In the weeks leading up to taking the stage at the Miss America competition this month, Vanessa Munson’s preparation looked a bit different than her peers. She is in the process of transitioning out of the Army, where she has served since 2019.
Winning the title of Miss Washington over the summer was a dream many years in the making, says Munson. The 23-year-old attributes her ability to truly own the stage to her career as a soldier.
“When I won [Miss Washington], I really felt like I was the woman that I had always wanted to be,” said Munson. “I felt very confident and capable in my life experiences, what I wanted to bring to the table, who I knew I was.”
The Army’s return to the classic “Be All You Can Be” slogan is indicative of Munson’s journey today. But she admits that years ago she used to put herself in a box. It was her father who initially approached her about considering the military to receive tuition assistance and other scholarship opportunities she desired.
“[Joining the Army] was honestly not anything that I had ever envisioned for myself because, truthfully, I just couldn’t see myself being in a position like this,” said Munson, who enlisted as a human resources specialist. “But I think that’s very small-minded thinking, because, realistically, we can be anything that we want to be.”
Munson enrolled in an undergraduate degree program while serving on active duty and still found time to compete in local pageants. She has also faced personal adversity in the form of hearing loss and has undergone multiple surgeries, recently receiving a permanent hearing aid implant. Instead of shying away from her impairment, Munson sees it as an opportunity to promote a message of inclusivity and empowerment. This advocacy work has included giving away Barbie dolls fitted with hearing aids to students in her home state of Washington.
“I want to be able to showcase that you can be OK with who you are, despite whatever challenges you’re facing,” she explained. “It’s that belief in yourself that really needs to be the biggest thing when it comes to a challenge like hearing.”
Sharing her story of service, resilience and accomplishment has resonated with a wide range of audiences. School tour stops, media appearances and other community engagements have packed Munson’s past few months, which has been beneficial for local Army recruiting efforts. As the Armed Forces struggle to figure out how to appeal to and attract Gen Z into their ranks, Munson brings the perspective of a young soldier who served in the Army while maintaining a commitment to her personal goals. That perspective, she says, is one military leaders should pay attention to and cater to.
“You can be a soldier, and then you can go be all of these other things,” she noted. “You have you at the center. And I think it’s important that the military recognizes that.”
As she stepped into the national spotlight in January, Munson joins the growing list of service members who are well-renowned beauty pageant title holders, such as Maura Spence Carroll, who represented the state of Colorado in the 2021 Miss America competition and Deshauna Barber, who was crowned Miss USA 2016 while serving as an Army Reserve soldier.
Their unique paths echo the evolving landscape of the military, reflecting the idea that being a member of the military does not necessarily have to clash with the value of individual empowerment.