It all started out as a joke: An old friend of mine nicknamed me “Ms. Veteran America,” when she learned that I was advocating for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She looked up “Ms. Veteran” in an online search engine to find a funny picture and make a meme in my honor. To her surprise, she discovered that Ms. Veteran America was not only a real organization, but that I would qualify for its annual competition. I was quick to push back. “I do not do pageants,” I told her.
But when I researched the competition, I learned that it really wasn’t a pageant. The Ms. Veteran America competition is a movement to unite women veterans from all eras of war and all military services to raise awareness in their communities about the growing demographic of homeless women veterans with children in this country. I entered the competition in January 2016.
I joined the Air Force in 2007, just weeks after graduating from Embry-Riddle‘s Daytona Beach Campus with a degree in engineering physics. I was serving as a munitions test engineer and soon found myself in my dream job as a flight test engineer. However, a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 turned my world around. What I saw and experienced there could not be erased, and my life and career quickly fell apart. I became depressed. I had panic attacks in my sleep which led to insomnia. I had sporadic short term memory loss — and I became anorexic. Because of my status as a flight test engineer, I did not seek help for fear of losing the security and medical clearance status required for my job. I suffered alone for years, but with the support of my military command and my family, I finally sought professional help.
In 2013, I was diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. During my treatment, I was provided a service dog named Bella who is trained to interrupt night terrors and provide comfort during panic attacks. Following months of mental health treatment, I was honorably discharged from the Air Force in November 2013 with Bella by my side. But the struggle continued. I had to find a job and a new identity. I eventually settled in Austin, Texas, working as an engineer for Dell Technologies where I’m currently an engineering operations director. I also started helping other veterans who were struggling with post-deployment issues and coping with the transition back to civilian life.
A Life-changing Event
When I joined the Ms. Veteran America competition, my work with veterans expanded. I was able to unite with women veterans across the country. I finally felt that I had found my calling in life — to be a voice for women veterans who did not have an advocate to fight for them.
During the 10-month competition, contestants are judged on: their advocacy work, fundraising, a talent that makes them unique, and their knowledge of the military, current events and the history of women in the military. In a year’s time, I raised more than $17,500 for Final Salute Inc., which provides housing for homeless women veterans and their children. I also became a City of Austin Commissioner on Veterans Affairs and vice president of government and industry relations for the Texas State Air Force Association.
When I wasn’t at a local veterans event, I was studying military history and reading up on current events. It was a full year of not only learning, but also connecting to my community — something that I had missed doing since leaving home for college in 2003.
The hard work paid off. On Oct. 9, 2016, I was awarded the 2016 Ms. Veteran America title and crown. And, I earned the privilege of traveling the country for a year to advocate on behalf of women veterans and their families. Sharing my personal story of struggle and recovery has not only helped me grow stronger as an individual; it has also helped other veterans get the support that they, like I, once feared to seek.