[The following column from the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department discusses Theresa Vail, a Kansas National Guard sergeant, who recently competed in the Miss America pageant as Miss Kansas.]
“Be fearless,” Theresa Vail said. “It doesn’t matter how, just go for it.”
Not only is this advice the 22-year-old National Guard sergeant from Manhattan gives women everywhere, it’s her attitude on life.
“In everything she does, Theresa not only succeeds but excels,” Kathy Wehmhoff, Vail’s cousin, said. “Tell her she can’t do something and she will.”
Vail’s philosophy stems from growing up in a military family.
“My dad was in the Army for 33 years,” Vail said. “I saw the benefits serving his country gave him.”
From an early age, Vail knew she would follow in her father’s footsteps.
“He always told us the motto ‘Others before self,’” Vail said. “That’s what we live for, to serve other people.”
Vail, a dental technician with the Kansas National Guard’s Medical Detachment in Lenexa, who recently re-enlisted for an additional six years, has used her service in the National Guard to help achieve personal goals.
The great part of the National Guard is that it gives freedom to go to school and pursue an education, while serving your country, Vail said. She has a 3.8 GPA in Chinese at Kansas State University. As well as being a Chinese major, Vail is pursuing a major in chemistry and is in K-State’s pre-dental program.
“Sgt. Vail is great representation of what guardsmen and women are capable of not only as a soldier but in their civilian life as well,” Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, Kansas adjutant general, said.
Keeping up with college and her pageantry requires a sense of discipline she gained from her military service. Vail not only uses her military training and discipline during drill weekend and at school, but also to give her an edge in the pageant race.
“The long nights and mind games here are like basic training,” Vail said. “It’s a mental game and basic training has prepared me for this.”
Vail credits the National Guard for several traits that helped her stand out among the other 52 Miss America contestants.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the leadership, maturity and confidence I’ve gained from my service,” Vail said.
It’s that maturity and confidence that helped Vail adapt and overcome obstacles in her path. One such obstacle presented itself only two days before the Kansas state-level competition, when she was informed that she would be unable to perform archery as her talent.
“Miss America’s insurance policy has a ‘no projectiles’ clause,” Vail said.
With only 48 hours until the talent competition, Vail decided she would add a new skill to her already extensive repertoire: opera singing.
“I’d never sung opera in my life,” Vail said. “I had an appreciation for it and I sang soprano in choir back in high school, but I hadn’t sung since then and certainly never opera.”
Not only did Vail learn to sing opera, she chose to sing Nessun Dorma, traditionally sung only by male voices in Italian.
Vail said she learned Nessun Dorma by watching videos on YouTube. She only then worked with a vocal coach after being crowned Miss Kansas.
The drive that allowed Vail to learn such a difficult skill in a short time is a product of her experiences growing up in a military family and her service in the National Guard.
“At 8 years of age she started developing the maturity and confidence that goes with it,” retired Col. Mark Vail, Theresa Vail’s father, said.
She also adapted Army values to serve her well in the pageant world.
“Honor and humility, Theresa exemplifies that very nicely,” her father said. “The ‘H’ in the Army values should really be both honor and humility.”
Vail showed that humility when, despite winning the popular vote, she did not make it to the final five contestants.
“I made ‘America’s Choice.’ I won the people’s choice and that’s what matters to me. That’s Miss America,” Vail said. “America wanted me. So, I’m happy with my performance.”
Vail’s goal in the pageant was not just to win, but to promote her platform of breaking down stereotypes and empowering women.
“I just want to show the judges that I can be this poised, graceful and elegant woman,” Vail said. “I have this dichotomy. I can wear camo; I can rock combat boots and tattoos. I can carry a gun.”
Miss America 2014 attendant Brig. Gen. Michaelene Kloster, commanding general of the 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training) at Fort Benning, Ga., and a previous Kansas National Guard member from 1994 to 1999, was proud to see Vail be a front runner for women’s opportunities and the National Guard.
“Any time we have the opportunity to showcase what we do as guardsmen and reservists is great,” Kloster said. “We are twice the citizen, when you think about it. We have our civilian job and our civilian career and then we turn around and are a soldier. I think that any young girl that is lacking in confidence needs to look at someone like her and say ‘Wow I can do this too. I have that chance to do something like this.’”
Many of Vail’s followers have responded via social media sites thanking her for changing people’s perception of the type of women that compete in pageants.
Throughout the competition, Vail experienced these sentiments firsthand when teenage girls approached her on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Vail was thanked for being an inspiration to these young women, and encouraging them to break stereotypes and be themselves.
Her response: “That’s what makes it worth it. Win or lose, I know I’m changing something.”
Spc. Brandon Jacobs is with the 105th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Adjutant General’s Department.