CHICAGO – Thelma Barrios, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, was just 4 years old and didn’t know a single word of English when she moved to Chicagoland from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Master Sgt. Barrios is now the senior human resources noncommissioned officer for the more than 1,700 Soldiers of the 108th Sustainment Brigade. And she is one of only 21 service members from across the nation selected as a national 2022 Latina Style Distinguished Military Service Award recipient.
Although born in Laredo, Texas, she spent most of her childhood until 4 in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, when her mother moved to Chicago with Barrios and her three siblings.
“I remember getting off of a Greyhound bus in Chicago,” Barrios said. “It was snowing, and it was the first time I had seen snow.”
“Master Sgt. Barrios’ family is among thousands who came to the United States for the opportunity for a better life,” said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the adjutant general of Illinois and commander of the Illinois National Guard. “Through hard work and determination, she was able to provide a better life for herself and her family. We are proud to have such an extraordinary Soldier in our ranks.”
The Distinguished Military Service Awards will be presented during the 19th National LATINA Symposium Sept. 29 in Washington, D.C. The 2022 Latina Style Distinguished Military Service Awards celebrate the accomplishments of women in the military and the Department of Defense civilian workforce who, through their service, have enhanced the role of Latinas in their organization and the DOD.
Barrios enlisted into the Illinois Army National Guard in 1999, expecting just to serve her initial contract and earn enough money to pay for college.
“I was a 23-year-old single mother working a midnight shift while still going to college full-time,” Barrios said. “I can remember working late one evening and being totally exhausted. I passed an Army National Guard sign that said that 100% tuition would be paid by joining. It was still one of the hardest decisions that I had to make at that time because my daughter was only 3 years old, and it meant I’d have to leave for training.”
Barrios’ mother, Martha, watched her daughter, also named Martha, when she shipped off to basic combat training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, a month later. “I knew that obtaining my college degree was something that I really wanted to do and it was important because it meant I’d be the first in my family to do so.”
Barrios would graduate from Robert Morris University in Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in business administration management. She has worked full-time for the Illinois Army National Guard as an Active Guard Reserve Soldier since 2009. Barrios now lives in Manhattan, Illinois, with her husband. She has five adult children and four grandchildren.
In her spare time, Barrios volunteers for the National Guard Association of Illinois as the only Latina elected representative. She also volunteers with Guardian Angels Community Services, the Groundwork Domestic Violence Program, as a court-appointed special advocate for children, and with the Illinois Foster Adoptive Parent Association.
Barrios’ influence extends through all echelons of the Illinois Army National Guard, as well as her community.
As the brigade’s senior human resources noncommissioned officer, she has mentored and guided countless individuals on career management in the civilian and military fields. As a trained military equal opportunity leader, she has been instrumental in implementing the Brigade Diversity and Inclusion mentoring program.
Over the years, Barrios has gained the respect and admiration of the Soldiers around her, particularly junior enlisted Soldiers.
Barrios takes great pride in her Latin heritage and wants other Latinas to know they can accomplish their goals. “Our formations are composed of so many demographics and is so culturally diverse.”
Barrios said the award can be encouraging to those who come from similar backgrounds. There are others who “didn’t know a single word of English” when they arrived, and they, too, can accomplish a lot, she said.