EXCLUSIVE: When it came to honoring our troops, Gina Elise was looking for something with a bit more… oomph.
It was 2006 when the California resident and recent graduate from UCLA founded Pin-Ups for Vets, a nonprofit that produces WWII-inspired bombshell calendars featuring female veterans as models. The funds raised go to support hospitalized veterans and deployed troops.
The 15th annual calendar for 2021 features 12 female veterans who have swapped their uniforms for ‘40s-style dresses, transforming them into poster girls made fit for the silver screen.
“There were a lot of stories in the news about troops coming back from Iraq needing medical care at the time,” Elise told Fox News. “I felt very strongly that I wanted to do something to give back and I wanted to do something creative. I’ve always been a fan of World War II nose art since they used to paint these beautiful women on the side of aircraft to boost the morale of the troops and remind them what was waiting for them back home.”
“I wanted to take that concept of boosting morale art and bring it into today to raise money for our troops,” she shared. “So, I came up with a fundraising pin-up calendar that we could use to raise money for our veterans and troops today.”
Elise said she was inspired by ’40s Hollywood actress Betty Grable, who famously posed in a white bathing suit glancing over her shoulder with a coy smile while flaunting her shapely legs. Almost three million copies of that photo starring the blonde bombshell were distributed, mostly to GIs who displayed them in their barracks or carried them in seabags or footlockers with their personal belongings.
Elisa said she was determined to keep the American tradition going.
“I wanted to make a difference,” she said. “I feel so strongly about supporting our men and women uniform. They step up to serve our country and sacrifice so much. Some of them even sacrifice their lives. When I was hearing these stories about young men and women dealing with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, severe burn and amputations, I had to do something.”
And Elise’s tribute to the past has paid off. To date, Pin-Ups for Vets has donated over $ 80,000 worth of rehab equipment to help therapy departments at VA hospitals nationwide. Funds also provide financial assistance for health care program expansion across the U.S. In addition, Elise embarks on hospital tours where she provides care packages, as well as provide makeovers for female veterans, as well as military wives and widows.
Normally, the organization goes on a 50-state VA hospital tour. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, care packages are now being shipped out with gifts of appreciation to hospitalized veterans. The organization also continues to ship care packages to deployed U.S. troops around the globe.
“When I produced the first calendar, I would give people the option of either purchasing a calendar for themselves or buy one that I would take with me on a hospital visit,” Elise explained. “I started going to VA hospitals with those calendars that people had bought as gifts and literally going from room to room to deliver them myself in person to the veterans.”
“I would dress in World War II-style with these gifts of appreciation,” Elise continued. “They’re often pretty surprised because they don’t expect someone that looks like a blast from the past to walk into their rooms. But we want to make sure that they’re being thought of and appreciated.”
Over the years, Elise and the models featured in the calendar would go on to befriend veterans during their visits to local hospitals. She described it as “a magical experience.”
“These strong and beautiful women would come with me to the hospitals,” Elise shared. “You just saw this light in their eyes. I would introduce them and they’re surprised to hear that these women are veterans, too. We develop a strong bond, a brotherhood or sisterhood. Sometimes they would be someone who served at the same base or was deployed at the same time. The ladies travel across the country with me and it’s just as special for them. They call it service after service.”
And the demand for the 2021 calendar has been overwhelming. While numerous servicewomen were willing to model in a completely different uniform, only 12 could be selected for the year. But each one offers a unique, inspiring story to share. Viewers can expect a jet engine mechanic, security forces, and a Seabee among others, covering all branches of service.
“We put out a casting every spring on social media and we get hundreds of veterans from across the country who apply,” said Elise. “It’s very hard to narrow down the list, but for 2021 we have an amazing group of women eager to work towards a common good, something greater than themselves.
“A lot of them are seeking that camaraderie and this is a fun way for them to enjoy that. I like to say we make volunteering look glamorous. They have also told me it’s been a way for them to embrace and reclaim their femininity again.”
Elise is eager to visit hospitals again once it is safe to do so. Her favorite encounter from past trips involved meeting a soft-spoken patient who looked through the calendar with her. Afterward, nurses told Elise the man suffered a traumatic brain injury and it was the first time he had spoken in a month.
While the calendars give a wink to the past, Elise said it provides a bright glimpse into the future.
“I think the calendars are a symbol of hope,” she said. “The whole concept of the pin-up was to remind our GIs what they’re fighting for back home. This is a fun and beautiful art that we can all appreciate. But it also serves as a reminder that so many incredible Americans have stepped up to serve our country. And that in itself is beautiful.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.