Two ALA members from South Dakota are raising awareness about veterans and the Auxiliary as part of their platforms as pageant winners.
Two South Dakota pageant winners and members of the American Legion Auxiliary use their platforms to raise awareness about veterans and the Auxiliary. They also share how all ALA members can spread the word.
As a young girl growing up in Hot Springs, S.D., Autumn Simunek was mesmerized by the transformations she saw among the young women participating in the Miss America pageant. Hot Springs, which has been the destination for the Miss South Dakota Pageant for 70 years, also happens to be a patriotic city, where The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary are well recognized.
Those two strong influences significantly shaped Simunek, who would go on to become 2015 Miss South Dakota and use her platform, “5 Stars for Serving Those Who Served,” to help connect veterans and military members with the community.
While many people may focus on Simunek’s beauty and her sparkling crown, there’s a lot more to being a pageant winner, she said.
“It paid off in more ways than one,” said Simunek, 24, who has been an ALA member since she was 3 years old. “It’s more than a crown. It’s a megaphone to get the message out about military servicemembers, veterans, and their needs.”
Jessica Beal-Bahmuller, who is nearing her first anniversary as an ALA member, also found that her title as 2016 Mrs. South Dakota International provided her unprecedented opportunities to discuss issues facing veterans, particularly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
While her road to the pageantry experience was unexpected, Beal-Bahmuller, who joined the competition at the encouragement of friends and family, uses every opportunity to raise awareness about the military, PTSD, and the American Legion Auxiliary.
“Everywhere I go, I talk to people — whether I’m standing in line at the grocery store or while I’m at work as a nurse at the VA,” she says. “The more people I can talk to, the more exposure I can give veterans. I only have 365 days to wear this crown, and I want to do as much as I can in those 365 days to make a difference. While the crown grabs everyone’s attention, I will keep going with my campaign long after I stop wearing it.”
Simunek and Beal-Bahmuller share a lot in common — both are pageant winners and ALA members who hail from South Dakota. More importantly, they share a passion for teaching people of all generations how to better serve veterans and military servicemembers.
Auxiliary magazine talked to both women about the journeys to their titles, their experiences with volunteering on behalf of the military, and a few tips on how all ALA members can get the word out about what we do and why it matters to veterans.
Winning the pageant didn’t come easy for Simunek, 24, who joined the pageant’s mentorship program when she was just 7 years old. “I grew up around that. I watched these women transform into the most amazing versions of themselves and worked really hard to make myself the very best I could,” she said. “I knew when I was little that I wanted to become Miss South Dakota. God blessed me to know exactly what I wanted. I’ve always worked diligently to get to this place. And it was hard work.
“It’s been a wild ride. My parents made countless sacrifices for my sister and me. They always put us first,” she said. “They gave us more support than I could have ever dreamed for. My mom wouldn’t come home from working at the VA until about 10 or 11. She wanted to provide a specific life for my sister and me. She knew that sacrifice and hard work would give us those opportunities.”
Simunek, the daughter of Kelly and Diane Simunek, recalls her sister, who is 11 years older than her to the day, distributing poppies as part of an ALA outreach effort in their community.
Simunek, who joined the Auxiliary as a toddler, said she got her own taste of volunteerism when she started helping her sister distribute poppies on Memorial Day.
As a teenager, Simunek often accompanied her mother to work at the Black Hills VA Medical Center, where she sometimes wheeled patients to their appointments or simply listened to stories about their experiences. She never stopped volunteering. Since then, she has volunteered more than 4,000 hours on behalf of the ALA.
The University of South Dakota graduate, who now lives in Sioux Falls, S.D., said choosing veterans as a platform was a no-brainer decision. She saw her family’s dedication to the military early in life. Her great-grandfather was a World War II veteran, and her grandfather served in the Korean War.
“It’s not just something I did this year for the pageant. Volunteering for veterans has always been something close to my heart,” Simunek said. “It came very naturally to me. My town embraces veterans. It was a no-brainer for me to take this on as my platform.”
While Simunek has logged thousands of volunteer hours as an ALA member, she found that being a pageant winner has allowed her to make even more of an impact for the Auxiliary. During her reign as Miss South Dakota, she traveled thousands of miles — making stops to talk to people in small towns and big cities throughout the state. “There has been an overwhelming response,” she said.
For instance, the Veterans Holiday Relief Drive she initiated several years ago was able to generate $45,000 in donations in less than a year — increasing the total amount donated for military families in South Dakota to $85,000. Monetary funds and donated items helped supply household items that were distributed to veteran and military families in need, support shelters serving homeless veterans in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, and other veteran programs.
Simunek also was able to talk to more than 17,000 students at 50 schools throughout South Dakota, from elementary schools to colleges. Other ALA members often join her on those visits, including ALA South Dakota Department President Jane Benzel. “She’s worked tirelessly to come to several school visits to help me spread the message,” Simunek said.
During their visits to elementary schools, Simunek would read books like Agents for Honor, which explains in simple terms how the lives of military families, including the children, are different because of service duty. “I also teach them how we should respect those in the military and how to say ‘thank you,’” she said. “Some kids are hesitant to approach servicemembers in uniform or veterans wearing American Legion hats. That’s something I address.
“I also explain the significance of the poppy, why it is important and what it symbolizes as a symbol of remembrance,” Simunek said. “I want them to embrace the holiday; there’s more to Memorial Day than going to the lake and having a barbecue.”
When talking to older students and adults throughout the community, she stresses the importance of selflessly giving back without focusing on getting anything in return.
With the increased publicity that has come from being a local celebrity, everyday life can be challenging at times. “When you’re in the spotlight, it can be a negative or positive experience,” she said. “I can’t go to the grocery store or fill my gas tank without being recognized. But I realize it gives me an incredible opportunity to send a message. I’m able to use those moments to tell people what I stand for.”
Simunek also said it’s important for all ALA members to realize they have the same opportunity to talk about the mission whether they’re wearing a crown or not.
“Being Miss South Dakota has made me a public figure, but you don’t have to be a public figure to give to other people — to give something that’s really valuable,” she said. “I’ve met people from all walks of life. No matter your ethnicity, background, religious beliefs, or political stance, we all care about someone. Volunteering is all about caring for someone besides yourself when you get down to the nitty-gritty of it. It shows we are all human.”
Not everyone in Jessica Beal-Bahmuller’s household is wearing a crown, but they’re all committed to spreading the word about the needs of servicemembers and veterans — Beal-Bahmuller’s platform as 2016 Mrs. South Dakota.
Just recently, on Memorial Day, Beal-Bahmuller’s husband, Aaron Bahmuller, and their two children, 8-year-old Brayden, and 7-year-old Lily, joined her in running a 5K to honor servicemembers. “My children insisted on attending, even though it was pouring rain,” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t be prouder of both of them for finishing.”
Beal-Bahmuller’s reign as Mrs. South Dakota started some years after she met Aaron at a dart tournament. “I obviously must have impressed him with my skills,” she said of that day with a laugh. Just two weeks later, while on their second date, Aaron took his turn singing karaoke. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. I’m going to marry him,’” she recalls. “He’s a pretty good singer.”
Now married 11 years, the Bahmullers, who live in Alexandria, S.D., have had some challenging times mixed in with the good times of their relationship, with many of them occurring in the wake of Aaron’s service with the Army’s South Dakota National Guard. When her husband returned home from overseas, Beal-Bahmuller knew the horrors of war in places like Iraq had deeply impacted him in ways she would never completely understand. “I remember thinking, This is not the same guy I married. He’s different, not in a bad way. Just different,” she said.
While dismayed, she wasn’t completely shocked. “He’d seen so much and had been through so much, including the loss of friends who had served with him,” said Beal-Bahmuller, who also was dealing with issues of her own. She often experienced conflicting feelings of joy that her husband had survived the tragic events of war and feelings of guilt and grief for the women whose sons and husbands had not returned to them.
One of those women was Velma “Blondie” Wagner, an American Legion Auxiliary member who had asked Beal-Bahmuller to join the organization. Wagner’s son, Staff Sgt. Greg Wagner, was killed in a blast while on a mission in Iraq. “He was from the same small town as my husband, about the same age, and had been in the same unit for about six years,” Beal-Bahmuller recalled. “My heart went out to her, and as I sat through that funeral, I realized that could be me grieving a loved one.
“Every time I saw her at the post office, it hit me that it could be the other way around. I could be the one without a husband. We have this emotional connection,” Beal-Bahmuller said. “She often hangs out with my kids.”
There have been times when her husband has had episodes that take him back to the war-torn countries. It could be a sound or nightmares that trigger a reaction. “One night, it seemed like he kind of thought he was fighting for his life,” Beal-Bahmuller recalled. “It was quite scary.”
Although there were noticeable changes in Aaron’s behavior, he didn’t seek treatment immediately. It was only after undergoing medical treatment at the VA that he received a diagnosis of PTSD, Beal-Bahmuller said. “They’re trained to go to war through months of basic training and then they come home, and, after a one-week debriefing, they’re expected to adjust,” she said. “How many veterans are suffering from symptoms of PTSD — the mood changes, the anxiety, and depression — but aren’t getting treated?
As a result of her firsthand experience with her husband’s symptoms, she started advocating for more comprehensive treatment for veterans. Winning the Mrs. South Dakota pageant turned out to be the perfect platform for delivering that message to even more people.
Beal-Bahmuller decided to participate in the Mrs. South Dakota International competition only after her sister-in-law came across an announcement on the Internet and encouraged her to go for it. “I kind of laughed. I had never been to a pageant,” she recalled.
As Mrs. South Dakota, Beal-Bahmuller had to overcome her fear of public speaking, but finds it natural to share her love story, talk about PTSD, and simply make a connection with veterans and the general public.
Recently, while speaking at an event, she noticed that two veterans had started sobbing uncontrollably halfway through her speech. “I was telling them I wanted them to know how much I appreciated everything they did,” she said. “They probably haven’t heard that enough.”
That moment helped Beal-Bahmuller realize the importance of reaching out to share the stories of veterans and bonding with them on a deeper level. And, she said, it’s a message and mission she will continue to carry out long after she stops wearing her crown.