 after spending several years working in retail management. At 28 years old and married with young children, the decision to enlist did not come easy for the Ontario, California, native. But it wound up being one of the best decisions she ever made.
About two years prior, Avila’s husband was critically injured while helping a coworker on the side of a road. A car traveling an estimated 70 MPH wrecked, leaving her husband pinned between two cars. Unsure he’d survive at first, Avila was eventually told he may never walk again. In an instant, Avila’s husband went from being the family’s “breadwinner” to Avila becoming their primary source of income – all while raising a 3-month and 18-month-old.
“I took on extra hours to keep up with the bills, working 70 hours a week, sometime more, just to make ends meet,” Avila said, reflecting on life before the Army. The long hours while trying to take care of their family eventually took a toll on Avila.
“My husband jokingly said, ‘Well, maybe you should join the military.’”
Assuming she was too old to join, Avila called a Navy recruiter the next day to inquire about age requirements. To her surprise, she had not yet reached the maximum age to join. Meanwhile, Avila’s 17-year-old stepson was speaking with an Army recruiter because he was interested in joining the military straight out of high school. Not long after, that recruiter came to their house so that Avila and her husband could sign paperwork granting him permission to enlist. While there, Avila asked the recruiter about prospects of her joining, and she liked what she heard.
“He told me that my family could go with me if I wanted to go active duty, that the Army would provide housing and medical care … I said, ‘Sign me up,’ and I made the decision that day,’” Avila said.
Both Avila and her stepson enlisted as information technology specialists (25B) and attended the same training but six months apart (he went first). And despite having the same military occupation specialty, they have had different missions and duty stations.
Avila’s career highlights include a deployment to Afghanistan, a three-year assignment at the Pentagon, and a yearlong industry training program with Cisco in North Carolina – the latter of which helped pave the path for where she is now.
“My follow-on assignment was to take what I learned there and then implement it here at the Signal School through training and development,” Avila said.
She does this by developing the coursework and field training exercises for 25B Soldiers going through Advanced Individual Training along with the Advanced Leaders Course and Senior Leaders Course.
“I really enjoy that we get to create material that helps the Soldier better learn what they’re going to be doing,” she said. “I find real fulfillment in seeing those products built and then them understanding and building it in more innovative and creative ways because their learning style is a lot different than what it was when I came through.”
Looking to the future, Avila plans to continue making an impact by becoming an information systems technician (255A) warrant officer – and in doing so, be able to serve at minimum 30 years. It’s a far cry from where she was when she began her Army journey. Initially, Avila said she only planned on fulfilling her four-year commitment, but wound up staying because she loved it.
Beyond providing an opportunity to care of her family, Avila was given opportunities that previously seemed unattainable, like earning college degrees. Having grown up in a “very poor community,” Avila has broken generational curses since enlisting. From earning an associate degree to being just two classes away from earning a bachelor’s degree – and with plans to pursue a master’s degree – Avila said the Army gave her a completely different life than what others in her family experienced.
“There are a lot of possibilities I didn’t see in the civilian sector that I see now,” Avila said. “I found strength, I found I could do stuff that I never thought I could do, and I found my purpose in being part of something bigger than myself.”
When she isn’t pouring herself into Soldier-trainees or herself, Avila spends much of her time living the Army Values out in the community. One recent example is her response to a need for volunteers at a Special Olympics event hosted at a local high school. When Avila heard a woman from her church say she was unsure of how they were going to pull of the event, Avila offered assistance by coordinating a group of Soldiers to help. Giving back to her community and being a role model is important to her.
“We aren’t only here at Fort Gordon serving, but we are here for the community," she said. "We live out in the community, and being a role model for those children is important to me."
Even more important is the impact she has on her own children’s lives – especially those of her daughters, who are 12 and almost 14 years old.
“Women can do anything they put their mind to, so having that confidence and strength … I want them to believe that they can do anything,” Avila said.
Anything includes joining the military and raising a family if they choose.
“I think that’s something a lot of women feel like they have to choose between, and I’m doing both,” she said. “There are some sacrifices here and there, but they can do both.”
As for Avila’s stepson, he is currently stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, serving overseas on a special assignment. And despite him having more time in service, Avila outranks him.
“He outranked me for like three months and I was pretty mad about it,” she laughed. “He hasn’t outranked me since I was promoted to sergeant.”
And she plans to keep it that way.
“One day he’ll salute me,” she said smiling. “I love signal, I love the signal community … I don’t’ see leaving it.”