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Around The Fleet

Miss Veteran America 2014

Navy vet takes top honors

Last fall, I received a phone call from a close friend prompting me to investigate the Ms. Veteran America competition. Initially, I disregarded his comments due to the objectification that typically accompanies beauty pageants.

He assured me it wasn't a pageant and added that mission of the competition reflected my personal passion: to build hope and a future for others. My curiosity was peaked! I reviewed the website and thought, "This is what I've built my life around."

In 1997, I graduated from the Center for Information Dominance and served for six years as a Cryptologic Analyst for Naval Intelligence. I supported military, counter-narcotics and search and rescue operations in Florida, Spain, Canada, and Washington, D.C. In addition, I voluntarily served twice in combat in both Iraq and Yugoslavia aboard the USS Nicholson. In addition to providing a profound sense of purpose, community, and camaraderie, the military taught me what it truly meant to offer myself as a living sacrifice - to expand and share the highest version of myself for the greater good. When my military career was cut short by a rare, progressive and debilitating disease, I was faced with the shock of losing my life as I knew it. For a time, it felt as though I had lost everything.

After experiencing a season of hopelessness myself, my compassion for others grew. With compassion came a passion and persistence to serve others who were suffering. I redirected my life and returned to school. I soon began working and volunteering with others who desperately needed partnership in building hope and a future due to complex and often underserved problems: Alzheimer's, chronic pain, homelessness, hepatitis, PTSD, rare diseases, HIV, diabetes, disability.

In doing so, I experienced a miracle far beyond my wildest dreams. By building hope and a future for others, I actually received it myself. I became one of the first patients to manage my condition and the second leading researcher on my disease. I was touched by the countless lives of others who had served me on my healing journey and began telling my story.... A triumph over tragedy that began truly when I committed to serving - even in the face of losing my life as I knew it.

Although my career as a health educator, scientist, speaker, and performer has transformed over time, my mission remains the same: to build hope and a future for others. I believe passionately in collaborating, taking risks for the betterment of humanity, and illuminating disparities. I believe we must as a society be willing to the see the truth if we are to progress.

As a female veteran and public health educator, I was disheartened and disgusted to learn that female veterans are the fastest growing segment of homeless in the US. Lack of services. Lack of support. Lack of awareness. Lack of hope. UNACCEPTABLE.

Army Veteran Jaspen (Jas) Boothe, founder of Final Salute Inc. - the affiliate organization and beneficiary of the Ms. Veteran America Competition, felt similarly. In 2005, while preparing for a deployment to Iraq, Jas was faced with two horrific tragedies. Her home was obliterated by Hurricane Katrina and she was simultaneously diagnosed with cancer. This woman warrior was left without a home, resources, and hope. Facing homelessness herself, she became acutely aware of the problems women veterans face, and through her own suffering, founded a land-mark organization in 2010 that now provides transitional housing support, emergency financial assistance to prevent homelessness, and Stand-Up Events to ensure a successful transition into the civilian workforce. Through Final Salute, she has become a national champion for female veterans and has asked others to stand beside her and fight.

Who is willing to stand beside her? Who is willing to talk about the national tragedy of homeless female Veterans and their children? Who is willing to do something about it?

Every Ms. Veteran America Competitor.

That became our collective mission: to offer ourselves in service to our sisters. We ultimately entered a competition not against one another, but against a problem that we would not ignore. Although there would be only one 'winner' - one Ms. Veteran America 2014 - there was a pervasive camaraderie and a spirit of service that told our communal story. It was visceral. It made me proud to be a female veteran - it made me proud of all the women that have served and continue to serve. We were willing to live and die for one another... that's powerful.

Over the course of the competition year, we educated ourselves, shared the story of Final Salute, and advocated on behalf of female veterans. Our cohort raised over $40,000 and participated in interviews, shared talent, and even donned formal gowns.

The judging criteria: Character. Advocacy. Service. Talent.

The competition truly was an illumination and celebration of the diversity and complexity of the 'Women Beyond the Uniform'!

A year of hard work, commitment, and passion to serve came sharply into focus on October 12th, 2014. An intensity flooded inside us and amongst us: adrenaline, anticipation, and excitement. I was amongst the top 23 military women from around the country - facing the final round of a national competition to represent all women in the military and advocate for homeless female veterans.

The experience was shockingly beautiful, powerful and awe inspiring. Although I prepared for the competition, I could not have prepared for what I felt when my name was announced as Ms. Veteran America 2014.

Shock. Overwhelm. Gratitude. Joy. Responsibility.

I have experienced countless miracles personally and this was perhaps one of the most powerful... and humbling. I will never forget my personal history and more importantly, those that selflessly served me along the way, building hope and a future for me. They deserve the crown too... and the promise that I will offer the totality of my being in service as Ms. Veteran America 2014.

During the competition, I performed an original multi-layered composition on electric violin entitled: SoulFire: Rise of the Woman Warrior. It is a song of triumph over tragedy. That's 'our' song and I'm taking that on the battlefield. I am grateful for the opportunity to join the ranks of Final Salute and fight for humanity. Our female veterans deserve it!

** The mission of Final Salute Inc. is to provide homeless women Veterans with safe and suitable housing. Final Salute was established to identify and meet the unique needs of homeless women Veterans. **

If you or a veteran you know is struggling or facing homelessness, there are resources available. Please visit http://www.va.gov/homeless/ for information on jobs, housing and medical information.