[caption id=“attachment_14026” align=“aligncenter” width=“750”]Army 1st Sgt. Jennifer Stafford, center, poses with Miss West Virginia during a USO Operation That's My Dress event June 27 in Fort Drum, New York. USO photo Army 1st Sgt. Jennifer Stafford, center, poses with Miss West Virginia Teen USA Cora King during a USO Operation That’s My Dress event June 27 in Fort Drum, New York. USO photo[/caption]

A career soldier, Army, Sgt. 1st Class Jennifer Stafford is a woman in a male-dominated world. And lately, she’d felt like her womanhood was being stripped away, piece by piece.

After losing her mother to uterine cancer and watching her aunt fight and beat breast cancer, Stafford – the mother of three boys – was forced to have a hysterectomy just weeks before Mother’s Day.

Then, as Mother’s Day approached, a lump in her breast was diagnosed as cancer.

“It was a hard pill to swallow,” said Stafford, who is still serving on active duty in Fort Drum, New York, after 21 years in the Army as a nuclear, biological and chemical weapons specialist. “How did I get both what my mom and my aunt had?” She was depressed for weeks until her friend and USO volunteer Glynnis Moore suggested she sign up to attend USO Operation That’s My Dress, a program that gives free ball gowns to female service members, spouses and teenage dependents for homecoming and prom seasons, military balls and the holidays.

“I’ve never asked for anything back,” Stafford recalled thinking. “So what the heck? I’ll sign up.”

On June 27, she waited in line in the rain with hundreds of other girls and mothers eager to see what the USO had in store. When the doors opened, she was overwhelmed by all the pink, cute, frilly dresses on display. There were also dozens of runway model consultants to help them find an appropriate look.

The event began with a fashion show, featuring professional models and Miss USA contestants who showed off the gowns and matching jewelry that was available. Beauty pageant contestants and celebrity stylists also stuck around to do the participants’ hair and makeup.

Stafford settled on a gold and white dress by Sherri Hill, a longtime sponsor of the Operation That’s My Dress events.

She felt so good looking at herself in the mirror that she was moved to tears. Her voice still cracks when she thinks about how that dress made her feel that day.

“Coming up through the ranks in the military – now I’m an E-7 – you constantly have to prove yourself as a female in a male-dominated world,” Stafford said. “And for once as soldier, my womanhood was being celebrated. Right when I needed it most, the USO was there with exactly what I needed.”

While she’s still fighting toward full remission, the USO event gave her another tool to use on the worst days of her fight.

“I’m in awe by [the dress] still,” she said. “I take it out every week and I look at it. It marked the close of a terrible year, so while I can’t wait for my first opportunity to wear the dress, it has to be a truly special event.”