Miss USA might be coined the most beautiful woman in the nation, but Nia Sanchez is also extremely patriotic, thanks to her military family.
"Any time I see a veteran, I try to express my thanks, but it makes me very emotional," the 24-year old crown winner told Veterans Advantage in an exclusive interview at the Miss Universe offices in midtown Manhattan last week. “I almost start to cry because I appreciate their service so much. My grandfather really instilled in me that it's important to support our political leaders, America, and especially the people who serve our country. They sacrifice so much."
Though she won the Miss USA pageant in June as Miss Nevada, her father, a former sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division, raised the bubbly brunette in Menifee, California. Her grandfather, Wilbur Sanchez, spent over 25 years in the Army as a sergeant, lived in the same town and frequently babysat the beauty queen. Their military background had a significant impact on her upbringing.
“I feel like my life was very structured. It was always, ‘Yes ma'am, no ma'am. Yes sir, no sir.' I felt like it was normal because that's what I grew up in, but in comparison to my friends, I certainly had more of a strict childhood," she explained. “I think that was good for me because it created a lot of discipline and respect for my elders."
Her father, David Sanchez, was born on a military base in Heidelberg, based at Fort Bragg during his service, and currently works as a sergeant at Chino State Prison in southern California. Her grandfather is a disabled veteran who fought in World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War. He was based in Germany much of the time and met her grandmother there. Both her German and Hispanic roots were prominent growing up.
“I grew up going to the commissary and the PX with my grandma and grandpa. Even when I went to Germany, we'd go to the commissary to get some American food and a little home comfort." She has traveled extensively, working as a nanny in Europe and performing at a children's theme park in Hong Kong, but even abroad, her country comes first. “I've been at the airport and at first I used to get nervous if I see an old man with a hat like my grandpa wears. I'll walk up and say, ‘thank you for your service' and I'm like, ‘don't cry!' I've been raised knowing how important these people are so it makes me emotional."
Her grandfather in particular would be sure to educate Sanchez on the significance of things like Veterans Day and Memorial Day. “He would sit down and explain the stripes on the American flag. Why are there so many? What do the colors represent?" (She wore a royal blue jumper to this interview “to be patriotic").
“Even at a baseball game when people don't put their hand over their heart saluting the flag I'm like, ‘where are you from?'" she exclaimed, hitting the desk. “Are you American? If you're not that's fine, but if you are…come on! I was raised that way."
In addition to cultivating her appreciation for the USA, her military family also fired up her interest in self-defense. Sanchez is a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo, as is her father. He enrolled her at age 8 after moving to a new town in an effort to break her out of her shell.
“I could've done basketball or whatever, but it was all about the military aspect," she said, describing the discipline, structure, and respect of the marital art form. “I was so girly. I think he wanted to toughen me up a little bit too, which I'm thankful for and I appreciate it," she laughed. Her father eventually bought the studio and continues to run it. She and her brother still practice, though since he hit puberty, she's no longer the strongest in the sibling rivalry.
As Miss USA, she has spoken extensively on the importance of self-defense and self-awareness for young women. She encourages them to “be really aware of your surroundings and circumstances and learn a few essential escape techniques." She has volunteered at a women's shelter and taught “Stranger Danger" classes to children and self-defense classes. With her title, she hopes to do more in this area.
While in Las Vegas for the Miss USA homecoming, she paid a visit to Nellis Air Force Base. “Again I got a little emotional meeting the men and women and thanking them for what they've done for our country. I am so appreciative of our troops that have served for us," she said with a genuine smile. Like her grandfather, she is proud to be a Hispanic American representing her country. “When you're American, you’re American."