One wounded warrior takes viewers of "Served Like A Girl" through the 2005 detonation that destroyed her Humvee in Iraq and cost her both legs below the knee, then leads a tour through a closet of high-reflection high heels. "What girl doesn't like sparkles?" she says. "I can't walk in them, but they're pretty to look at."
Another veteran, a Navy nurse who served in Afghanistan, lets viewers in on her thought process regarding the talent competition of the 2015 Ms. Veteran America pageant, the central vehicle for the documentary. "Besides putting people to sleep with anesthesia, the only thing I can do is dance," she says.
There are plenty of veterans wearing evening gowns while sporting combat boots. Women in tears recalling time in the war zone or family tragedy one minute are teasing hair and applying mascara the next. The documentary, directed by Lysa Heslov, takes on pageant contestants and other female veterans from all angles — and that, says the pageant's founder, is the point.
"I always cringe when Hollywood wants to do anything military- or veteran-related," said Jaspen "Jas" Boothe, now a major in the Army Reserve. "So when I had an opportunity to actually have my hand in it and make sure they're going to do it right, and also not portray us as damsels in distress or birds with broken wings, I jumped at it.
"This is the first time that I think Hollywood has gotten it right when it comes to woman veterans."
The film debuted March 13 at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, to two standing ovations, Heslov said. Service members featured in the documentary were in attendance, some seeing the final cut for the first time.
"It's kind of surreal," said Rachel Engler, a nurse and former Navy officer who served in Afghanistan and detailed her time in operating rooms trying to save combat casualties — not always with success. "I'm actually speechless, which has never happened. They've been filming for almost two years now, and I've been in this a year and a half or more, so just to see it all just done, and we're putting it out in the world, it's very nerve-racking."
Boothe founded the competition in 2012 as one of many efforts to combat homelessness among female veterans.
"It wasn't just some kind of pageant or competition where you walk onstage in a gown," said Engler, a former Washington Redskins cheerleader who, like many participants, was skeptical at first. "It had a platform. It had a purpose. … I realized I could really have a voice for people who think they don't."
"I kind of had to do it," said Boothe, whose experience seeking assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs after a cancer diagnosis helped push her into this line of advocacy. "It was very terrifying, but if I don't tell my story, then other women may not want to tell their stories. … And only through our stories can we really heal."
"Served Like A Girl" allows its subjects to share such experiences, oftentimes in great and unexpected detail regarding family trauma, illness and injury — and ways to survive in the war zone.
"It really was about these women trusting me with their most intimate stories, personal stories," Heslov said. "And yeah, ordering a vibrator in Baghdad was a story that came up."
As the participants prep for the 2015 pageant in Las Vegas, they also offer a window into a sisterhood — one that allows bonding over shared experiences and exchanging of coping mechanisms. "You know, like yoga. And wine," Boothe joked.
One of the most telling shared experiences came as the women reacted to ongoing news coverage of plans to open combat jobs to women. Marissa Strock, the self-proclaimed " glamputee" with the full shoe closet, watches one such clip with a mix of appreciation for progress and a look bordering on disbelief.
"I mean, what the hell did they think she was already doing over there in Iraq?" Boothe said of Strock, who was featured on a Newsweek cover in 2007 to illustrate a story on veterans health care.
It's one of many areas where Boothe says mainstream society shows its misunderstanding of the roles women play in service, and after it.
"When we became women veterans, we didn't stop being Americans," said Boothe, whose nonprofit runs housing for female veterans outside Washington, D.C., among other projects. "I feel like they're putting us in this box of people where they're like, 'Oh my God, we don't know what to say to them' or 'We just want to hug them' or 'We just want to pet the vet.' … That's the opposite of what's in this movie."
Heslov says a fall release is planned and discussions with distribution outlets are ongoing. A soundtrack release, featuring a song by Pat Benatar, also is expected in the coming months.