Pride, courage, selfless service to country- all celebrated qualities of those who serve in the American military. “See the World,” “Be All That You Can Be,” “Uncle Sam Wants You”- recruiting slogans that appeal to both men and women. Sadly, after serving their country, 55,000 female veterans are now homeless. They, and their children, are the fastest growing segment of America’s homeless population. The documentary “Served Like a Girl” looks at a group that is working to combat this statistic and also honor the beauty and talents of female veterans.
Started in 2012, the Ms. Veteran America Pageant was the brainchild of Jaspen “Jas” Boothe. Major Boothe served 17 years in the Army. While stationed in New Orleans, she lost all of her possessions to Hurricane Katrina. At around the same time, she was diagnosed with cancer. After receiving treatment, Boothe was discharged from the service.
However, when she applied to the VA, Boothe was advised there weren’t any programs to assist women. Instead, they referred her to welfare. The $300 per month coverage for her and her young son left them homeless. Once she got back on her feet, Boothe resolved to do something to bring attention to the plight of homeless female veterans.
Director Lysa Heslov follows Boothe, pageant director Denyse Gordon, and four of the contestants in the 2015 Ms. Veteran America Pageant. All of these women served and sacrificed for the United States. Each endured, and copes with, trauma experienced during that service. Two were victims of MST (Military Sexual Trauma), an acronym indicating rape by a fellow serviceman. One of the victims, Naval Master-at-arms Hope Garcia, handles her pain by creating and performing a monologue about the experiences of violated servicewomen.
Some of the other women dealt directly with death. Lt. Commander Rachel Engler, a Navy RN and former Redskins cheerleader, was in charge of a medical station in Afghanistan. This required her to make life and death choices due to limited medical supplies.
Army Specialist Marissa Strock was awarded the Purple Heart after losing both her lower legs during a tour of duty in Iraq. She has since become the co-host of the Ms. Veteran America Pageant and jokes she copes with PTSD by shopping.
During the course of the film, all of the women detail the ways they had to muffle their femininity during their years of service. This ranges from severe haircuts to hiding medical issues for fear of being viewed as weak. For most of them, the pageant’s evening gown competition is the first time they have ever worn a beautiful formal dress. When Army Sergeant Nichole Alred models two gowns, her firecracker of a mother gets teary eyed, exclaiming, “What a dress does to you!”
The Ms. Veteran America Pageant gives the veterans an opportunity to express both their femininity and their pride in having served their country. As the contestants meet and talk, they realize how much they share in common. This helps them open up to each other, their families, and Heslov’s camera.
Heslov and her crew respectfully and non-judgmentally show these female vets being themselves. Through interviews and montages they capture the caring and pride these women feel. The veterans’ stories stay with the audience after “Served Like a Girl” ends. The one weakness in the film (spoiler alert) is that the winner of the 2015 contest was not one of the women profiled. It’s too bad Heslov didn’t include that vet’s story, also.
Despite the various stresses they had to endure, not one of the women in “Served Like a Girl” expresses regret regarding their military career. They all wish for acknowledgment and respect from the VA, from their families, and from the people they encounter. Like their civilian “sisters,” these women want to be acknowledged for being both feminine and strong. And, they want to be regarded as equals to the men with whom they work. Through the Ms. Veteran America program, they get the opportunity to proudly represent themselves and the courageous women of the US military.