Homelessness is a serious problem among America’s veteran population. Veterans make up roughly 11 percent of the country’s homeless population. Around 60,000 veterans can be found sleeping on the streets on any given night, and women make up the fastest-growing group among the homeless veteran population.
“There are a lot of reasons why this number is growing,” said Kaylan Harrington, an Emergency Department Technician at Monument Health Rapid City Hospital. “A lot of women veterans are not utilizing VA health care right now either. Many think they don’t deserve it. Others had a terrible experience in the military and they kind of want to separate themselves from that.”
Kaylan is no stranger to military service. She served for 21 years, starting in the Air Force then crossing over to the Army as an officer. She has been deployed six times, with four tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. She now serves in the South Dakota National Guard and attends nursing school at SDSU.
“I have kind of an unusual resume,” she said with a smile, describing the many jobs she’s done in the military. In her most recent tours to Afghanistan, she worked with female engagement teams, who interact with Afghan women — it’s taboo for Afghan women to interact with men who aren’t direct members of their family. She also worked as a prison interrogator in Iraq and as an intelligence analyst. In other words, Kaylan is a legitimate, certified badass. She’s got a quick wit, a sharply intelligent mind, a can-do attitude and a beautiful, friendly smile. For all those reasons, it’s no surprise that she was also the first runner-up in the 2022 Ms. Veteran America competition.
“I’ve been really humbled by all of this. I’m kind of a tomboy, a T-shirt and jeans kind of girl, and I thought this was something that I couldn’t do,” she said warmly. “But I know women who have competed and won, and I was so inspired by what they were able to do, the money they raised for women veterans and the representation that they brought forward on the national stage. I decided this is the year to do it, and South Dakota is a great state to represent. We take care of our veterans, and I would love to see this attitude and the care and compassion that we have in this state become the norm.”
The Ms. Veteran America competition was created in 2011 by Final Salute Inc., an organization with the mission to provide homeless women veterans and their children with safe and suitable housing. The competition supports the organization’s mission in two ways: all proceeds from the event are used to provide housing, and the event itself serves as a platform to build awareness. Fundraising is part of the competition itself. “All the girls worked their butts off for six months to a year to raise funds for the organization, and then all of the ticket sales were added to that,” Kaylan explained. “We raised over $700,000 for Final Salute.” Additionally, the winner and runners-up serve on an advocacy board to continue building awareness of the challenges faced by women veterans.
“I’m very honored to be part of this. I’m humbled. The women that I met are just unbelievable. There were doctors and lawyers right next to tank commanders and machine gunners,”
Kaylan said. “There’s just a wide array of very educated, very humble, incredibly strong women.” Kaylan said her experience in the military has been positive, but she’s aware that hasn’t been the case for every woman who has served. “A lot of women have had very bad experiences, and that contributes to the problems and troubles they experience after they leave the military,” she said. “Women deal with combat differently, they experience PTSD differently. Sexual trauma is a huge issue in the military right now, and the VA was behind the curve when it came to providing resources catering to female veterans that were homeless.”
A lot of homeless women veterans are also single mothers, which presents additional challenges. Kaylan said, “Many shelters may not be safe for children, and male children that are teenagers may be separated from their mom and placed on a side of the shelter just for men, so many of these individuals avoid the traditional shelters.”
Jathe “Jas” Boothe founded Final Salute, Inc., because she discovered there simply weren’t existing programs to help female veterans with children. In 2005, while Jas was in the Army Reserves, she had to deal with a devastating cancer diagnosis only one month after losing everything she owned to Hurricane Katrina. That experience was eye-opening for her, and was ultimately what led her to start Final Salute, Inc. Since then, the organization has helped more than 7,000 women veterans and their children.
Kaylan, as first runner-up, joined second runner-up Ann Lutz, and winner Liliana “Joie” Byrd, as part of an advocacy board that will continue working to bring attention to the problems faced by women veterans, especially homelessness. “One thing that we’ve done is the Bataan Memorial Death March on March 17,” she said. This 26.2 mile march through the desert at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico is an annual commemoration of the Bataan Death March attended by many survivors, veterans and supporters from across the globe. The trio wore their military uniforms, as well as their crowns and sashes, and raised money and awareness for Final Salute during the March.
“It’s the first time the Ms. Veteran America court has done something like that,” Kaylan said. “So we made a little bit of history, which felt great since it was also Women’s History Month.” Marching through the desert did nothing to deter Kaylan’s excitement for bringing awareness to the plight of homeless female veterans. “I’m excited for everything that we’re planning.”
Final Salute’s mission inspired Kaylan to step out of her comfort zone and onto the stage to compete for Ms. Veteran America, but there was an added bonus. “To bring national attention to this problem is incredibly important, and I’m proud to be part of it. But it also has been a great reminder that women do incredible things in different ways, and you can do more than one,” she said with a smile. “You can be a badass in the military and still want to put on a dress and a nice pair of heels once in a while. One doesn’t have to overshadow the other.”
“This year, the talent portion was a lip sync battle,” said Kaylan with a laugh. “I lip synced Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ — I love him, he makes me so happy, and I got really into it. There was a full costume, and I bedazzled my Guitar Hero guitar. I won best talent for the competition.” Kaylan also won most donations, raising $11,000 in South Dakota, all of which will be used to benefit homeless women veterans.
The final day is the evening gown event and the pushup competition. In addition to the judges’ scores, Ms. Veteran America and Final Salute, Inc., leadership also consider contestant activity, interaction and participation.
“I ended up having a lot of fun during the competition, and I’m proud of the work we’re doing to help homeless women veterans,” Kaylan said. “It’s a big problem, but I’m proud to be part of a group that is working on solutions.”
Written by Wade Ellett
Photography by Bob Slocum