Gilene N., an infomation security senior manager, was born and raised on the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the United States.
The territory covers more than 17 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
“People are surprised when they hear me say that I grew up in a place where there was no electricity or running water,” says Gilene. “You had to travel two hours in any direction to reach a grocery store or buy new clothes. During the summer, we would drive to the mountains, chop down trees and bring them back to the house for firewood in the winter. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have heat when it got cold.”
When she was 17, Gilene’s parents agreed to let her enlist in the Army. After serving for four years, Gilene went to college and served in the Army ROTC program. Once she graduated, she rejoined the Army as an officer for another three years.
“The value of growing up with struggles gave me an understanding of the abundance of things we take for granted,” says Gilene. “I can appreciate that things do not come easily.”
For Gilene, her roots in the military and the Navajo tribe both play a huge part in who she is today.
“There is a sense of duty and service that is a big part of the Native American culture,” explains Gilene. “My grandfather was a World War II veteran. Military service is something that connects us.”
On Veterans Day this year, a virtual ceremony unveiled the Native American Veterans Memorial at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The memorial is significant to Gilene, who has watched its development over the last two years.
“Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, I planned on being part of the procession leading up to the memorial dedication,” she says. “I was excited to be a part of it and bring my son. He is nine years old, and I want him to see the importance of serving your country.”
Once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Gilene says she hopes to take her son to visit the memorial.
“In my culture, it is a huge, important honor,” she says. “It is a big deal to be a veteran – it’s the highest honor.”
While she is no longer in the service, Gilene says that honor continues to drive her career at USAA.
“When I go home to visit my family, people know I served, so I get this automatic respect,” she explains. “But when people find out that I work for USAA and they learn about what we do, it’s a second honor. For me, to be in this position and work at USAA as a Native American veteran, it’s just so cool.”