AUSTIN, Texas — The southernmost tip of Texas falls into what is colloquially known as "The Valley." No one really knows why it's called this; the actual Rio Grande Valley and the nearest mountains are hundreds of miles away.
The land is flat, tropical and the home of a predominantly Hispanic population.
It was there, in what she calls the "blink-and-you'll-miss-it"town of Premont, that Army Staff Sgt. San Juanita Escobar, of the Texas Army National Guard, took the first steps that would both change her life, and the lives of hundreds of young women in Texas and around the world.
These first steps consisted of beauty pageants in the nearby and even smaller town of Concepcion, where pageant competitions are often the source of longstanding family rivalries and defending a title is a matter of honor. Back then, few anticipated that this south Texas girl from the Valley would rise to the title of Mrs. Texas Galaxy.
A family tradition
"Pageants were always something that my family did,"Escobar said. "We had the crown for years, so it was something you just did when you reached a certain age. After that, I competed in several smaller, regional pageants and county fairs."
Those pageants led to small, local modeling jobs and eventually to auditions in California. But as much as Escobar dreamed of getting out of the small town she lived in, she decided this was not the path she wanted to follow. Commitments at home made her decline the audition callbacks.
"At the time, I wasn't going to pick up and move to California,"she said. "I had sports, school and my friends that were more important to me. I also didn't want to do that to the rest of my siblings, so I put all that on the back burner."
Joining the Guard
Escobar stayed in Premont, filling every spare moment of time with studies, volleyball, basketball, cross-country, tennis and band until one day during her senior year a recruiter from the Texas Army Guard approached her.
Then everything changed, and it changed in a matter of days.
"When the [Army] National Guard recruiter came and talked to me, and explained the education benefits, I was sold and it became a matter of, ‘How fast can we do this?'"Escobar recalled. "So, I met my recruiter on Tuesday and I was enlisted by Friday."
The abruptness of Escobar's decision came as a shock to family and friends. But while joining the military was a leap into unknown territory for Escobar and her family, the lure of education and travel while serving close to home was irresistible to the 17-year-old.
"I never really knew much about the military,"she said. "When they told me I could serve part-time, serve my country, still make a change in the world, better my community and still get my education, that's really what made the [Army] National Guard stand out from the other services."
In July 2008, Escobar finally left the small towns of her childhood for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Basic training was not without some challenges for Escobar. This was her first time really being away from her home and her family. Without them, she said, she had to discover and nurture new internal strengths to help her get through some of the tougher moments on her path to becoming a Soldier.
"My strength to continue was knowing that this was something that I truly wanted,"she said. "I knew it was going to change my life for the better and I knew it would make my family proud."
Her competitive nature also helped get her through, Escobar said.
"I'm very competitive,"she said. "I always want to win and be the best, so I used that as my driving force."
After completing basic and then Advanced Individual Training, Escobar returned to Texas and was assigned to the 368th Engineer Battalion in Corpus Christi. There, she worked in personnel administration, processing paperwork of Soldiers who were deploying. It was also while there that she quickly began to feel like it wasn't enough.
"I was there for maybe two drills before I started seeing that all my friends were deploying, and I really loved the [Army] National Guard active life, so I volunteered to deploy,"she said.
Soon enough, Escobar headed to the African nation of Djibouti with the Texas Army Guard's 3rd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment as a member of the security forces element for a civil affairs team.
Helping other women
While in Africa, the future Mrs. Texas Galaxy saw a problem, and in a move that would come to be a hallmark of her military career, she decided to help solve it.
"While I was assigned to the civil affairs team, I helped create the Women's Initiative Program in Ethiopia,"Escobar said. "Because of how high the school dropout rate is for young women, we developed special groups to go to different villages and orphanages to educate and empower them to speak to their political figures and to also inform other women about different political and medical issues."
In many parts of Africa, women are routinely subjected to discrimination and violence by virtue of tradition or customs, Escobar said. Her team addressed these issues head on through a combination of education and strength.
"The women always felt alone, like it was them against everyone,"said Escobar. "So, we brought groups together for school and we would teach them that if males don't want to help them, they can help each other."
That effort fostered an environment of empowerment, she said, adding that it "let them know that their internal strength could be used to benefit each other."
At first the groups were made up of young women between the ages of 18 to 23, but eventually would reach out to thousands of girls and women of all ages.
The Women's Initiative Program also worked closely with other programs designed to improve education and raise awareness of HIV and AIDS to expand its reach even further. With a push from then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, it lead to an outreach in 13 different countries that focused on teaching women to advocate for themselves.
When that mission was over, Escobar returned home and became a recruiter for the Texas Army Guard so she could continue to change young people's lives the way her own life was changed.
"My motivation was that I knew where I started, and I know where I'm at now,"she said. "I just want to tell people that there's going to be light if that's what they choose, if they choose to turn their challenges into a positive."
Serving as a recruiter, in some ways, also brought her right back to old family traditions.
"When I would talk to students, the females would always say, ‘Oh, I'm too girly to serve in the military,' or they would worry they weren't going to be able to ‘be girly.'"
Those comments, in part, lead her to return to pageants similar to the ones of her youth.
Return to beauty pageants
"I started doing beauty pageants again,"Escobar said, "and then I would go into schools and show them a pageant picture, but I would be there in uniform and I would say, ‘You can't tell me you can't do this.' It was after that I started seeing more of an ‘I can do this' attitude."
Going back in the pageant world after serving as a Soldier gave Escobar a unique perspective, she said. Escobar drew on those experiences and prepared as rigorously as she would for a military mission, using the training and confidence she gained while serving to make her an even tougher and more determined competitor.
After three years, Escobar left the recruiting world to dedicate more time to school but, she was still competing in pageants.
In March, she was crowned Mrs. Texas Galaxy, and will move on to an international competition in July where she will represent Texas against dozens of competitors from all over the world. Despite this potential for international celebrity, her primary focus remains serving those in need.
As Mrs. Texas Galaxy, Escobar focuses on highlighting suicide prevention for veterans and spreading suicide awareness. And as a member of the Texas Army Guard, she focuses on helping others both around the world and at home in Texas.
"As a member of the [Army] National Guard I have been able to go to multiple countries, but I have also been able to serve stateside,"Escobar said. "I saw the impact of what it meant when our Soldiers went in to help during Hurricane Harvey, and how much our citizens appreciated that. To me that's important because these are our friends and family. Who is going to take care of them better than us, ourselves?"