Ms. Veteran America - The Woman Beyond the Uniform - Part 1
By Ashleigh Bryant
Denyse Gordon, an Air Force master sergeant, won top honors in the Ms. Veteran America 2012 competition.
America has never been given a truly accurate representation of what a woman veteran is. Somewhere in between G.I. Jane and Private Benjamin is the balance of a strong, capable and feminine sailor, soldier, airman or Marine. Women who served in our armed forces rarely fit the Hollywood stereotypes, and more often than not you wouldn’t even be able to guess that a woman had served.
Take Denyse Gordon. She’s an Air Force master sergeant, a combat veteran of the Iraq War with nearly 20 years of service to her country, and since 2006 she has worked to help military members transition to successful civilian lives. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native has truly lived a life of service. And in October, ditching her combat boots for an elegantly draped black evening gown, she stood out among 36 other women to be chosen the very first Ms. Veteran America.
“This competition resonates because it sheds light on the fact that women serve, too. You step outside your comfort zone, and you’re up on stage in front of everyone to show the country it’s about the woman beyond the uniform. When we put that uniform on, you better believe we’re there to do our job and serve our country with pride. But this competition shows that when we take those uniforms off, we have a personality outside the military.”
A competition crowd favorite and second runner-up was 89-year-old Gladys Hughes. The World War II-era Coast Guard veteran (who, by the way, became Ms. Mississippi Senior in 2003) said she was proud to see her competitors’ personalities shine through.
The inaugural event was hosted at the Pentagon Ritz Carlton in Arlington, Va., and helped raise $30,892 to help fight homelessness among women veterans.
“The Ms. Veteran America competition is quite an innovative way to address a number of very important issues,” said Washington Headquarters Executive Director Barry Jesinoski. “It’s bringing much-needed attention to the growing population of women veterans, highlighting their contributions to our military and providing funding to reach out in the community and help veterans carve a path to the kind of quality future they deserve.”
“It’s more than the crown; it’s more than the sash,” said Gordon. “It’s a new way of showcasing female veterans. We’re mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts. I think as we see this paradigm shift within the military culture it will become more normal for the public to see that both in and out of uniform, we are still women.”
A “pageant” for women veterans may still be a bit of a head-scratcher for some. At a time when women are increasingly gaining equal footing and recognition for their military service, couldn’t this be perceived as taking a step backward? But at the heart of this competition is a woman with a deep desire to change public perceptions about who women veterans are, how we recognize them and what they are truly capable of doing within our communities.
Humble Beginnings for a Noble Cause
“As a female veteran, some of our femininity becomes lost when we wear the uniform because we have to blend in with the boys,” said the pageant’s creator and veteran Jaspen Boothe. That mentality went out the window for this competition. The contestants represented all the service branches, ages, races and personalities, and were judged on the grace, poise, beauty and talent that Boothe says tend to be “camouflaged during military service.”
A look into her past tells you Boothe knows a thing or two about the strength and grace needed to be a woman in the military. As a captain in the Army Reserve and a single mother, Boothe lost everything she owned to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and, two months later, was diagnosed with head, neck and throat cancer. She needed a full-time job, a place to live and lengthy medical treatment, but she was met only with dead ends as she tried to find programs that aid female veterans with children. After a six-month stay at Brooke Army Medical Center, Boothe had a clean bill of health and began searching for a new job, a new home and a way to help her fellow veterans overcome similar hardships.
The result was Final Salute, Inc., which Boothe founded to be for women veterans by women veterans, to help provide transitional housing, housing subsidies, interest-free loans and grants to homeless female veterans and their children.
Boothe created the Ms. Veteran America competition in honor of the 200,000 women currently serving in the military and the 1.8 million female veterans across the country. Proceeds from the event and the donations raised by each contestant went back to Final Salute, Inc. to address veteran homelessness. Thanks in part to that funding, the non-profit will open a newly constructed transitional home for women veterans in Alexandria, Va.
“Too many women veterans and their families are forced into unfavorable living situations because there aren’t programs available to address their unique needs,” said Deputy National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “The VA can’t address this problem alone; it will take efforts like these to put an end to homelessness.”
As the new face of the competition, Gordon’s next year will be spent helping to champion these very issues.
“This competition is not a beauty pageant. I think people are viewing the cause more than the glitz and glamor of the competition,” Gordon explained. “We’re all coming together to raise more awareness about our 13,000 homeless women veterans. That’s 13,000 too many. And we need to have some courageous conversations about this.”
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