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DENYSE GORDON: This email popped up and it said Ms. Veteran America Pageant, and my nose kind of went up in the air. Because it's - I'm in my boots, you know, I have my gun, I'm in combat. But I said, hmm. Why not? You know, what could happen?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That is Denyse Gordon. She has 20 years of military service under her belt, is still in the Air Force Reserves. And she also happens to be the reigning Ms. Veteran America. First of all, yes, there is such a thing. It's a beauty pageant started last year to honor women veterans. Tonight, Gordon will crown her successor in Leesburg, Virginia in a pageant that is about far more than how well a woman can wave and walk down a runway. Denyse Gordon is our Sunday Conversation.

GORDON: There's no swimsuits.

MARTIN: OK. No swimsuit competition.

GORDON: But there is a talent. There is an interview process. We're tested on military history - specifically women in military history. And we'd be a great role model for our veterans. And I'll tell you what: meeting those great women - my fellow competitors - to include my second runner-up, who was 89 at the time...

MARTIN: I read that. I can't believe that.

GORDON: And she's gorgeous. I just want to say that. When we met Ms. Gladys, who is a World War II Coast Guard SPAR, first impression: wow, she's gorgeous. And all of the women that, you know, these mothers, these warriors, these proven, tested servicewomen and I were gracing the stage in gowns. And - it was just awesome, so, And to win, oh my goodness. wow. What an honor.

MARTIN: The idea of the pageant, the intent is to raise money and awareness about the issue of homeless women veterans. But as I understand it, you really used your platform through this pageant to talk about another very important issue, which is military sexual trauma.

GORDON: Right, right.

MARTIN: Can you tell us why that has been so important?

GORDON: Yeah. You know, when I was crowned the winner, I knew that I wanted to make every veteran proud. And I knew that in order to do that I had to be transparent. And I survived two incidents of military sexual trauma. And I felt that, OK, this is a platform. I'm going to be in front of a lot of women who have served their country from World War II on. And if I can't self-disclose what happened to me and that I'm able to forgive and find strength in moving on, then my winning this title would be in vain. I needed to be able to help someone with my story.

MARTIN: As you mentioned, you were harassed twice. The first happened when you were pretty new to the Air Force, right?

GORDON: Yeah, yeah. You know, imagine a young girl from Brooklyn, a little bit of an attitude. And in my first duty station, you know, I'm just raring, you know, Airman Gordon. And the individual that sexually harassed me, he was a high-ranking civilian in the squadron. And it was just constant very vulgar terminology and physical touching. And it got to the point where when I finally decided to come forward and tell my superiors - 'cause this had been going on for months and I wouldn't say anything. I think I was an E-2 at the time.

MARTIN: Low ranking.

GORDON: Low ranking. Who's going to listen to me? But I finally got the courage, because I said I can't do this. And I told my chief, I told my first sergeant and I told my command at the time. And the first thing that was asked of me was: are you sure? And I was flabbergasted. It's like instantly that doubt creeps in. When you have your superiors looking at you as, you know, are you sure? Do you know that if you were to come forward with this story that this might affect this man's retirement? And it's, well, if you are sure you need to get witnesses. And I went to some of my friends at the time that would witness this harassment and I asked if they would come forward, and they all said no. And my next move was to go to our social actions department on base, and that's an old terminology 'cause this was in 1994. And I drove to the parking lot and I sat in the parking lot and I cried because - I said I can't believe this is happening. And, you know, it's not my fault but I feel like I'm being blamed. And I never went in.

MARTIN: You didn't report it?

GORDON: I didn't report it. I told my superiors but I never fully filed a complaint. And then at my second base...

MARTIN: How many years later are we talking about?

GORDON: This was a few years later when the assault occurred. And...

MARTIN: It was also a superior?

GORDON: No. He was in a different branch of service and I knew him. And, you know, when the assault occurred, it was you either stay there and allow this person to finish with fear of your life or you fight and you don't know what's going to happen. I was off-base and no one knew where I was. I didn't even tell my best friend because he was an officer and I was enlisted. So, if you tell, you get in trouble. And I didn't want to feel the scrutiny that I felt in my first base. So, there was no way I was telling. There was no way. So...

MARTIN: Even though this time you had been - it wasn't harassment; it was assault.

GORDON: Right. So, there was no way. And buried it, went headstrong into school, you know, just knocking out degrees and...

MARTIN: Stayed in the military, stayed in the Air Force.

GORDON: Stayed in the military. 'Cause you know what, Rachel, I didn't blame the military - and to this day. Because it was those individuals...

MARTIN: But even you talk about the reaction of your friends who didn't stand up for you and superior officers who made you doubt your story, doubt what had happened to you. Is there a cultural problem? Is there a lack of awareness?

GORDON: I think back then, you know, you hear all these stories. You know, you hear about Tail Hook, you know, that Navy scandal that happened and certain things like that.

MARTIN: Even in the Air Force recently.

GORDON: Yeah. I mean, you know, service academies. So, there is that culture of doubt I think still exists. And does the military perpetuate it? That's a hard question to answer, you know, with an affirmative. But there are individuals that are flat-out not going to believe you. And it's a hard pill to swallow when it's your superiors, when it's your close friends because if they feel if you come forward, you will ruin unit cohesion, you will ruin that esprit de corps. And I hope one day that the leadership would put so much pressure on any offenders that they would think twice, three times, before even venturing into that, you know, arena.

MARTIN: What happened to your perpetrator, the man who assaulted you?

GORDON: I don't know. I don't know. And I don't think I'm strong enough yet to look him up.

MARTIN: You didn't file charges retroactively.

GORDON: No.

MARTIN: Have you thought about that?

GORDON: I have. And I had felt so much more peace and I have forgiven myself. 'Cause for a long time I suffered from shame and self-blame. And the first time I told this story it was, you know, March of this year in a room full of female veterans from World War II to OIF, OEF. And I told them my story. And I felt like this rush of release. And that's so worth more to me right now.

MARTIN: What's this past year been like for you?

GORDON: Oh, man.

MARTIN: Are you sad it's over? You're going to give your crown away to someone else.

GORDON: Oh, I'm not giving my crown, Rachel. No, no, no, no, no. She gets her own crown. The precious stays with me. This year has been - I'm getting goosebumpy right now because all of the people that I've been able to meet, all of the lives that I think I've been able to touch. This year has been - I'm excited. I'm excited to meet my new sister-queen, whoever she is, and start this legacy.

MARTIN: Well, Denyse Gordon, the 2012 Ms. Veteran America. She hands off her title to this year's winner at the pageant tonight in Leesburg, Virginia. Denyse, thank you so much for talking with us.

GORDON: Thank you very much. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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