More than 204,000 women are serving in the armed forces right now, making up nearly 16 percent of service members. When women retire from the military, they often don’t get the same treatment or access to services that men do. But an event featuring hundreds of active and retired military women is trying to change that.
Through poise, grace and service, the competition for Ms. Veteran America unites them all for a common mission, reports CBS News correspondent Dana Jacobson.
“When I was really struggling with PTSD and I just got out of the military, I felt a bit worthless,” Molly Mae Potter said.
After serving six-and-a-half years in the Air Force, including a tour in Afghanistan, Potter’s transition home didn’t come easily.
“When I was really struggling with PTSD and I just got out of the military, I felt a bit worthless,” Potter said. “My identity again was the military. ‘What am I going to do with my life now?’ ‘No one wants to hire me…’ I felt like damaged goods.”
Therapy and the support of family and friends pulled Potter out of debilitating depression. Her dog, Bella, gave her reason to get out of bed.
“I thought if I go get help, I’m not only saying that I’m weak but I’m also going to lose my identity,” Potter said.
“What did you learn instead?” Jacobson asked.
“I’m a lot stronger than I ever thought and the military doesn’t define me,” Potter said.
Now it’s Potter lending a helping hand as the newly crowned Ms. Veteran America. It’s an annual competition created by Maj. Jas Boothe to showcase the woman beyond the uniform.
“When people look at my uniform, they see Major Boothe; they don’t see me as a wife, they don’t see me as a mother,” Boothe said. “We have to somehow erase a little bit of our identities as women in order to blend in and serve in the military.”
“And Ms. Veteran America gives you a chance to bring that back?” Jacobson asked.
“Yes,” Boothe said.
At its surface, it looks like a beauty pageant with talent, evening gown competitions, contestant interviews and even the requisite sparkly headwear.
But the women have swapped their stilettos for combat boots, and the swimsuit contest is replaced by a true display of athleticism.
Make no mistake — Ms. Veteran is no pageant. This competition is also about the women outside the spotlight. Contestants spend several months raising money and awareness for Final Salute, a charity which supports homeless female veterans – the fastest growing homeless population in the U.S.
As the winner, Potter will spend the next year continuing to advocate for the cause.
“This is not about me,” Potter said, pointing to the crown. “This is about the two million women that have served in uniform since the Revolutionary War.”
That includes finalist and U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Ingrid Rosado. Back in 2008, the military mom had no place to go after finally gathering the strength to leave an abusive relationship.
“How much of your past sort of sits with you?” Jacobson asked.
“All the time,” Rosado said. “It’s difficult, but the cause behind it – like I know if I continue to be a voice no matter what, other military women who are going through the same thing that I did will hear me and they’ll have somebody there.”
“You get to be the voice and the face of advocating on behalf of women veterans that have really hit their rock bottom,” Potter said.
“Is it fair to say that had you not gotten help, maybe that could have been you?” Jacobson asked.
“Oh absolutely,” Potter said.
Together, these veterans have found a new mission and a new definition of beauty.
“What makes a woman beautiful?” Jacobson asked.
“I feel any women who is willing to raise her right hand and die for it is the most beautiful woman in the world,” Rosado said.
- © 2016 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.