Master Sgt. Thelma Barrios of Manhattan was 4 years old when she arrived in Chicago with her family on a Greyhound bus.
Barrios, who was born in Laredo, Texas, spent most of her childhood in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. An uncle, their only relative in Chicago, met their bus, she said. Barrios was fascinated with snow and asked her mother what it was. Barrios said her mother said it was “nieve,” which means “snow” in Spanish – and it also means “ice cream,” Barrios said.
“I thought to myself, ‘Woo! Ice cream falls from the sky in Chicago! I love it!’” Barrios said. “I grabbed a handful of the snow on the ground and tried it and looked at my mother and said, ‘Mom, I don’t like the ice cream here.’ And that was my first experience with snow and cold.”
Barrios is one of 21 recipients for the national 2022 Latina Style Distinguished Military Service Award recipient. The award will be presented at the 19th National LATINA Symposium on Sept. 29 in Washington, D.C.
“The 2022 Latina Style Distinguished Military Service Awards recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of women in the military and the Department of Defense (DoD) civilian workforce who, through their service, have enhanced the role of Latinas in their organization and the DoD,” according to a news release from the Illinois National Guard.
Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the adjutant general of Illinois and commander of the Illinois National Guard, said in the release that, “Master Sgt. Barrios’ family is among thousands who came to the United States for the opportunity for a better life.”
“Through hard work and determination, she was able to provide a better life for herself and her family,” Neely said in the release. “We are proud to have such an extraordinary Soldier in our ranks.”
But years ago, at age 23, Barrios wasn’t considering a career in the Illinois Army National Guard. She was the single mother of a 3-year-old, working third shift in direct market mailing in Lockport and taking business classes at Joliet Junior College, she said.
While driving home from JJC one night, she passed a sign that promised 100% tuition paid for those who join the Illinois Army National Guard, she said. So she pulled into the Joliet Armory on Infantry Drive. asked for information and learned the time commitment was one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
Then Barrios told her mother, who was babysitting Barrios’ child, adding, “But I have to leave for six months to train.” And Barrios’ mother fully supported Barrios’ decision to build a better life, Barrios said.
“Leaving my daughter for the first time for an extended period of time – it was the hardest decision to make,” Barrios said.
A month later, Barrios went to basic combat training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. And then she reenlisted at the end of her six-year commitment. The Illinois Army National Guard paid for school when Barrios was earning her associate degree at JJC - but not when she was earning bachelor’s degree in business administration management from Robert Morris University in Chicago because it was a private school, she said.
Reenlisting would help pay off $20,000 in student loans and keep Barrios close to her Illinois National Guard “family,” she said.
“In six years, you see the same people once a month and spend two weeks a year with them,” Barrios said. “You make these lifelong connections.”
Three years into her contract, Barrios was encouraged to apply for an active guard reserve post. Barrios hesitated.
“I was pretty content with my civilian career,” Barrios said. “And I knew I really didn’t want to be on orders every day and put on this uniform every day.”
Still, Barrios applied and was hired for a human resources position in 2009, she said.
Barrios is currently senior human resources noncommissioned officer for the more than 1,700 soldiers of the 108th Sustainment Brigade. She helps with personnel issues, submitting documentation to help with promotions, and she even “provides a little mentorship not just for enlisted soldiers but even officers – a little bit of life lessons in the military,” she said.
“I just enjoy being able to help soldiers, to mentor them and guide them,” Barrios said.
As a trained military equal opportunity leader, Barrios has helped implement the Brigade Diversity and Inclusion mentoring program, the Illinois National Guard said.
Barrios is the only Latina-elected representative for National Guard Association of Illinois. Other volunteer work includes Guardian Angels Community Services’ Groundwork Domestic Violence Program (Safe Haven and Mentorship Program) in Joliet, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate for Children) and the Illinois Foster Adoptive Parent Association, the Illinois National Guard said.
She is married to Jake Poor. She has five adult children (Martha, Miguel, Ricardo, Cecilia and Mario) and four grandchildren (Ari, Jade, Mariah and Jaylin), the Illinois National Guard said.
And she is “extremely humbled” at receiving the 2022 Latina Style Distinguished Military Service Award, Barrios said.
“My leadership had nominated me for it, so it did not come as a huge surprise,” Barrios said. “But I think I did not initially realize what a huge honor it was. I think I was just very humbled by the fact that I was being recognized for what, I feel, just doing what I was hired to do, for doing my job, which I enjoy.”