A Norfolk veteran is swapping out her combat boots for high heels as part of a pageant this week — a change she’s not entirely familiar with.
“I never wore high heels,” Sandra Gessler said. “I didn’t put makeup on. I didn’t even own a nice dress.”
But she does now.
The Norfolkan is competing in the Ms. Senior America competition, a national pageant for women over 60, and her goal of doing so is to raise awareness about veteran homelessness.
Originally from North Dakota, she served in numerous U.S. Army deployments from the 1970s to the 2000s, including Operation Freedom, where she worked in the transportation field.
“I went from driving to an instructor to dispatcher; in my last mission I was a transportation combat convoy expert,” she said, a role that involved training soldiers in field combat scenarios.
In 2003, she returned stateside to foster-parent her grandson. Her plan was to go back to the city she was deployed from, Daytona Beach, Fla., and bring him there from Omaha after she settled back in.
Her plan hit a snag when her old job was no longer available to her.
“I went back and my job wasn’t there; it also included my home,” she said. “That’s why I advocate for homeless veterans — because I became one.”
A week after she got that news, she found a job as a waitress, then another as a bartender. She lived in her car for almost four months and didn’t tell her family she was homeless.
She said that, in the early 2000s, supports for veterans were not as established as they are today. She was in a Catch-22 situation. Agencies couldn’t help her because she didn’t have her grandson with her at the time, but because she wasn’t getting help, he couldn’t live with her.
After working her way through the situation, she was able to bring her grandson home to care for him. “It wasn’t the best of things, but I got through it,” she said. “I had this adrenaline of, ‘This isn’t gonna happen.’ ”
Gessler lived in Florida for a few years until hurricanes spurred them to move to Omaha, where her daughters live. She moved to Norfolk a few years ago when her grandson started studying at Northeast Community College.
As an advocate for veterans, Gessler helps connect veterans with regional services in Nebraska. For example, one of her projects is creating a resource of local services for veteran service officers in Nebraska.
In Northeast Nebraska, one of the main organizations to assist veterans is Northeast Nebraska Community Action Partnership (NENCAP), which covers a 14-county area. The organization helps low-income individuals and helps veterans specifically through its Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program.
Last fiscal year, NENCAP received funding to help 35 veterans, 21 of which were homeless, said Michael Heavrin, SSVF coordinator. However, due to need in the area, the organization stretched its funding to assist 31 homeless veterans, as well as 35 near-homeless veterans when they originally had funding to support 14.
Heavrin said one in 10 of people over the age of 18 in NENCAP’s service area are veterans. Two of the biggest challenges local veterans face, he said, is finding employment after moving back to live with family, and addressing PTSD-related issues — which can have many ramifications leading to homelessness. For example, loud noises can cause an unwanted reaction, he said.
“They sometimes find it difficult to be around other people because a sudden motion could trigger a reaction, you wouldn’t want to have it publicly displayed,” he said. “If there’s a big bang, you don’t want to have someone diving to the ground.”
Heavrin said the issue of treating PTSD is exacerbated in Northeast Nebraska because Norfolk has the only veteran medical facility in the 14-county area.
Gessler also had PTSD-related challenges when she returned stateside. Around 2006, she was working at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Omaha and a co-worker noticed she was displaying some symptoms of PTSD, like startling easily, and reached out.
“She came up to me and said if you’re having issues, we’re here,” Gessler said. “I went back to her and said I’m ready. That (therapy) was great.”
She also received a lot of support from the North Dakota American Legion, which encouraged her to enter the Miss Veteran America pageant. Through that competition she met judges for the Ms. Senior America competition.
The main motivation for entering the national pageant, she said, is to share her story and raise awareness about veteran homelessness on a wider scale.
“I’m there because I can take my message to a national level and that’s huge,” she said.
The competition is from Oct. 16-18 in Atlantic City, N.J., and will include interview, philosophy of life and talent portions. There are 39 contestants this year.
To leave an impression and stay true to her roots, she might ditch the heels altogether, she said.
“I’m about this close to wearing my combat boots with my gown — just to stand out,” she said. “They said dress comfortably.”