A group of female veterans have traded military gear for 1940s-style glamour in an effort to help hospitalized heroes.
As part of Pin-Ups for Vets, 21 women from four branches of service have posed for a calendar that raises money for veterans’ hospitals. The glammed-up women also visit sick and wounded veterans, boosting morale one smile at a time.
“The one thing that was inculcated in my mind as a recruit in boot camp is having my fellow veteran’s back,” says former Marine Tess Rutherford, a model for the 2018 calendar. “This is what makes Pin-Ups for Vets ever so special. It gives us vets the opportunity to do what we did while serving.”
So far, the group has given nearly $60,000 worth of rehab equipment to Veterans Administration and military hospitals, and has visited more than 11,000 sick and wounded veterans in 62 facilities.
A mini-USO unto itself, the group also has visited active duty troops at 24 military installations, including Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where wounded warfighters are medically stabilized before being sent to hospitals stateside.
The organization was formed in 2006 when Gina Elise, then working in the hotel industry in California, kept reading news reports about troops who were wounded while fighting the Global War on Terrorism.
As a child growing up in California, Elise had loved listening to stories of her grandfather’s service in World War II. It upset her to hear that latter day military heroes were not always getting the care they needed.
“I knew that if there was something I could do to make life easier and better for those who were struggling in this community, I wanted to do that,” Elise tells PEOPLE. “I wanted to help them.”
Hoping to raise money for veterans’ and military hospitals, Elise created a 1940s-style pin-up calendar. The first calendar did so well, she kept producing new editions, each featuring vintage clothing and props.
Elise soon began visiting the veterans in person, enlisting other models to help deliver calendars and good will.
“The veterans really respond to the visits,” Elise says. “When they see the pin-ups walk in to say hello, they always smile.”
“Having her there just made me feel appreciated,” says Paul Delle, who was surprised when Elise walked into his hospital ward in 2008.
“Being in the hospital is a very demoralizing, helpless feeling,” says Delle, who served as a Marine Corps machine gunner in Iraq. “When you have a young beautiful woman show up and give you a hug, its very uplifting. It restored the feeling of being a hero.”
The encounter had lasting effects.
“It took away the sadness of being in the hospital,” Delle adds.
And the smiles work both ways. Being a Pin-Up for Vets has helped former Army logistics sergeant Fernanda Miranda give back to the military community.
“Being part of this mission has given me a sense of purpose and fulfillment through helping others,” Miranda tells PEOPLE.
“I have seen first-hand how touched veterans are to receive the calendar during bedside visits from the pin-ups,” says former Air Force intelligence officer Shannon Corbeil. “I love helping that effort however I can.”
“To know I’ll be bringing a smile to someone’s face brings me great joy,” says former Navy gunners mate Brendena Kyles. “Who doesn’t love pin-ups?”
The hospitalized veterans especially love that the 2018 models are veterans themselves, Elise adds.
“They really brighten when we tell them these pin-ups are veterans,” she says. “It really helps them bond. They start talking about their experiences, and you can see they are having a great time.”
Hospital administrators are some of the group’s biggest fans. The group’s web page is filled with testimonials from officials thanking the group for their morale-boosting visits and donations.
The best testimonials of all, though, come from the veterans.
“I rarely saw patients other than me get visitors at the hospital,” says Delle, who currently is enrolled in medical school. “Many were Vietnam veterans and World War Two veterans, and although the VA staff were very kind the patients seemed lonely.
“Gina’s visit was the first time I had seen many of them smile.”
The PUFV, as insiders call the group, is not just for men. Romantic retro-styled male veterans have posed in previous calendars; and the group offers makeovers to military wives and female veterans, with special attention given to work-appropriate makeovers for homeless female vets.
“It’s great to see how their spirits improve when they see themselves looking glamorous,” Elise says.
Next on the agenda: completing a 50-state tour to visit hospitalized veterans around the country.
“We want the veterans to know that they are loved and appreciated,” Elise says. “Because they really and truly are.”