WASHINGTON — Standing on stage in front of hundreds of people, Sgt. Vanessa Munson, human resources specialist with the 508th Military Police Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, eagerly waits to hear if her name is called as the contestants of the Miss Washington pageant are whittled down to five.
It’s finals night at the competition in Olympia, and Munson is living a childhood fantasy. She tries calming her nerves as she finally hears her name called, her dream is on the verge of becoming reality.
“It was the most out-of-body experience,” she said. “I knew I’d done everything I could, and I was just so happy with who I was.”
That wasn’t always the case for her, as she persevered through years of trying times and hearing issues to get to this point.
Growing up in Vancouver, Washington, she was bullied at a very young age because of her appearance. The bullying made her self-conscious and had her constantly worrying about what other people thought.
So, from that point on she always had to look her best every time she left the house.
“I wanted to be this unrealistic and unattainable image of perfection when perfection doesn’t exist,” she explained. “I don’t want any young girl to feel the way that I did.”
To boost her confidence and self-esteem, Munson turned to the world of pageantry.
She watched the Miss America competition on TV as a kid and idolized the women she saw.
“They represented everything I wanted to be,” she said. “It wasn’t even the beauty aspect of it but more so how they made me feel as a viewer, the inspiration from watching all those amazing women. I wanted to be that.”
She became determined to pursue her dream, and her parents told her to go for it. She entered her first pageant when she was 15.
It was a learning experience for her and even though she didn’t win the title, she did win an award for the interview portion.
“I remember feeling so proud of myself,” she said. I made a lot of friends, and I was able to get in front of a crowd and portray myself in a way that captivates people. It hooked me from that moment on.
She worked hard to improve herself and competed in pageantry throughout high school. She earned runner-up, first runner-up and second runner-up finishes in several pageants, but she failed to take home the crown.
Then, when she was 17, she was cleaning her ears with hydrogen peroxide and started to scream.
“I started bawling my eyes out it hurt so bad,” she said. “It was the worst pain I’d felt in my life.”
She had several ear infections as a kid and sometimes her eardrum would burst but this was different. She went to see a doctor who said she had a hole in her eardrum that would require surgery.
She thought it would be a one-and-done process. Unfortunately for her, that was not the case. The first surgery failed to close the hole, leading to a second surgery. This one was successful.
Hoping to put this experience behind her, she planned for her future. She wanted to go to college and then start a career. She spoke with her father who encouraged her to look at the military. This route would help her achieve her educational goals.
She spoke to an Air Force recruiter, but the service wouldn’t let her join because of her medical history. So, she turned to the Army, who let her in with a hearing waiver.
“I am continuously thankful for the Army because they took a chance on me,” she said. “I think it’s the best choice I could’ve made for myself. It definitely helped make me who I am today.”
At basic training, she was pushed outside of her comfort zone and stripped of everything she knew. She questioned herself and her reasons for being there.
She fought through the negative thoughts and came out as a changed person with a new mindset after graduating.
“I had done something that I never thought I’d be able to do, and that was a major shift for me,” she said. “I started recognizing that life is challenging, and that’s how resilience is built.”
She felt stronger and was finally at peace with who she was. She was no longer looking to others for their opinion or for them to tell her she was worthy. She knew it herself.
“I’m very proud of who I am,” she said. “I feel more like myself than I ever have.”
She took her newfound confidence with her to the 508th Military Police Battalion after finishing advanced individual training.
Her resilience was about to be tested once more. After six months on the job, she was told to see an ear, nose and throat doctor.
The doctor told her she had another hole in her eardrum and cholesteatoma, a rare and abnormal skin growth in her ear that could damage her hearing. She needed to have surgery again.
She didn’t understand why it was happening, but she pushed forward. She had the third ear surgery with no luck. Then a fourth, a fifth and a sixth. They all failed to solve the problem.
The frustration was building. She continued to have faith in her medical team as they worked to find a solution. She relied on the support of her family and those around her to keep her spirit up. Finally, the seventh surgery was a success, but the complications lead to hearing loss.
After a year away from pageantry, she returned. She was only stationed two hours away from her hometown and decided to travel back to compete. The move paid off when she was crowned Miss Clark County in November 2022.
That set her up for the state pageant that summer.
"I think that joining the Army and finding my sense of self, allowed me to take my resilience and perseverance into the world of pageantry, and show who I am and what I stand for," she explained. "That’s when I started performing well."
To mentally prepare for the show, she worked with Rachel Hoeft, an Army Holistic Health and Fitness cognitive performance specialist. They met once a week to get Munson to push away her fear of failure and allow her personality to shine.
“She completely changed the trajectory of my mindset,” Munson said. “I was happy to be at the competition, and I didn’t put any pressure on myself to win. I wanted to be in the moment and enjoy it.
When the big night came, she embraced the challenge and concentrated on consistent performance in all five categories of the pageant: private interview, on-stage question, fitness, evening gown and talent. She used the resilience she learned over the last few years to fuel her.
Her consistency paid off as finals night arrived. Standing before the crowd, she could hardly contain her excitement as her name was called for the top five. Then, the names dwindled down to two.
She waited anxiously as they finally announced her name as the winner of the pageant. Tears flowed down her face as her fellow competitors congratulated her on winning and earning a spot in the upcoming Miss America pageant.
“That’s when it hit me,” she said. “I’m Miss Washington, and I’m living this dream that I’ve always had. It doesn’t feel real.”
The celebration continued when she saw her parents, who encouraged her from the very start.
“I was a blubbery mess,” she recalled. “They were crying with me. They saw the hard work and the dedication. It was a very full circle moment.”
Since taking home the crown last summer, Munson returned to taking care of Soldiers' administration needs. Her command made sure she knew they were all rooting for her.
“I was just overwhelmed with the support and the love that everyone was showing from my entire unit,” she said.
She also worked on several community service initiatives in her spare time to empower young boys and girls to gain confidence and pursue their passions. She toured 16 schools in southwestern Washington and donated 50 hearing-impaired Barbie dolls to hearing-impaired and deaf children.
“I really want other people to recognize their worth not for what they look like but for who they are,” she said. “I think if I can be that small difference in someone else’s life, then we’re on the right track.”
Now, after having an eighth surgery this fall to insert a hearing device, she heads to Orlando, Florida for the Miss America pageant, Jan. 14. Empowered by her journey, she will take the stage to inspire the next generation to dream big and persevere.
“It’s been such an amazing experience,” she said. “I really hope that some girl, who wants to do something impactful, can see in me that you can quite literally be anything you want to be.”