By Aisha Walker
Master’s Student, School of Security and Global Studies
Perhaps you are familiar with the plethora of beauty pageants that showcase women and girls through various outlets such as Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, Miss Universe, and others. One you may not have heard of is Ms. Veteran America, a pageant that goes beyond beauty to highlight women veterans and the challenges they face.
To understand the purpose of the Ms. Veteran America pageant, look no further than Final Salute Inc., a nonprofit organization that assists women veterans facing homelessness, domestic abuse, joblessness, and other personal crises.
Jas Boothe, the organization’s founder and president, created Final Salute after overcoming her own challenges as a single parent in the Army Reserves. Boothe founded Final Salute in November 2010 as part of her commitment to “Never Leave a Fallen Comrade.”
A survivor of both Hurricane Katrina and cancer, Boothe recognized that as she reached out for assistance with employment, medical care, and other services, the options for women veterans were limited compared to those of male veterans.
Despite those challenges, she went on to overcome both her illness and displacement from the historic hurricane to continue her military career and provide for her son. Because Boothe endured loss, Final Salute has assisted more than 7000 veterans and their children.
The Ms. Veteran America Pageant is a subsidiary of Final Salute and showcases “the woman beyond the uniform.” Qualified candidates apply for the pageant in March of every year, competing in semi-finals and finals events.
Over the course of seven months, they campaign for the title and advocate for the cause of homelessness among women veterans via social media, virtual runs, and fundraisers. At the finale in Orlando in October, finalists will take to the stage to participate in such diverse and unconventional pageant events as a lip-syncing talent routine and a push-up contest.
Making Women Veterans Feel Seen and Heard
The women who have competed in Ms. Veteran America could have chosen any other pageant to serve as a platform for the cause. However, this pageant focuses solely on how underserved women veterans compare to their male counterparts. Statistics show that although women veterans make up the fastest-growing demographic among all veterans groups, they do not receive adequate services, such as those associated with medical, mental health, and social services, in VA hospitals. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that around 10% of women veterans are homeless. To put into perspective how dire the need is, consider that 20% of new recruits are female; therefore, the need for better services is urgent.
The Ms. Veteran America Pageant sheds light on the issues women veterans face while giving them a safe venue to be recognized and celebrated. By the numbers, the pageant has raised more than $655,000, provided more than 15,000 days of transitional housing days in its facilities in Virginia, and has assisted over 7000 women veterans and their children.
Not Your Ordinary Ms. Congeniality
Women veterans from all walks of life have competed in the pageant, from officers to enlisted personnel, to Military Sexual Trauma survivors and amputees. Although the pageant does have specific criteria to be eligible to compete, it is clear that this is a pageant unlike any other. In no other beauty pageant will you see women in combat boots and tiaras. The current reigning Ms. Veteran America 2020 is Mary Ann Hotaling, a first-generation American who was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army’s Medical Service Corps. As Ms. Veteran America, she has raised more than $26,000 for homeless women veterans.
On October 10, 2021, 19 finalists will gather at the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando, but only one will be chosen the next Ms. Veteran America.
They are Elise Dent, Kristin Dillenburger, Giovanna Donofrio, Heather Dugas, Emily Ewart, Ebonii Foster, Casey Garza, LaToya Hughes, Jamica Johnson, Arlena Johnson, Vannessa Josey, Taylor Knueven, Theresa Melton, Corena Mitchell, Kristin Savage, Tangi Smith, Marie St. Louis Okoro, Sarah Tate, and Angela Waller. The pageant will be open to the public. Or you can follow each finalist on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.