Maryland Army National Guard Maj. Elise Dent has spent the majority of her nearly 20-year career helping other soldiers and their families access benefits and resources. So competing in – and winning – Ms. Veteran America 2021 was in the same vein.
“I’m still in shock some days,” Dent told Reserve & National Guard Magazine. “It’s not until the director was calling and setting up appearances for me that I truly learned to accept this is happening.”
Dent was among more than a dozen competitors and as the titleholder, serves as the official spokeswoman for the Ms. Veteran America competition and its beneficiary, Final Salute. Dent, a former education officer and current Soldier and Family Programs branch chief, will also be an ambassador in assisting Final Salute with its mission to provide safe, suitable housing for women veterans and their children.
As the crowned champion, Dent dons the customary sash and crown but has also been awarded $15,000, which she said she’ll invest in her husband’s business and home. She also will be featured in MVA marketing campaigns nationwide and will have airfare, accommodations to the 2022 competition – and her gown – all paid for.
But this is no beauty pageant – MVA competitors are not judged on their physical appearance, but, rather, in four areas: interview, talent (lip-sync competition), military history and advocacy.
During this year’s semifinals, Dent established a Facebook fundraiser called “Marching Monday.” For every $25 donated, she pulled on her combat boots and ruck to march one mile. By May, she’d raised close to $4,000 for Final Salute as an independent ambassador.
Col. Denise Walker, Dent’s supervisor at MDARNG Soldier and Family Programs, said Dent is “the perfect soldier” to represent Final Salute and be named Ms. Veteran America.
“As our Soldier Family Support director, Maj. Dent has increased family participation by 75% and coordinated a myriad of donations from backpacks for schools, toys for Christmas, and provided on-site support for our soldiers who supported the unrest in Washington, D.C.,” Walker said.
Dent said her two daughters, 11-year-old Madison and 7-year-old Taylor, are her greatest motivation. While her children were ecstatic over their mother’s sparkly crown, she was sure to explain the true reason she strived for the top spot – to shed light on inequalities in resources for women veterans given the unique challenges they might face.
“The military sometimes groups trauma into one, but we can’t do that,” Dent said. “We have to be sure to identify the issues women are dealing with and address them properly. I want to ensure women warriors are empowered, educated and they’re confident transitioning from military to civilian life.”
Filmmakers documented the organization’s impact in the 2017 documentary, “Served Like a Girl,” and captured competitors’ journeys up to the day of the event and encompassed how MVA’s philanthropic goals resonated with them.
Its tagline, “The Woman Beyond the Uniform,” is indicative of how MVA benefits Final Salute, a 501(c)3 with programs like Savings Assessment and Financial Education (S.A.F.E) and Next Uniform. Both provide educational and career resources for women transitioning out of the military.
Women also can receive professional business attire and headshots for their LinkedIn profiles through Next Uniform. Since its start in 2012, MVA has raised more than $700,000 to provide over 15,000 transitional housing days for close to 7,000 women veterans and children.