Transforming adversity into a life of service

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2018 Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year overcomes invisible injuries to help fellow veterans, community

Callie Rios (center) works closely with Midland College’s VA coordinator, Kay Schipper (left), to help veterans on campus, including Jason Mac (right). Previously a student veteran, Rios understands firsthand the unique challenges facing former service members in higher education.

When Callie Rios joined the military, she took an oath to defend her country and was prepared to face any enemy on behalf of the nation.

But she never expected to be attacked by a fellow soldier.

“I joined the military because I was a single parent, and I was looking for better job opportunities, a better life for my child,” explained Rios of her decision to enlist at age 18. “I followed in my family’s footsteps and became the first female in my family to join the military.”

Rios’ first duty station was in South Korea, and she thrived in the Army. But life was about to change drastically when she returned stateside.

“There was a turning point in my military career at Fort Knox when I was the victim of a sexual assault,” recalled Rios. “It really changed my perspective. I did not really find much support in my unit; I didn’t really find much support anywhere. It was a very lonely time for me.

“I came back out of it, and now I’m ready to help other women who were in the same situation as I was.”

Rios is active in DAV Chapter 58 in Midland, Texas, serving as the junior vice commander.

“Callie brings heart. And brings kindness to the chapter,” said Chris Molsbee, the chapter’s senior vice commander. “[She] helps bring unity, helps bring some of the glue of the organization together.”

Molsbee emphasized that having Rios onboard has been critical for engaging other women veterans. He also commended her volunteer efforts.

“As the junior vice commander of the chapter, she is an intricate part of all of the charity events that we do,” said Molsbee.

In 2017, the chapter raised the most funds nationwide—more than $40,000—during Golden Corral’s Military Appreciation Night at the restaurant location in neighboring Odessa.

Rios is especially proud of her efforts to support fellow women veterans and military sexual trauma survivors. In 2017, Rios spearheaded a women veterans conference, Heroes in Heels, sponsored by the chapter. Incorporating mental health practitioners for former servicewomen with invisible wounds was an event priority.

“During our last year’s conference we had clinicians here that could talk to first responders, that could talk to veterans and kind of give them some insight on where they can get help and how they can get help,” explained Rios, who previously served as a deputy sheriff, patrolman and public safety officer in her civilian career.

“They also got to see some of us female veterans out there just rocking it, making sure everybody is taken care of, working toward a better future for all of our veterans,” she added. “It shows them there’s good things, there’s still good people, there’s still good things in life to be had.”

Rios understands firsthand how difficult it can be to overcome injuries that are invisible to everyone else. She channels the trauma she sustained in the Army into supporting fellow veterans. This personal experience is what drives her commitment to ensuring others don’t hesitate to seek out mental health assistance.

Rios also invests a lot of time at Midland College. Previously a student veteran, Rios now holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, so she understands the unique challenges former service members face on campus.

“She reaches out to people. She doesn’t sit back and wait for them to call her,” said Kay Schipper, an Air Force veteran and the VA coordinator for Midland College. “She’s always been there when I’ve called her when I’ve had a need, or a student [veteran]’s having a need.”

Navy veteran Daniel Ortega agreed.

“Any program that DAV can touch to help the veterans lives improve, she’s all over it. It doesn’t take anything but a phone call to get her attention and to get her involved in that veteran’s life,” said Ortega, a graduate turned employee at the college.

At 18, Callie Rios enlisted in the Army. The single mother was seeking a better life for her daughter.

Rios’ dedication to giving back extends beyond serving her fellow veterans. She also supports her community as a volunteer in the Texas State Guard, a military force that supports humanitarian missions throughout the state by augmenting the Texas Army National Guard and Texas Air National Guard.

After an honorable discharge from the Army, Rios found herself missing the sense of belonging she had found in the military.

“I was looking for something to help me transition to civilian life, and the Texas State Guard gave me a home,” she said.

“[Staff] Sgt. Rios has almost nine years in the Texas State Guard, which speaks to her volunteerism,” said Col. Jeremy Franklin, who commands the 39th Regiment. “Sgt. Rios actually deployed in response to Hurricane Harvey. She worked in an American Red Cross shelter operation. She also served in a pod, which is where we dispense supplies to civilians impacted by the disaster.”

There is another group of people who benefit from Rios’ dedication to giving back: her kids.

“I think volunteering sets an example for them,” said Rios. “They see me do it, they want to do it, and it gives them more exposure to other people, and it also teaches them values.”

“I am proud to honor Callie for her commitment to veterans, her family, local community, Texas and the nation,” said DAV National Commander Delphine Metcalf-Foster. “Her resilience as a survivor of military sexual trauma and commitment to supporting men and women battling invisible injuries undoubtedly provides inspiration to our fellow injured veterans and their families. Her humble spirit and positive attitude are living testaments to DAV’s mission of empowering veterans to lead high-quality lives with respect and dignity.”

“I volunteer and I give back so much because I love people,” Rios stated. “If they can find a piece of my story that connects with them and helps them in any kind of way, it’s worth it for me.”