Friday, January 18, 2008

Soldiering on to Miss America title?

Ramling' Jan: Wow. That's my first reaction to reading about this impressive 24 year old from Utah! She typifies true American spirit and would be an outstanding poster child for everything USA!
Photo: Utah Army National Guard Sgt. Jill Stevens, who is competing in the Miss America pageant as Miss Utah, plays with children while serving as a medic in Afghanistan in 2004.

Guard Medic Focuses On Miss America Title
By Staff Sgt. Rebecca Doucette, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17, 2008 - Utah Army National Guard Sgt. Jill Stevens' "personal combat zone" has shifted from Afghanistan to Nevada, from a minefield to a beauty contest, from combat boots to high heels.

The 24-year-old Stevens also is Miss Utah, and she is a contestant in the Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas, which will be televised Jan. 26 on The Learning Channel.

Stevens, a combat medic with the Utah Guard, has a resume that isn't what you would typically expect from a soldier, or a pageant contestant, for that matter: graduate, summa cum laude, Southern Utah University; soldier, Army National Guard; veteran, Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan; contestant, 2008 Miss America Live.

If she wins the crown, Stevens will be the first Miss America to have served in a combat zone, a pageant spokesperson said. She would become the 80th Miss America overall for the pageant, which began in 1921, according to the Miss America Web site. (There were eight years when a new Miss America was not named).

In her duties as Miss Utah, Stevens has traveled from Florida to California, from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana to the streets of Washington, D.C. She has spoken to generals from 40 countries.

Back in Utah, she talks about her military experiences with students from preschool through college and challenges them to push-up contests.

"We have our personal combat zone," Stevens tells students. "I served in one in Afghanistan. We all have them in life, whether it be with school, family, peer pressure or finding a career. It's our own minefield and we have to learn to dodge the mines by keeping focus on the target, not doubting ourselves, and believing what our potential is and what we can do."

Like other citizen-soldiers and -airmen, Stevens stays busy and balances life out of uniform with life in uniform. She recently said she hopes the pageant audience and judges see beyond her military uniform to the full complexity of her life.

"I don't want to showcase this in a, 'Oh, look at me, I'm a soldier, I serve my country, you should pick me' kind of way," she said. "I want them to think. I want them to look at Jill Stevens and see the whole picture of everything that I do, and being a soldier is a huge part of that, but there's a lot more."

Nevertheless, her pageant platform mirrors the Guard's domestic playbook: "Ready when disaster strikes – emergency preparedness for everyone."

"That comes from my soldier side of being ready for anything," Stevens said. "As a medic, we have to be ready for any injury that we face on missions."

And Stevens draws on her Guard experiences – from Basic Combat Training to a combat zone – in her talks with students.

"I talk about going through the gas chamber, and I relate that to doubt in our lives," she said. "I talk about shooting at a range, relating that to goals – how we need to keep focused on the target. I talk about running through a minefield in life."

The final stop on her run for the title of Miss America is a four-day competition in Las Vegas, culminating with the crowning of the winner on national TV.

Conspicuously absent from the competition will be Stevens' military uniform. But with the help of the American Legion, at least 50 of her fellow soldiers will attend the final night of the pageant at Planet Hollywood on Jan 26.

That arrangement started when a former Miss America, Sharlene Wells, called the Miss America Organization to say that a group of Utah National Guard soldiers wanted to come to the pageant and show their support, but had no budget to buy tickets.

The organization in turn called the American Legion, which offered to sponsor the soldiers and pay for their tickets to attend.

"The motto for the American Legion is 'for God and Country,' and that's exactly what Stevens is doing," said Joe March, the Legion's public relations director. "She stands as a great example of a proud American who is dedicated not only to her country, but to her community and her comrades."

As she goes into the competition, Stevens said "My target is Miss America. The military has taught me if I practice, work hard at it and keep focus on the target, I'll be ready."

(Editor's note: Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill contributed to this report. Greenhill and Staff Sgt. Rebecca Doucette work for the National Guard Bureau.)

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