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2017. Washington DC.  USA. Contestants flex before the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC.  Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces.  Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children.  Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition.  The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
2017. Washington DC.  USA. Contestants flex before the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC.  Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces.  Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children.  Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition.  The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum for TIME

Finding Ms. Veteran America

Beyond a traditional beauty pageant, the Ms. Veteran America contest aims to showcase the real women beyond the uniform

Story by Alexandra Genova | Photographs by Peter van Agtmael—Magnum for TIME

 

War is not glamorous. How then do you marry the pageantry of a beauty competition with the chaotic aftermath of combat? But the Ms. Veteran America Competition, now in its sixth year, does just that. It offers a platform for women veterans to celebrate their “courage in combat” while simultaneously embracing their femininity.

For American photographer Peter Van Agtmael, who documented this year’s event held in Washington D.C., it was this strange, swirling paradox that first drew him in. Van Agtmael has spent the last 12 years photographing America at war, as well as the aftermath back home.

His visceral, often painful journey into society’s inner soul frequently reflects on its acute contradictions. “What attracted me [about the competition] is that you’re taking two seemingly polar opposite worlds and kind of very conspicuously mashing them together,” he tells TIME. “But how do you do this in a thoughtful and complex way?”

The camouflage heels, bright red gowns and glamorous photo shoots are visually engaging but Van Agtmael was keen to look beyond the conscious spectacle to something deeper. He quotes Gary Winogrand: “‘How do you make a picture more theatrical than a subject’s own theatricality?’ Well this is a situation where I’d like to make the subjects less theatrical than their own theatricality.”

2017. Washington DC. USA. Rehearsal for the main event. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Rehearsal for the Ms. Veteran America contest Oct. 2017. The events include a beauty pageant, talent competition, test of strength and commitment to raise funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Makeup and official photo shoots before the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Makeup and official photo shoots before the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington, D.C., Oct. 2017. Participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness.

But the brazen femininity of the event, which benefits housing for homeless women veterans and their children, should not be diminished. Jas Boothe, an army veteran, prominent philanthropist and founder of the competition, tells TIME: “Men who serve are never told to curb their machismo at the door; in fact, masculinity is encouraged. I live for day that when a female soldier is facing a difficult task, she will be told to “Woman Up.” When we became soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and Coasties, we didn’t stop being women; and for some it feels like our femininity is under attack the moment we put that uniform on.”

While it may be a celebration of service, many women also use the platform to come forward with their experiences of the uglier side of the military. Testimonials of rape, sexual abuse and the physical and emotional violence of combat reveal the complexity of life after war. “It wasn’t just one thing,” says Agtmael. “It was uplifting but with a strong undercurrent of darkness. I saw both in equal measure.”

Boothe doesn’t see this criticism as problematic. “It is just a reality – an ugly reality – that we need to speak out about in order for that “darker side” to be addressed,” she says. “This competition has given many women veterans the courage to find light out of that darker side.”

Beneath the sparkles and sashays, the competition engenders sisterhood and a lifeline to many veterans who are – sometimes literally – left out in the cold. “It is always women who bring about change for other women,” she adds. “The world may not get us, but we get each other and some instances we are all we have.”

2017. Washington DC. USA. A contestant in camouflage high heels during the preliminary judging. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
A contestant in camouflage high heels during the preliminary judging of Ms. Veteran America, Oct. 2017.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Kelli Wray sets up her presentation about her brothers death after a long struggle with PTSD during the preliminary judging. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Kelli Wray sets up her presentation about her brothers death after a long struggle with PTSD during the preliminary judging of Ms. Veteran America, Oct. 2017
2017. Washington DC. USA. 2016 Ms Veteran America winner Molly Mae Potter with 2017 participants (L) Casey McCabe and Rebekah Lloyd (R). Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
2016 Ms. Veteran America winner Molly Mae Potter with 2017 participants Casey McCabe (L) and Rebekah Lloyd (R).
2017. Washington DC. USA. Official photos of Molly Mae Potter the Ms Veteran America 2016. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Signed photographs of Molly Mae Potter, Ms. Veteran America 2016.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Makeup and official photo shoots before the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC. Founder Jaspen (Jas) Boothe in center and Marissa Strock (a double amputee who calls herself a "Glamputee") at center/right. She lost her legs in Iraq in 2005. She serves as the MC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Behind the scenes of hair and makeup at the 2017 Ms. Veteran America contest.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Makeup and official photo shoots before the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Contestants prepare for the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant events.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Contestant Cassandra Taylor before the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Contestant Cassandra Taylor before the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington D.C.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
A giant novelty check at the 2017 Ms. Veteran America contest.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Props and gowns on display before the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Props and gowns on display before the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Marissa Strock (a double amputee who calls herself a "Glamputee"). She lost her legs in Iraq in 2005. She serves as the MC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Marissa Strock, a double amputee who calls herself a “glamputee”. She lost her legs in Iraq in 2005. She serves as the MC of the Ms. Veteran America contest.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Introduction of the finalists during the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Introduction of the finalists during the 2017 Ms. Veteran America contest in Washington, D.C. The keynote speaker was the original “Daisy Duke”, Catherine Bach.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Leslie Latimore-Lorfils talks about the struggles of raising 11 children while serving in the military. 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Leslie Latimore-Lorfils talks about the struggles of raising 11 children while serving in the military at the 2017 Ms. Veteran America Contest in Washington D.C.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Lindsay Gutierrez is crowned the winner at the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Lindsay Gutierrez is crowned the winner of the 2017 Ms. Veteran America contest in Washington, D.C.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Attendee at the Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC. Marissa Strock (a double amputee who calls herself a "Glamputee"). She lost her legs in Iraq in 2005. She serves as the MC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Attendees at the Ms. Veteran America contest in Washington D.C., Oct. 2017.
2017. Washington DC. USA. Lindsay Gutierrez is crowned the winner at the 2017 Ms. Veteran America pageant in Washington DC. Ms. Veteran America is a pageant for active duty and retired female members of the armed forces. Part beauty pageant, part talent competition, part test of strength and commitment, the event raises funds for Final Salute, an organization providing housing and support for homeless women veterans and their children. Some of the participants danced and some sang, but many gave testimonials of sexual assault, PTSD and homelessness. Lindsay Gutierrez won the 2017 competition. The keynote speaker was the original "Daisy Duke", Catherine Bach.
Lindsay Gutierrez is greeted by atendees after winning the 2017 competition.

Peter van Agtmael is a photographer represented by Magnum Photos.

Alexandra Genova is a writer and contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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