Kelsey DeSantis' accomplished much during her enlistment, including being the honor grad of her boot camp class and qualifying as one of the few female trainers at the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. But in pop music circles she is perhaps best known for having Justin Timberlake as her date for the Birthday Ball in 2011.
"I didn't do it because I used to wear N-Synch t-shirts or was a fan at all," DeSantis told WATM while she prepped to compete for the title of Ms. Veteran America in mid-October of this year. "I did it because I was studying for the sergeants board and I had to know current events."
"I had two female civilian roommates at the time and they were helping me study," she explained. "One of them said, 'Oh, look, Mila Kunis got invited to the Marine Corp Birthday Ball.'"
At the time Kunis and Timberlake were doing interviews to promote the movie "Friends and Benefits" that co-starred them. One interviewer brought up the fact that Kunis had been invited to the USMC Birthday Ball by a Marine in Afghanistan who'd posted a video on YouTube. Kunis claimed she'd never seen the video, which caused Timberlake to emphatically encourage her to attend, saying "you have to serve your country."
Timberlake's enthusiasm and the way he framed Kunis' obligation to attend as a form of national service didn't impress DeSantis. "He said it about three of four times – 'do it for your country; serve your country – which made my blood boil," she said. "I was like . . . really?"
So the young corporal decided to make a YouTube video of her own inviting Timberlake to be her date for the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. "I wasn't even sure where the ball was being held," she said. "I thought it was going to be in Washington when it actually was going on in Richmond."
DeSantis had never produced a video for YouTube, but she had a basic concept in mind: she'd address the camera with the appropriate mix of directness and sass with a line of her fellow Marines standing behind her. The next day she asked one of her senior enlisted guys if he'd be in the video, knowing that if he participated she'd also get others to join. The tactic worked, and without wasting any time the group assembled and shot the video. "We did it in one take," DeSantis said.
"You want to call out my girl Mila?" De Santis says to Timberlake in the video. "Well, I'm going to call you out and ask you to come to the Marine Corps ball with me on November 12. If you can't go, all I have to say is, cry me a river."
As soon as the video hit YouTube "it blew up," DeSantis said. Her CO called her in and ordered her to take it down. She demurred, saying that her roommates had posted the video on a special Facebook page they created to entreat Timberlake to respond and she had no control over that.
The concern of higher-ups intensified when Timberlake wound up accepting. But instead of fighting it, the Marine Corps public affairs machine decided to use the pop star's attendance as a vehicle to promote the service in a positive light.
The night proved to be very successful from all points of view, including those of DeSantis and Timberlake. They shared one dance and a hug at the end of the evening.
"He was a complete gentlemen," DeSantis said. "You could tell he genuinely enjoyed himself."
For his part, the next day Timberlake posted his sentiments on his blog, describing the Marine Corps Birthday Ball as "one of the most moving evenings I've ever had."
DeSantis' enlistment ended the following year, and she left the Corps to compete as a professional mixed martial arts fighter and to pursue her passion for veteran advocacy. The MMA part of the plan was interrupted earlier this year when she found out she was pregnant.
She feared her pregnancy would jeopardize her ability to be a contestant in the Ms. Vet America event to which she'd committed after being selected as a finalist, but when she informed Jas Boothe, the event founder, Boothe replied, "Are you kidding me? This is what we're all about."
DeSantis was eight months along during the Ms. Veteran America event, and her proud presence on the runway among her fellow contestants was evidence that this wasn't just another beauty pageant.
See Kelsey Desantis in The Mighty TV mini doc about the Ms. Veteran America Event here.