For 10 years now, Gina Elise and her team of elite military veterans have been using their skills and training to make the world a better place. The granddaughter of a World War II veteran, Elise chose to honor the nation’s combat veterans with a tribute to a bygone era by creating a vintage pin-up calendar.
“I wanted to do something unique to give back to our service members,” she says of the idea for Pin-Ups for Vets — which she began working on in 2006, two years after she graduated from UCLA. Using legendary beauties like Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth as inspiration, Elise’s first calendar was produced in the spring of 2006 and it raised more than $5,000 for a VA hospital in California.
Elise promoted that first calendar by delivering the finished product to veterans while dressed as a 1940s pin-up girl. While touring, Elise immediately realized the impact and potential for greater results. “Fast forward 10 years, we have visited over 7,000 Veterans at 54 VA Hospitals, Military Hospitals, and State Veterans Homes in 29 states,” she says with pride. “We have also done morale-boosting visits to 23 military bases and we’ve donated over $52,000 to purchase state-of-the art rehab equipment for VA and Military hospitals across the U.S.”
In addition, the organization also ships care packages to American troops around the world to let them know that their sacrifices are appreciated.
Short on resources and fellow models, Elise served as the pin-up girl for every month in her first calendar, using a variety of wigs to switch from brunette to blonde to redhead. Eventually, other women took notice and she had models reaching out to be a part of the effort. What made the whole thing especially exciting was that military veterans were eager to join the fun and help Pin-Ups for Vets broaden its reach. The 10th anniversary calendar features 17 veterans (12 females and five males), and Elise says that she loves “that extra special element” because the veterans that they visit love knowing that the models have also served their country.
One of the veterans featured in the 2016 calendar is Jovane Marie, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and combat correspondent, who’s been modeling since the age of 7. Marie says that she didn’t need to be talked into appearing in the Pin-Ups for Vets calendar, especially because of the cause that the organization supports. “When I first met Gina and she asked if I would be interested,” she explains, “I immediately said ‘yes’ because I thought it would be a unique way to combine my two great loves- modeling and the military. I never in a million years thought that my participation in this organization would become such a substantial and invaluable piece of my life.”
What Marie particularly liked about the calendar was the “classiness” of the pin-up style, as opposed to today’s trend of half-naked models. “The style is really a nod back to a time where subtlety was desired,” she explains. “I also love that the style is very feminine, and for many of my fellow ambassadors (who are also women veterans), it gives us a chance to shed the hyper-masculine exterior that the military demands and allows us to show another side of our warrior spirit.”
Former Navy Petty Officer Second Class Jennifer Marshall, on the other hand, wasn’t as immediately enthusiastic about the pin-up style. “I didn’t see myself as a pin-up,” she recalls. “They were glamorous and fashionable and perfect… nothing like me.”
Eventually, Pin-ups for Vets was able to change her mind — particularly because of the calendar’s aesthetic. “One thing that I really missed when in the Navy was my femininity and this organization has helped me recapture that,” Marshall says. “The pin-up style celebrates women, but in a fun, patriotic way that I identified with. Once I realized that the money raised was going to a good cause and that I could help raise a lot of money if I could just get over my shyness/hesitation, I was sold on the idea. Not to mention, what woman wouldn’t like having a photo of her at her prime to treasure for eternity? I would love to show my grandchildren some day!”
Of course, putting together a calendar with this specific theme and style isn’t easy. Elise says that the effort is “an incredible amount of work” because it’s basically like filming a movie. The calendar requires scouting locations, auditioning models, and designing costumes, and that’s before all of the graphic design and post-production editing work.
“It takes months to accomplish everything each year,” Elise says, “and there are about 100 steps until everything is done. I try to take one step at a time to not get too overwhelmed with the entire project. I’m lucky to be able to work with very talented photographers, graphic designers and editors to help pull the concept together each year.”
“For me, shoot day can be crazy, but it’s the best kind of crazy,” explains model and USMC vet Vana Bell. “Rolling my hair and getting some sleep is the most I ever have to do! I just show up with the rest of the girls and have fun until the day is done. Everything from the prep, to the shoot, to the aftershoot meal is just us goofing off. Gina is the one making sure we’re all on schedule and in the right location with the right wardrobe pieces. I can only imagine what she’s going through.”
One thing that all of the models agree on is the feeling they get from actually visiting the hospitals. “It’s hard to describe how amazing it, if you haven’t experienced it with us,” Elise explains. “Many Veterans break down and cry because they are so moved by the visit. Some have said it’s the first time they have felt this appreciated. Of course, many of our Vietnam Veterans received terrible treatment from the public when they returned back home, so I think many of them feel that this recognition is extra special, long overdue, and a wonderful surprise.”
“It’s hard to put into words how special our hospital visits are, especially as a veteran myself,” Marie says. “I’m overwhelmed every time by the genuine appreciation that each person we visit shows. Many of these vets don’t have consistent visitors, or think their service and sacrifice has been forgotten, or are unstimulated by the hospital environment, and our visit really breaks the monotony and proves to them that 1) there are organizations out there that really do care and actually walk the walk of supporting and recognizing them and 2) their sisters-in-arms have their back and we are on a mission to keep supporting them even after we’ve left the service. Both men and women veterans are glad to see us, and the times that their families are there when we stop by, the gratitude is obvious. It’s always good to know that someone besides you is looking out for those closest to you.”
Elise and Marshall recall one particular moment involving a female Navy veteran that would make the hardest veterans choke up. When Marshall thanked the woman for her service, the response was nothing short of touching.
Elise recalls: “She said, ‘I’m not sad. I’m really happy because I’ve never seen so many beautiful young people.’ And it was a very moving moment for all of us on that visit. It meant a lot to her that we were there, and I know that her day was better because of it, as was ours.”
“Reflecting on this moment, I believe she probably saw herself in one of us and it just took her back to an incredible time in her life,” Marshall says. “It was such a pleasure spending those moments with her and it is something I won’t soon forget.”
Like her fellow models, Marie also has a specific moment that stands out from her visits. “We were visiting with veterans at a 4th of July event at the LA VA,” she recalls, “and while we were standing outside closing up the visit with a group of vets, I struck up a conversation with the only woman vet there. She had been in the hospital for a long time, and she shared some of her struggles with me, and said that our visit meant so much to her – not only because we took the time to stop by, but because so many of us were women veterans, and that she had felt empowered seeing how we chose to give back. I was overwhelmed. PUFV tends to get slack from women sometimes – even women veterans – who feel that we are objectifying ourselves or diminishing our veteran status by dressing as pin-ups. But this woman got it. She understood that not only are we giving back – we’re also rediscovering ourselves and celebrating our femininity (which can definitely be diminished in service). She was proud to see us embrace the role of being beautiful AND tough, pin-ups AND warriors, and it really made me realize the true depth of what this organization is all about.”
“Some vets like to laugh with us, some cry when they see us, and some like to talk smack about us if we are/were in different branches,” Bell says of her experiences. “That’s another amazing thing… although not all of the ambassadors are veterans, many of us are, which just puts the cherry on top of our visits. One of the most beautiful events I was a part of was a homecoming. Family members can’t wait to see their loved ones, but many times, they’d like to have it documented as well. We all volunteered to take the photos for them, and so many of them thanked us, because they got to BE in the moment as well as HAVE the moment later on.”
The 10th anniversary calendars are on sale at the Pin-Ups for Vets website along with additional posters and merchandise. All sales support the organization’s cause.