As a 12-year-old living in the Bronx on the first day at a new school, the image of a dark cloud of smoke hanging over New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, stayed with Patti Gomez-Michalkow – as did the memory of the National Guardsmen who tried to comfort her at the time, telling her it was going to be “OK.”
A little less than 14 years after that experience, Gomez-Michalkow joined the New York Army National Guard, serving for three years as a human intelligence collector in the 42nd Infantry Division.
But her military experience is just part of the Gomez-Michalkow picture. She also works for a Syracuse, N.Y., financial firm as a senior marketing manager, is a member of The American Legion, serves as an ambassador for the nonprofit Pin-Ups for Vets and, in August, will compete for Mrs. America.
The reigning Mrs. New York, Gomez-Michalkow has used her title to advocate on behalf of veterans, a mission she plans to continue if she is named Mrs. America. A member of American Legion Post 141 in Manlius, N.Y., the 29-year-old Gomez-Michalkow spoke with American Legion Social Media Manager Steven B. Brooks about her experience in the military and her advocacy on behalf of veterans.
Steven B. Brooks: What was it about your 9/11 experience that eventually let you into the military?
Patti Gomez-Michalkow: I’d had no contact with soldiers prior (to 9/11). It was nothing like I’d seen in movies, if that makes sense. They were very caring. It was a very different experience than what I would have expected. That always stuck with me, and years and years and years later when I found myself in upstate New York, I finally felt like I had the freedom to pursue that.
What did you get out of your military experience that you still use, or maybe even rely on, in the civilian world?
Prior to joining to the military … it was living a very fast-paced New York City life. At the end of the day, it was very much a solo endeavor. It was very much just me working toward my career and making things happen for myself. After joining the military, I think the thing I took away the most was that sense of teamwork. That sense of relying on other people and having them be there for you. That sense of somebody else’s well-being just as important as your own. Not that I didn’t necessarily have a sense of that before, but being in the military really impounded that.
What brought you into The American Legion?
Maybe three years ago I met the commander of Legion Post 141 at an event. He and I got to talking, and he said, “Hey, you should come check us out.” I said, “I’ll put it on my to-do list,” but of course my to-do list gets a little bit long. Three years later I go to join … and who should become the commander of the post but my former (Army National Guard) squad leader? So it was actually very serendipitous that I would join at the same time he was becoming post commander, which is really special.
Since you joined, have you found that the scope of what The American Legion does is maybe a lot broader than you realized?
Oh my gosh, it’s significantly broader. I thought it was more of a social gathering place for veterans. I had no idea that we did so much. That makes me even more excited to be a part of it, because now we’re really working on getting the community involved and bringing community awareness to the various events we’ve got going on.
Why get involved with Pin-Ups for Vets?
(Pin-Ups founder Gina Elise) approached me with the opportunity. I did a little bit of research and I realized everything they did. They do so much more than I had originally anticipated. I asked my pageant director if it was OK, and boy did I get her blessing.
I go out to Long Beach and we did the shoot on Queen Mary … and when I saw the lineup of the other female vets who were going to be in the calendar, I was floored. I’d already said yes, but finding out what a great lineup Gina had created just made me that much more proud and that much more honored to have been selected to be a part of the calendar.
You obviously had a lot already going on. What pushed you toward vying for Mrs. New York?
I’m not a pageant person in any way, shape or form, but I’ve been volunteering with a lot of veterans organizations before the time I enlisted, during and of course after. I kept getting told that this pageant thing “would be a great way for you to bring more awareness to the platforms you work with.” I put it off for a really long time – so long, in fact, that by the time I actually looked into it I had aged out of (Miss New York).
It’s been really incredible. The big push is shedding light on the organizations and bringing more awareness about the organizations that I’m very passionate about.
You will compete for Mrs. America on Aug. 25. If you win, what kind of opportunity is that going to give you in terms of raising even more awareness about some of the veterans platforms you’ve taken on?
One of the things I’ve realized is that I have significantly more authority when I enter anywhere. Before, I would enter as Patti Gomez, and a few people would listen, a few people would hear what I have to say. But I walk in with a sash into a crowd, for some reason (people) are drawn to it and they want to hear more.
Any way that we can get people to pay attention is important. The way that I’ve been able to elevate my platform to a statewide level … to be able to do it on a nationwide platform, that would be absolutely monumental for veterans organizations, in my opinion.