FAIR LAWN, N.J. — China Vargas of Fair Lawn pulls on her camouflage uniform with the words "U.S. Army" embroidered directly across her heart.
She twists her hair into a bun, pulls on her boots and heads to the Teaneck Armory, where she works in administration for the New Jersey National Guard.
Ask her why she does it and she'll tell you, simply: "For my daughter and my family as a whole."
Strong. Independent. Fearless.
That's what the 30-year-old strives to be.
"I'm my daughter's first role model," said Vargas, a staff sergeant. "That's what keeps me going."
Formerly of Lodi and Carlstadt, Vargas is a "Bergen County girl" through and through.
At 19, she joined the National Guard upon meeting another soldier while working at the mall.
She served in Iraq in 2008 and 2009.
"I feel like it made me a more well-rounded person," Vargas said.
I gained a lot of insight into the world.
"We had to take culture and language classes, and understand a different aspect of life than what we're used to here in the U.S."
As soon as she returned from deployment, Vargas transferred into Montclair State University and graduated with a major in psychology and a minor in sociology in less than two years.
She was living on her own and didn't know where to go from there.
So she called a friend and colleague from the National Guard, and ended up getting a job at the Teaneck Armory.
By now, Vargas is accustomed to life as both a civilian and a soldier and a female in a male-dominated profession.
"People have seen a soldier," she said, "but not many people have seen a female soldier."
Of course there are stereotypes, but I think I'm good at what I do and people know my abilities. I don't get judged based on a stereotype.
And she hopes her 4-year-old daughter will pick up on that, she said.
The real challenge, though, is juggling work with motherhood.
"Any working mom has this insane mom guilt," said Vargas, who also has a 16-month-old son.
"Leaving kids when they’re sick, or dropping them at day care when they're so young is hard," she said. "You feel like you're going to miss something."
Last summer, Vargas had to travel to California on two weeks' notice for work. Leaving the kids with her husband will never get easier, she said.
But she knows one day her kids will understand why she did it.
"I'm working to make life better for my family," she said. "I’m proud of what I do and who I am because of what I do, as well as the opportunities afforded to me through my profession."