The first annual Ms. Veteran America competition was held on Oct. 7, 2012 at the Pentagon Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Va. Contestants were selected from three judging rounds held in Arlington, Va.; Austin, Texas; and Irvine, Calif. Out of hundreds of women who auditioned, 37 were selected to compete in the competition. The judges represented a variety of personalities, from American Veteran magazine contributor Vernice Armor and Under Secretary of Benefits for the Department of Veterans Affairs Brigadier General Allison Hickey to Miss Virginia USA 2011 Nikki Poteet. Adding to the star power, Sue Downes, the first female double amputee from Afghanistan, and Donnell Rawlings, an actor and Air Force veteran, hosted the event. Special guests included 2012 Paralympian medalist Angela Madsen and the 16th Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent.
All 37 contestants graced the stage in evening dresses and the top 10 women were announced and preceded to perform in the talent competition. Judges selected the top 10 contestants based on the ability to answer military questions, beauty, and their stage presence. The top ten contestants included: Heidi Amato, Ann Curtis, Tyra Everett, Denyse Gordon, Mary Ann Hotaling, Gladys Hughes, Keia Mays, Kimberly Miller, Alyse Partridge, and Stephanie Way. From reciting monologues to singing, the top 10 women brought smiles and laughs to the judges and entire audience. Denyse Gordon, an Air Force Reserve veteran, was crowned Miss Veteran America 2012, after advancing from the talent round to the final question interview. As her talent, she performed a flapper style dance routine in an old Army uniform. Stephanie Way, a former member of the Army National Guard, received first runner-up. Gladys Hughes, a World War II Coast Guard veteran and crowd favorite, was second runner-up.
While the Ms. Veteran America competition focused on celebrating women who have served our country, the competition also functioned as a fundraiser for Final Salute Inc., an organization that provides housing and aid to homeless female veterans and their children. As female veteran homelessness continues to increase as the homeless male veteran population decreases, this problem needs to be addressed by opening shelters that cater specifically to the needs of military sexual trauma victims, women suffering with PTSD, and women with children. Final Salute, Inc., has opened transitory homes in Fairfax, Va., and is currently building a new home in Alexandria, Va., that will be opening on Veterans Day 2012. To raise money, the contestants petitioned for donations from friends, family, and social media followers, and gained a significant following after Hughes appeared on Fox News and explained the purpose and importance of the Ms. Veteran America competition. As of today, Oct. 10, 2012, they raised $30,892 to help female veterans stay off the street.
(Photos: Top: Denyse Gordon was crowned the first Ms. Veteran America. Middle: The judges score contestants on their talent competition. Bottom: Gordon prepares for her dance routine at the Ms. Veteran America pageant. Photos by Melissa Golden)