Sgt. Theresa Vail, Manhattan, a dental technician in the Kansas National Guard and Miss Kansas 2013, sports her Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment known as a MOLLE pack as she leaves the Miss Kansas Pageant at Pratt County Community College in Pratt, Kan., June 8. (Photo used with permission, Miss Kansas organization) (Spc. Brandon Jacobs / U.S. Army)
The Kansas National Guard sergeant who finished among the top contestants last month in the Miss America 2014 pageant is now talking about an incident in her past that inspires her to tell other women to “raise hell.”
Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, told Army Times she was sexually harassed by Guard co-workers years ago, and now has been asked by her superiors to share her story about sexual harassment.
Vail was named “America’s Choice” and finished in the top 10 of the pageant, held in Atlantic City, N.J., on Sept. 15. She made headlines as the first contestant to display tattoos in the pageant.
In 2009, she was 19 and the lone female mechanic in a motor pool near Kansas City, where she suffered verbal sexual harassment and “inappropriate comments.”
Her advice to female soldiers in similar situations: “Raise hell about it,” said Vail, now 22. “You need to stand up for yourself because nobody’s going to do it for you. I knew even at 19 that this was unacceptable.”
Vail at first went to her commander, who sided with her co-workers, she said, “because I was the new girl.” Then she went over her commander’s head and was allowed to transfer out of the the unit.
The comments come amid growing scrutiny in Congress and the public of the military’s sexual harassment and assault problem. It’s generally held that many victims do not report for fear of retaliation.
She said that, recently, Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, the adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard, approached her to appear in public service announcements about the issue.
“I think it’s wonderful that I’m going to get a chance to help people with my story,” she said.
Vail gave Army Times a candid phone interview in the midst of her yearlong Miss Kansas stint. She plans to begin four years of Army dental school next fall and go active duty afterward.
She is an expert marksman with an M16 rifle, a bowhunter and is fluent in Chinese.
“My goal is just to show women that you can have the best of both worlds, that you don’t have to be categorized, that you don’t have to allow other people to categorize you,” she said.
“I know being in the military, I was put in this box that I couldn’t do feminine things, but I know my female soldiers, they all get that,” she said. “I just wanted to show women, you can be a tomboy, you can have a feminine side. You can have it all if you want it.”
Vail wanted to show off her archery skills in the talent competition, but the pageant’s insurance wouldn’t allow it. Instead, she learned the aria “Nessun Dorma” 48 hours before she was scheduled to perform.
But the hardest part of pageants, she said, was “dealing with different mentalities and maturity levels of the contestants.” Joining the Guard at 17, she said, instilled in her a maturity level many of her competitors lacked.
She saw immaturity among the broader public when the Twitter-verse erupted in racist ranting that Miss America winner Nina Davuluri was not American enough — and worse.
Vail, who wrote in her blog defending Davuluri, called the negative reaction “disgusting.”
“It’s 2013. Why are people doing this?” Vail said. “She was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and people are calling her a terrorist, an Arab. She’s Indian-American. It’s ignorance.”
Vail said her superiors welcomed her participation in the Miss America pageant as an opportunity for her and a recruitment tool for them. The reaction among co-workers and the military community has been predominantly positive, she said.
At the competition, she was thrilled to receive a backstage visit from a group of service members’ widows and their children.
“I was just so honored by it,” she said. “They said, ‘We’re all rooting for you and you’d be a perfect Miss America.’ ”