On Sunday night, 39 women flocked to the Ritz Carlton in Pentagon City, Virginia, to compete in a beauty and talent contest. They had come from all corners of the country toting eyelash curlers and jewel-toned ball gowns and heels so sharp they could double as weapons.
The women, who ranged in age from 21 to 89, were competing for the inaugural crown of Ms. Veteran America, a program showcasing the beauty of military women beyond the confines of their uniforms.
Created by Army veteran Jaspen Boothe, the competition required women to raise money and awareness for Final Salute, an organization Boothe founded to fight homelessness among female vets. But for the contestants, the event was both a platform to talk about service and a chance to celebrate a different side of womanhood. They competed in four categories — eveningwear, talent, interview, and military history — and relished the opportunity to squeeze on a pair of platforms and dance across the stage to warrior-women anthems by Destiny’s Child and Gretchen Wilson. Backstage looked like a glittery war room: feathers, guitars, nipple covers, and camouflage luggage were strewn across the hotel carpet.
As the evening wound down, the final ten contestants huddled backstage touching up their makeup, talking CPR, and tallying which branch had the highest representation at the event (Air Force, by a landslide), when 31-year-old Amanda Thompson burst through the doors looking pallid and unwell.
“I need help,” she murmured. Thompson was experiencing a typical pageant problem: Her corset was too tight. Without hesitation, three women flew to her rescue and began barking out orders.
“Breathe!” they commanded. “Just relax and exhale!” Two more women grabbed water bottles while the team deftly unraveled Thompson’s dress without sacrificing a single silver jewel.
Seconds later, she was free.
“Boy,” cracked Gladys Hughes, the 89-year-old contestant from Picayune, Mississippi. “Imagine if this was a room full of civilians.”
And just like that, they were soldiers again.