Yvonne Armstrong was dealing with adversity of all kinds when she enlisted in the Navy in 2003 as a mess management specialist. At age 23, Armstrong was divorced with a child, her mother had died from a heart attack and she was homeless.
“I was also saddled with student loan debt, taxes, child care costs and working three jobs,” Armstrong, of West Hempstead, recalled. “But my faith and my child kept me going. Looking at my son, I knew that I had to make it and that I couldn’t afford to fail.”
Now 40, Armstrong, a single mother with two sons, is an economics professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. She is also among 24 contestants in this year’s Ms. Veteran America, which will be held online in October. The women are competing to become the next ambassador for Final Salute, a nonprofit that provides homeless women veterans, and their children, with safe housing.
“This isn’t a traditional pageant, where you get a crown and a sash and you’re recognized for having a pretty face,” Armstrong said. “This is boots on the ground, collecting food, sorting clothes, raising money and lobbying with Congress for women veterans just like myself. When other women see me, I want them to see a story of hope.”
Armstrong, a native of Dallas, was stationed at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2003, and completed basic training at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, in Illinois, the following year. She continued her training at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s Global Maritime and Transportation School in King’s Point, N.Y.
She earned a bachelor’s degree at Northwood University in Texas, in 2005, and a master’s at Erasmus University in the Netherlands in 2006. She moved from the Netherlands to West Hempstead in 2006. She was inspired to share her story, she said, when she learned about Final Salute’s founder, Maj. Jas Boothe, who was also a single mother who overcame homelessness.
“At the time, I thought that I was the only person going through this,” Armstrong recalled. “When I discovered that our stories seemed to mirror each other, how could I not compete? I’m at a point in my career where I’m able to give back.”
Armstrong said that she and her twin sister, Charlotte, had regularly attended the food pantry at Christ Alive Church in East Meadow when she was an active duty service member. Because of her experiences, she said, she hoped to be inspiration for other women veterans who might be going through the same thing.
“I feel like the best advocates are people that can empathize and connect with others,” Armstrong said. “I want people to see me and say, ‘If she can pull herself out of poverty, then so can I.’”
Armstrong held numerous positions in the Navy before becoming a professor at the academy last year. As one of only two Black professors there, she said, her voice quickly became important on campus following events such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While she and other faculty and midshipmen were home during the pandemic, debates about race relations sparked among veterans on social media. About 7 percent of midshipmen are Black, she said.
“This is a pivotal point in the [Department of Defense] history, and in the Naval Academy’s history,” Armstrong said. “I come from the segregated South, and I went to a segregated school district in Dallas. This is a time for me to use my voice and share my wisdom.”
As a volunteer, she has been a public speaker and mentor for nonprofits such as the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, the Navy League and the Girls Scouts of America. “As long as I’ve known her, she is someone who has always been altruistic,” said Charlotte, who also lives in West Hempstead. “Whether it’s helping those who are less fortunate or mentoring the youth, she’s always found ways to help others.”
While volunteering has been a part of Yvonne’s life for years, her sister added, she has never sought attention for the work she has done. “She’s a woman that doesn’t call attention to her greatness,” Charlotte said.
Armstrong’s oldest son, Zion, became a Naval Academy midshipman two years ago. Getting to see her work firsthand on campus, Zion said, his mother will make an excellent contestant in Ms. Veterans America.
“I feel like she’s doing this for all the right reasons, which is to help the homeless veteran population,” Zion, 20, said. “She’s Superwoman, to be honest, because she’s juggled so many things and dealt with so much adversity. I hope to be a fraction of what she is someday.”
Winning the competition, Armstrong said, would give her an opportunity to serve an organization whose mission she takes personally. “I believe that I would be a wonderful advocate in terms of lobbying with key stakeholders,” Armstrong said, “and those who create policies that affect the female veteran community. They need an advocate that’s one of their own.”