U.S.

Ms Veteran America: Healing in heels

More than just a pageant for 'skinny girls,' contestants say, it's a chance to raise awareness about homeless veterans

LEESBURG, Va. — As a military police officer in Iraq, Marissa Strock wore combat boots and military fatigues every day for more than seven months. But last weekend, she donned a very different outfit: sandals and a black-sequined white dress that turned transparent below the knees to reveal metal prosthetic legs.

As she walked, haltingly, across the stage at the Ms. Veteran America competition, her friends and family cheered in encouragement. It was almost eight years since Strock lost both her legs after a roadside bomb struck her armored vehicle in Baghdad.

She was one of 17 participants in this year’s Ms. Veteran America contest, all of them female military veterans or active service members. They had flown in from across the country to compete.

"This is about our service and about our femininity," Strock, 28, told Al Jazeera. She said the contest is "not just geared toward 18-year-old skinny girls. It's not a swimsuit pageant."

The competition was started last year to raise money for Final Salute, an organization that offers shelter to homeless female veterans in Ohio and Virginia. Jaspen Boothe, its founder, says the competition aims to celebrate women's more traditional roles — as mothers, wives and daughters — that remain camouflaged behind military uniforms.     

"We simply join the military in order to serve, but we have to give up so much of ourselves as women in order to do that," she said. "What's wrong with being women and enjoying that part of ourselves?"

Some of the participants, like last year's queen, Denyse Gordon — who has since become an advocate against military sexual assault — said they initially scoffed upon receiving emailed invitations to the event. But, they said, it's not a traditional pageant so much as a chance to raise awareness about the challenges many female veterans face. The participants at last weekend's contest raised their voices about the troubles plaguing many women as they serve in and after they return from the military — homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sexual assault.

Sergeants and Gowns
SLIDESHOW: Here Comes Ms. Veteran America

The event, a two-day affair at a conference center outside Washington, D.C, was abuzz with excitement as friends and family poured in to support the contestants.

The women were judged in four areas: interview, talent, knowledge of military history and advocacy for women in the military. On Saturday, during the interview round to determine who would continue to the next day's final program, a panel of five judges peppered the contestants with questions like "When were women first allowed to serve?" and jokingly asked them to "drop and give me 20" if they stumbled in an answer. Occasionally, contestants blamed their forgetfulness on PTSD; the phrase "you've got issues, we got tissues" quickly caught on among the judges.

Living out of a truck

Tonya Rupe, a 23-year-old veteran who had traveled from Rutland, Vt., with her friend Wendi Fitzgerald to participate, nervously waited her turn. She was dressed in a khaki uniform designed by Fitzgerald and was poised to play "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" on the saxophone, her favorite instrument since she was 8.

She'd purchased a dress for the next day's stage appearance: a blue satin gown that bared her shoulders and hugged her slender figure. She'd been dieting for several days, she said, to fit into the gown. A silver pair of heels and a large tattoo on her left arm of a flower and a pond — a scene that reminds her of her childhood — complemented her outfit.

When the judges asked why she chose to compete, Rupe got a chance to talk about her own experience with homelessness. It's a not uncommon plight for female veterans: They are the fastest-growing group among the homeless in the U.S. and are more likely than male veterans to be uninsured and living in poverty, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Roughly 55,000 female vets were homeless last year.

An information-technology officer who served in Iraq until August 2011, Rupe said she struggled to find a job after her return. Her relationship with her boyfriend soured, and PTSD symptoms surfaced.

By November of that year, she was living out of her truck.

"Everyone says they want to hire veterans, but it doesn't always work out that way," she said. "I didn't have the savings that I needed."

She later found transitional housing at a shelter similar to Boothe's and now serves with the National Guard. She got a job in communications and lives in a rented apartment — achievements, Fitzgerald suggested, that eased Rupe's disappointment over not making the final round.

Tonya Rupe, a 23-year-old veteran who had traveled from Rutland, Vt., with her friend Wendi Fitzgerald to participate, nervously waited her turn. She was dressed in a khaki uniform designed by Fitzgerald, and was poised to play "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" on the saxophone, her favorite instrument since she was 8. 
Tonya Rupe, a 23-year-old veteran who had traveled from Rutland, Vt., with her friend Wendi Fitzgerald to participate, nervously waited her turn. She was dressed in a khaki uniform designed by Fitzgerald, and was poised to play "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" on the saxophone, her favorite instrument since she was 8. 
Tonya Rupe, a 23-year-old veteran who had traveled from Rutland, Vt., with her friend Wendi Fitzgerald to participate, nervously waited her turn. She was dressed in a khaki uniform designed by Fitzgerald, and was poised to play "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" on the saxophone, her favorite instrument since she was 8. 
Tonya Rupe, a 23-year-old veteran who had traveled from Rutland, Vt., with her friend Wendi Fitzgerald to participate, nervously waited her turn. She was dressed in a khaki uniform designed by Fitzgerald, and was poised to play "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" on the saxophone, her favorite instrument since she was 8. 
Tonya Rupe, a 23-year-old veteran who had traveled from Rutland, Vt., with her friend Wendi Fitzgerald to participate, nervously waited her turn. She was dressed in a khaki uniform designed by Fitzgerald, and was poised to play "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" on the saxophone, her favorite instrument since she was 8. 
Ms. Veteran America: Behind the scenes
SLIDESHOW: Behind the scenes at Ms. Veteran America

Mitchelene BigMan, a 22-year Army veteran, member of the Crow Nation and mother of four adopted children, two of whom have fetal alcohol syndrome, earned a spot on Sunday.

BigMan, 48, said she still struggles to cope with memories of war and, like many of the other participants, suffers from PTSD. She was sexually assaulted, she said, in 1995 by a fellow service member during training at her base in Aberdeen, Md.

An estimated 1 in 3 female service members experiences sexual assault during her career and has nine times the risk for suffering PTSD, but the vast majority, nearly 80 percent, do not report the crime for fear of retaliation. For more than a decade, BigMan said, she too kept her secret.

Walking to face the judges on Saturday for her talent performance, a traditional dance from the Ojibwa tribe, BigMan wore a jingle dress she'd sewn herself, using cone-shaped tobacco snuff can lids as adornments and red, white and blue cloth for the skirt. On her back, a patchwork with an eagle and insignias from the U.S. Army read, "The nation that forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten."  

BigMan, from Lodge Grass, Mont., had taken her 19-year-old daughter to help pick out dresses and apply makeup during the event. A self-described tomboy, the former sergeant first class said she learned to fend for herself in a man's world, first as a firefighter, then as a dockworker.

Later she joined the military and became a mechanic, she said, for a reason more common among female service members than males: to escape a bad relationship and bouts of domestic violence. Her star- and track-reading skills once saved her fellow troops' lives, she said, when their convoy got lost in the Iraqi desert.

Onstage Sunday, as BigMan waved her arms in Native Crow sign language to the tune of a soprano singing the Lord's Prayer to honor fallen troops, tears streamed down her face.

"It's a way to heal, to process it," she said. "(My dance) is for healing."


Jaspen Boothe, founder of Final Salute, shelter for homeless female veterans
Jaspen Boothe, founder of Final Salute
Sheri Manson for Al Jazeera America

RELATED: For Ms. Veteran America founder, fighting homelessness is personal 

Jaspen Boothe, an Army veteran and the founder of Final Salute, an organization that provides shelter for homeless female veterans, was once homeless herself.

While preparing for a tour in Iraq eight years ago, she was diagnosed with head, neck and throat cancer. The previous month, Hurricane Katrina had destroyed her house, leaving Boothe and her son without a home in which she could recover.

Read more here.


Minutes later, Kerri Brantley, a public-affairs officer in the National Guard from Boise, Idaho, took the stage.

Brantley, 30, a brunette with brown eyes and a wide smile, said she entered the military to provide for her family. Her three children lived with their fathers while she was deployed to Kuwait in August of last year.

Brantley said she saw Ms. Vet as an opportunity to highlight the role of service members who are mothers. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, female veterans are more likely to be divorced and to have younger children under their care than civilian women.

She read a poem, "Beautiful Soldier," that she'd been working on for weeks, rehearsing in her car while picking up her children from school and doing grocery shopping.  

"She provides offspring by signing the line meant for the bold," she recited. "She comes back to the heartland and sees how her children have grown."

Meanwhile, Strock was waiting nervously backstage to perform. She'd changed out of her sequins and into jeans over black boots, which she deemed more fitting for the jokes she was about to tell.

"It's taken a long time to get to the place where I was comfortable enough in my new metal set to be able to get on the stage — and not only be on the stage but say, 'Look at me, this is what it is,'" said Strock, who is from Petersburg, Va.

She began her comedy routine with a joke about arriving late onstage after mixing up her prosthetic feet.

"I took my legs off to change my shoes, and I put my right foot on my left leg, and it was a mess," she said as the audience roared with laughter.

After a five-minute act, she thanked the crowd, saying it was an honor to perform.

"I'm just really sad that only two-thirds of me made it," she said, to even more laughter.

Crowning a winner

The Ms. Veteran America title was awarded later Sunday evening to Alainna Guitron, a 31-year-old Army photographer and videographer.

Guitron, from Syracuse, N.Y., looked very much the pageant queen as she smiled for the flashing cameras, wearing her new crown and sash. She pledged to follow in Gordon's footsteps and become an advocate for homeless female veterans. Guitron was exposed to the issue early in life: Her mother fell in and out of homelessness, she said, leaving her in foster care until she was old enough to take custody of her brother.

Brantley took second runner-up, as well as the Hot Momma award. Strock, grinning widely as her mother, fiance and best friend cheered her on, was awarded three trophies: one for significant military achievement, a second for raising the most money for Final Salute and a third for best dress.

"I feel amazing," Strock had said earlier that evening as she changed into her evening gown to get ready for the pageant's last round of questions for the three finalists. "There is nothing that I've done that is so much fun."

The Ms. Veteran America title was awarded, later Sunday evening, to Alainna Guitron, a 31-year-old Army photographer and videographer.

Guitron, from Syracuse, N.Y., looked very much the pageant queen as she smiled at the flashing cameras, wearing her new crown and sash. She pledged to follow in Gordon's footsteps and become an advocate for homeless female veterans. Guitron was exposed to the issue early in life: Her mother fell in and out of homelessness, she said, leaving her in foster care until she was old enough to take custody of her brother.

Brantley took second runner-up, as well as the "Hot Momma" award. Strock, grinning widely as her mother, fiancé and best friend cheered her on, was awarded three trophies: one for significant military achievement, the second for raising the most money for Final Salute and the third for best dress.

"I feel amazing," Strock had said earlier that evening, as she changed into her evening gown to get ready for the pageant's last round of questions for the three finalists. "There is nothing that I've done that is so much fun."

The Ms. Veteran America title was awarded, later Sunday evening, to Alainna Guitron, a 31-year-old Army photographer and videographer.

Guitron, from Syracuse, N.Y., looked very much the pageant queen as she smiled at the flashing cameras, wearing her new crown and sash. She pledged to follow in Gordon's footsteps and become an advocate for homeless female veterans. Guitron was exposed to the issue early in life: Her mother fell in and out of homelessness, she said, leaving her in foster care until she was old enough to take custody of her brother.

Brantley took second runner-up, as well as the "Hot Momma" award. Strock, grinning widely as her mother, fiancé and best friend cheered her on, was awarded three trophies: one for significant military achievement, the second for raising the most money for Final Salute and the third for best dress.

"I feel amazing," Strock had said earlier that evening, as she changed into her evening gown to get ready for the pageant's last round of questions for the three finalists. "There is nothing that I've done that is so much fun."

The Ms. Veteran America title was awarded, later Sunday evening, to Alainna Guitron, a 31-year-old Army photographer and videographer.

Guitron, from Syracuse, N.Y., looked very much the pageant queen as she smiled at the flashing cameras, wearing her new crown and sash. She pledged to follow in Gordon's footsteps and become an advocate for homeless female veterans. Guitron was exposed to the issue early in life: Her mother fell in and out of homelessness, she said, leaving her in foster care until she was old enough to take custody of her brother.

Brantley took second runner-up, as well as the "Hot Momma" award. Strock, grinning widely as her mother, fiancé and best friend cheered her on, was awarded three trophies: one for significant military achievement, the second for raising the most money for Final Salute and the third for best dress.

"I feel amazing," Strock had said earlier that evening, as she changed into her evening gown to get ready for the pageant's last round of questions for the three finalists. "There is nothing that I've done that is so much fun."

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