“Ma’am, you need to do this! You need to try. You need to compete!”

When her Soldiers told her this, 1st Lt. Juliet Sandford, a human resources officer assigned to the 49th Transportation Battalion at Fort Hood, knew it wasn’t about herself or her own comfort level any more. That’s the moment she knew she would enter and compete in the Ms. Veteran America 2020 competition.

With encouragement from family, friends, and Soldiers in the 13th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, she entered her first ever pageant, and, so far, she is competing well. The competition announced last week that Sandford had made it through the semifinals to the top 25. She is actively competing now in the finals and hopes to make it into the top 10 and beyond.  

But, Sandford, from Warren, Michigan, a little town outside of Detroit, stresses it’s not about her. The whole competition is about raising awareness for programs that aid in getting female, homeless veterans the help and care they need.

The Ms. Veteran America competition has to date raised more than $541,000 for charities that help women veterans and their children. They’ve assisted more than 7,000 individuals and provided more than 15,000 transitional housing days, according to the pageant’s website. The pageant’s beneficiary is a nonprofit called Final Salute Inc.

Sandford, who was prior enlisted in the Army Reserve as a medical laboratory specialist, has mobilized to Iraq, Germany and several places in the continental U.S. She first heard of the pageant in 2015, she said.

With encouragement from those around her, she filled out what Soldiers would call a “board packet” with an application and letters of recommendation, then sent them off.

“That board packet goes before a panel of judges, and they will decide from there if you’ve made it into the semifinals,” Sandford said. “And then I made it through that. And during semifinals, we did a board-style interview, where you are asked five questions, ranging from current events to military history. And the questions about the Final Salute Inc. organization and the competition itself.

While not a talent competition, the contestants also filmed a lip sync video to a song and what would normally be the walking portion of the competition. All of it has been virtual to this point and is expected to remain as such.

“We would have normally done the semifinals in Las Vegas and the finals in Florida,” Sandford said, “but due to the pandemic, they went to a full virtual platform for our safety. This was going to be the perfect excuse to go to Vegas!”

Undaunted, she has focused on what’s important about the competition – raising awareness for women homeless veterans.

“Because their population is so small, there is often a lack of programs and care for them and their particular needs,” she said. “Especially when children are involved. Because they are such an under represented population, this organization targets them directly to make sure they have some kind of outlet and program to assist them.”

Sandford has also been actively fund raising to support the effort.

“I’ve personally, just on my own free time, went and ruck marched to raise money, and that raised over $4,000 directly toward the organization,” she said. “I was actually very surprised because, I think I rucked 10 miles and people were very supportive of that. I was like, ‘Oh wow!’”

Now she’s working with a company to get a custom shadow box made for military medals that would be used as a prize in a drawing for donors.

The final competition will be live streamed on the internet Oct. 11.  Tickets to watch can be purchased  with a $25 minimum donation. More details about getting a ticket and watching can be found at https://www.msveteranamerica.org/. It is scheduled to air from 6-8 p.m.

Sandford said the male Soldiers in her formation have been very supportive of her efforts.

“We always appreciate when our brothers-in-arms stand in solidarity with us, and understand that we are an underrepresented population, and they want our veteran sisters to receive care,” Sandford said. “Sometimes, because the population is so small, they are easily forgotten. So, whenever I see male Soldiers be like, ‘Hey, that’s really awesome. I’m so glad that these females have a way to get help, when normally they wouldn’t,’ it just brings pride knowing that our brothers are there for us that way. We’re all extremely grateful for that kind of comradery.”