US Navy veteran with rare medical condition to compete in pageant

Arlena Johnson Navy veteran

Practicing her walk has a whole different meaning for Arlena Johnson. Just two years ago, she couldn’t put weight on her feet, let alone move them. And she only had use of one of her hands.

Now she’s headed for the runway and vying for the Ms. Veteran America 2021 crown. The pageant will be live-streamed online on Oct. 10 at

When the 30-year-old Louisville native was diagnosed with Neuromyelitis Opticain November 2017, doctors told Johnson she only had six months to live and a 1% chance of ever walking again. The central nervous system disorder often attacks optic nerves, spinal cord and sometimes the brain, and can cause an array of issues with the bladder and bowels.

But against all odds, she’s remastered walking and ahead of the pageant, she’s even retrained herself to balance in high heels. Today, holding her posture means moving gracefully with the metal rods that run through her back.

During an interview at her South Louisville home, a bladder bag rested at her feet, but during the competition, it will be tucked beneath her custom-made gown. The competition aims to show the woman behind the uniform, and while her seven years of service in the U.S. Navy is admirable, there’s so much more to her. Her pageant coach, Ocielia Gibson Sprowl, says Johnson already has the intellect, drive, heart, and accomplishment to succeed. The rest is just polishing.

A dedicated Navy veteran

Today Johnson is medically retired from the U.S. Navy, but in May 2010, seven years before Neuromyelitis Optica ravaged her body, she enlisted hoping to implement more structure in her life.

Johnson found the stability she craved while stationed on the USS Wasp. But her service also fostered an overwhelming desire to help people. That’s largely why she’s participating in the Ms. Veteran America pageant. (continue reading)

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