October 13, 2013 Updated: October 13, 2013 at 9:50 am
Mitchelene Big Man knows tough.
She has braved some of life's worst storms, including post-traumatic stress disorder and her son's suicide attempt.
Through it all, the proud Native American and retired Army mechanic kept a brave face.
She'll don that brave face again when she takes the stage of the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Va., on Sunday as Colorado's only contestant in the second annual Ms. Veteran America competition.
But nerves abound.
Big Man's biggest worry: negotiating the stage in a ball gown and heels.
"The competition is going to pull me out of my comfort zone, which is Timerberlands, tennis shoes and jeans," said Big Man, 48, a Pueblo West resident who spent the bulk of her career in a world dominated by men.
"My husband said it's bringing out the warrior and the lady in me, that I'll be a woman of valor and glamour at the same time."
The Pueblo Chemical Depot security and law enforcement secretary decided to enter at the urging of a fellow member of Native American Women Warriors, a nonprofit Big Man founded in 2010 that seeks to assist Native American women veterans in making a successful transition to the civilian world.
Organizers insist that Ms. Veteran America isn't a pageant.
Contestants must answer questions about each service branch's history and recite statistics on the number of homeless women veterans during the interview portion of the competition, Big Man said.
The competition also requires them to don an evening gown and a cocktail dress. The winner will be crowned Sunday with a glittering tiara.
It's the attire, not the interview, that makes Big Man - a former dock worker and firefighter, and a tomboy at heart - the most nervous.
"But I'm not a quitter," she said.
Big Man, a Crow, grew up on a reservation near Billings, Mont.
After graduating from high school and deciding that shift work wasn't for her, she enrolled at Montana State University. But she soon found herself caught up in partying and unsure of what career path to choose.
"I needed something to get me more focused and disciplined," she said. "I needed to do something that I had no choice but to finish."
She enlisted in the Army and encountered new struggles.
During her nearly 22-year military career, Big Man said she faced frequent harassment and discrimination for being a woman and a Native American. While attending noncommissioned officers' school, she was sexually assaulted by a soldier she thought was her friend, she said.
Back then, women who reported such things were sometimes made out to be liars, even charged with adultery and discharged, she said.
But Big Man has never been one to remain quiet.
Those who gave her trouble soon learned that "she might be small, but don't try to confront her," Big Man said with a laugh.
"There are times when I might have to leave to cry, but I'll be right back. I'll be that much more determined."
There were good times during her career, too.
Big Man enjoyed her time in Germany and Korea and even her time in Iraq.
As her convoy, one of the first to enter Iraq from Kuwait, crossed the border in 2003, Big Man recalls feeling an excitement her comrades couldn't understand.
"Wow, I feel like I'm on a reservation," she recalls saying as she watched Iraqi men haul water and work with animals.
"Coming from the reservation, we're workers," said Big Man, who spent her time in Iraq pitching tents and fixing vehicles. "The locals weren't used to seeing women do that type of work."
Big Man, who retired from the Army in 2009 while stationed at Fort Carson, hopes she left a positive impression on the Iraqis she met - just as she hopes to leave a positive impression on those who watch the competition.
Big Man's supervisor, Mark Szarmach, chief of security and law enforcement at the Pueblo Chemical Depot, is confident that she will.
"Her dedication to Native American veterans and our government are without question," he said.
For Big Man, Ms. Veteran America is a chance to set a positive example for young Native American girls who feel limited by stereotypes. She hopes to encourage them to get an education and perhaps return to their reservation to help others.
"I used to be angry," she said. "I said, 'Why did God make me Indian?' But I finally accepted it.
"I want them to know it's always good to learn something different."
The competition is also a chance for Big Man to draw attention to the plight of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder such as herself.
For the talent portion of the competition, Big Man plans to perform a traditional Native American jingle dance in a hand-sewn red, white and blue dress with her sergeant first class stripes sewn on the sleeves.
"It's a dance of healing, and we dance not for ourselves, but for those who need healing," she said.
"It's time for us to heal, not only as a nation, but as veterans."