Story by Spc. Brandon Jacobs
Sgt. Theresa Vail, Manhattan, loves to take on challenges. “It gives me a powerful feeling,” said Vail, “and that’s what I want to give to other women.” Tackling challenges led Vail into sports, joining the Kansas National Guard, and- most recently, entering – and winning – the Miss Kansas Pageant.
Growing up in a military family fueled Vail’s desire to serve and mentor others and acted as a springboard to joining the Kansas National Guard, which in turn eventually led her to enter the Miss Kansas Pageant. An officer told her she had the talent and ability to be a role model for young women. Vail decided pageantry was an ideal way to become that role model.
As part of the pageant, entrants much choose a platform to promote. Vail wanted a platform to enable young women to gain confidence and better themselves and recalled her own experiences as a youth, when she was bullied in school. For her, sports became an ideal outlet. Not content, however, with those sports where women traditionally compete, Vail chose a different route.
“I played male-dominated sports and it made me feel better,” said Vail. In the Miss Kansas Pageant, she became an advocate for empowering women through participating, as she did, in male-dominated sports such as boxing and bow hunting.
Since winning the Miss Kansas title, Vail receives numerous messages from young women that look up to her, many writing “I want to be you.”
“Don’t be me, be you,” Vail counters. “Do what you want to do. Be what you want to be.”
In the interest of building confidence in the young women who reached out to her, Vail created the Empowerment Project. The project involves drawing on the experiences of 100 women, and at its core provides advice and confidence to younger women.
The program, which is still evolving, asks participants to use their life experiences to write letters of advice to their 22-year-old selves.
“I want to share their experiences with younger women and teach them to be fearless,” said Vail.
Vail learned fearlessness, as well as dedication and confidence, from watching her father serve in the Army as a dentist for 33 years. Being a self-described Army brat has taught Vail to adapt and overcome as well as be confident and outgoing.
“When you move around a lot, you have to be the one to approach other people,” said Vail. “You have to be the one to make friends.”
Vail also got her drive to join the military from her dad’s example.
“I saw the dedication and benefits of my dad’s service,” said Vail. “Serving our country made him happy and it makes me happy.”
From an early age Vail wanted to join the military. By the age of 6 she already had her own battle dress uniform. Vail, now with six years of service in the Kansas Army National Guard, is a dental technician in the Kansas Army National Guard Medical Detachment, headquartered in Lenexa, Kan.
“The Guard has given me leadership and life experience, which help out in the real world,” said Vail.
During the Miss Kansas pageant, she was asked why she would make a good representative for the state of Kansas. “I’ve been a representative of my state for six years as a Guardsman,” said Vail. “It doesn’t get any more real than that.”
Outside of serving in the military and as Miss Kansas, Vail is a student at Kansas State University, studying chemistry and Chinese, while focusing on the pre-dental program. “Somebody told me Chinese was the hardest language to learn, so I did,” said Vail.
She also finds the time to mentor young women, including her neighbor. She uses archery to teach not only marksmanship but life skills as well. “I teach her how to shoot, but we also work on communication and confidence,” said Vail.
Communication is an important part of Vail’s platform.
“I discovered, by moving around a lot, that too many girls are encouraged to hide their feelings and gossip behind each other’s backs. They do this rather than go directly to the person they are having a problem with,” said Vail.
Vail has learned to confront her problems head on from her time in the service and her childhood growing up around military guys.
“When you are around military guys, as a woman you have to hold yourself up stronger,” said Vail. “It’s a great feeling knowing you can hang with the guys and break their perceptions and stereotypes.”
She likes breaking people’s perceptions of women in the military.
In the coming weeks Vail will travel all around the state making appearances as Miss Kansas, promoting her Empowerment Project and her website www.Missoutdoorgirl.com. More recently, she has partnered with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks to encourage young women to get outdoors and enjoy nature.
All of Vail’s experiences and efforts are leading her to the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, N.J., Sept. 15. With continuing effort and a little bit of luck she will be able to add a new title to her resume: Miss America.
“I’m hoping my uniqueness will inspire people, and hopefully, that will bode well at Miss America,” said Vail. “I like to shock people.”