Ashley Leiva knew early on that she would one day serve her country. While growing up, the Texas native saw examples of military service all around her. At 18, fresh out of high school, she enlisted in the U.S. Army.
“My uncle was also an Army veteran, (and) a retired merchant Marine,” Leiva said. “My mom, she also advocated for it. I was from a small town, and she said, ‘Go. Get out of here and do something. If you like it, stay. If you don’t, at least you got to see something other than our small town.’ And I did.”
Coincidentally, both Leiva’s mother and uncle would inspire her to later enter the trucking business. Her uncle was a driver for 30 years, and her mother launched and ran her own trucking company, providing Leiva with a natural landing spot when she left the service in 2021 after nearly 16 years.
She’s made the most of her short time in trucking, and was recently named winner of the Transition Trucking: Driving for Excellence award during a ceremony at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Leiva topped a field of 11 finalists from across the country to earn the honor.
“When they said my name, I’m just like, wow,” she said. “I honestly didn’t even think that was possible that I could win.”
Each year, Kenworth teams with FASTPORT and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes to find America’s top rookie military veteran who made the successful transition from active duty to driving for a commercial fleet. To qualify for Transition Trucking: Driving for Excellence, the veterans had to meet certain requirements, including having been hired into a trucking position between Jan. 1, 2021, and July 31, 2022.
Driver nominations come from for-hire carrier and private fleet employers, training organizations, the general public, and other interested parties. Leiva was the first driver to be nominated by an educational facility within the National Association of Publicly Funded Truck Driving Schools organization.
But before earning her CDL, becoming a truck driver and all that … there was the Army.
Throughout her military career, which included major deployments to Germany and Iraq, as well as several duty stations in the continental U.S. and Hawaii, Leiva held roles that served her fellow soldiers, such as working in food service and as a drill sergeant. During one of her deployments to Iraq, she was also on the female engagement team, which provided her powerful encounters with local women who were trying to survive with their families in the midst of conflict.
“I would actually go out on patrols with the infantrymen. I would talk to the women of the village or the women of the house, because the men weren’t allowed to talk to them,” she said. “I would try to get intel or just have conversations with them, let them know that we’re not there to hurt them.
“That was an experience for me,” she continued. “I wore a turban on my head; I respected their culture. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, women tend to see in each other the pain that we all go through. I was a lot younger at the time, probably 25 or 26, but you could just see the struggle in their eyes. It was pretty intense.”
If Leiva’s original plan had played out, she wouldn’t have begun her trucking career for a few more years, as she originally intended to serve a few more years and retire from the military with 20 years in. However, when her mother, Noemi, got sick in late 2020, Leiva left the service to tend to her and take over the family trucking company.
“She just worked so hard,” Leiva said of her mother. “She worked up until Dec. 24, 2020. When she got home, everybody saw how small and skinny she looked, and we made her go to the doctor right after Christmas. We found out she had stage IV stomach cancer.
“I got out to take care of her and I told her I’d get my CDL,” she continued. “My brother and I would take everything on, and she wouldn’t have to work anymore. She was making great money. There was no reason for us to try to change it up. We had her truck, (and it) was paid off.”
When Noemi died, Leiva and her brother, Johnny, a fellow veteran, took stock of the situation and decided to carry on their mother’s legacy. They changed the company name from Leiva Trucking to Noemi Trucking in her honor, and picked up where their matriarch had left off.
“We’re like, ‘You know what? We have everything here right in front of us. There’s no reason for us to change it up right now,’” Leiva said. “Not to mention, once I started doing it, I could see why my mom liked it so much. She loved her job. She had such a passion for it. She had a passion for her truck, and she took care of it so well.”
The brother and sister team had motivation and a good clientele, hauling crude oil for Draco Energy in south Texas. But Leiva admits to learning the finer points of running a business was a “baptism by fire.”
“It was everything, honestly,” she said. “I knew how to drive. That wasn’t an issue. It was learning the insurance, how high that would be because I’m a brand-new driver. Getting my own authority. Having an LLC. The heavy highway tax. There are so many things that go with it.
“I got kind of frustrated because I never had the mentorship when it comes to having my own truck, being in that type of business,” she continued. “I knew my mom did, and it would have been so easy for me to call her and be like, ‘Hey, Mom, what’s this? Hey, Mom, what’s that?’ But I couldn’t do that, obviously.”
Slowly, Leiva gained the experience and knowledge she needed on the business side of trucking — enough to start thinking about the future of the company. Those dreams took a big step forward with her rookie veteran driver award, which carries with it a brand-new Kenworth T680 Next Generation tractor.
Now, she says, she’s looking to build the kind of company that provides opportunity to others.
“I want to grow. I want to have more trucks. I’ll continue to run these two trucks — my brother in one and me in the other. My sister-in-law just got her CDL, too,” she said. “I want to have a fleet eventually. I want to be able to give other people opportunities like what I was given — not only with the truck I just won, but the truck that my mother gave me.
“That was something life-changing and through that, I was blessed to build myself a career and my brother a career. If I continue to do that for other people, I’ll know I have done something to help change people’s lives,” she concluded.
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.