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Ms. Veteran America Uses Title To Talk About Sexual Violence

Ms. Veteran America Denyse Gordon's knowledge of military history helped her win the crown.
Amy Ta
Ms. Veteran America Denyse Gordon's knowledge of military history helped her win the crown.

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

In 2012, Air Force reservist Denyse Gordon was crowned Ms. Veteran America. Soon after she earned her title, she decided to dedicate her year as queen to talking about sexual abuse in the military, something she herself experienced.

"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," Gordon tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "I needed to be able to help someone with my story."

Gordon first experienced harassment early in her career, from a high-ranking civilian in her squadron who touched her and spoke to her inappropriately. She told her superiors, who questioned her story and warned her that coming forward could affect the perpetrator's retirement. She felt blamed and never filed a complaint.

Later in her career, a man in another branch of the military physically assaulted Gordon. "He was an officer, and I was enlisted," she says. "So if you tell, you get in trouble, and I didn't want to feel the scrutiny that I felt at my first base, so there was no way I was telling. There was no way." So she buried it, stayed in the military and threw herself into her schoolwork, earning multiple degrees.

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 combat. But I said, hmm ... why, not, you know? What could happen?

Gordon says she blames the men who harassed and assaulted her, but not the military as an institution. "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," says Gordon. "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 arena."

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