Army Lt. Col. Rose Forrest and Navy Lt. Yvonne Armstrong usually don military uniforms.
But the two women have temporarily changed into long, ball gowns to compete for the title Ms. Veteran America.
Ms. Veteran America is the biggest fundraising event for Final Salute Inc., an organization focused on female veteran housing insecurity. It is not a pageant, but a competition, although it does feature some pageant-like aspects, Armstrong said.
Armstrong is currently a professor of economics at the Naval Academy. She started her military career as a mess management specialist in the Navy in 2003.
She came across Final Salute after moving to the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area as part of a service assignment, Armstrong said. She looked for veterans organizations to volunteer with and liked the organization’s advocacy.
The stereotype of a veteran is often a man, Armstrong said, which means women can go overlooked.
“[That narrative] doesn’t speak about those women who come back home and they deal with infertility because they were exposed to the same chemicals, or they deal with psychological issues or they have issues integrating back into their community because how do you navigate and how do you reconcile the fact that you’re feminine and you’re a woman but you served in, in a position that was really, in my own words, unnatural, so to speak for a woman?” Armstrong said.
“How do you do that and just plop back into a society that expects you to get married and spit out a bunch of kids? I think that’s why we need advocates.”
Forrest, an Annapolis area resident, is an active duty member of the Maryland National Guard. She is the first female staff judge advocate for the Maryland National Guard.
Like Armstrong, she said she liked the advocacy done by Final Salute, Inc. When it comes to veteran services, they are gender-neutral, when some could be just focused on women, Forrest said.
Armstrong and Forrest said another reason for joining the competition was to highlight the ability to be in the military but also be feminine. Women in the military often work so hard to “pass as men,” Forrest said.
“And what I’ve learned after everything I’ve been through for the past 22 years is that I have value as a woman,” she said. “I bring things to the table, not in spite of the fact that I’m the woman, but because I’m a woman.”
The two are among the 25 remaining competitors.
Each finalist has to perform a lip-synced song, which Armstrong described as a “RuPaul Drag Race lip sync.” She’s performing “Wonderful is His Name,” a nod to her faith, she said. It’s an upbeat song that involves a lot of dancing.
“I thought that that highlighted my personality,” Armstrong said. “I’ve been active on campus with the gospel choir, and with a lot of the religious organizations, a lot of prayer groups on campus.”
Forrest’s song, “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” also involves a fair amount of dancing, she said. To give a military twist to the song, Forrest wore her ballgown and combat boots.
The Ms. Veteran America competition, held Oct. 11, is digital this year, with contests filming some of their acts and also on call for live portions.
Forrest has already filmed her lip sync portion, she said. Now she is preparing for the questions.
All competitors will have to answer questions as well, which means Forrest and Armstrong have spent the past couple months preparing themselves for each round of questions.
Both said they keep up with the news as one way to study. Forrest has leaned on her fellow guardsmen who have volunteered to quiz her, just one way they are supportive of her competing.
At the academy, Armstrong’s students might find their lessons infused with information she is learning as she prepares for the competition, she said. As a professor at the Naval Academy, she has the ability to teach leadership, and Armstrong tries to help the midshipmen understand how to navigate issues that affect their subordinates.
“I just think it’s wonderful to be able to weave these real-life real time issues into economics and to impart that wisdom and mentorship into the midshipman,” Armstrong said.
The Naval Academy is supportive of Armstrong’s journey to becoming Ms. Veteran America. The academy community has been excited to tell her story, she said.
“We’re at a unique time as a Department of Defense, a unique time at the Naval Academy where it highlights me — I am not naive to the fact that I’m a black officer,” Armstrong said. “It just highlights, ‘wow, look at this lady’s story.'”
The two women also know that by competing in the competition, they can be models to other female service members.
“It’s OK to embrace that femininity and still be that GI Jane,” Armstrong said. “It doesn’t make me any less of a naval officer because I put on an evening gown and I fix my hair. It’s okay to be feminine.”
Tickets to the Ms. Veteran America start at $25. For more information, visit msveteranamerica.org
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