Miss Utah Gives Back as National Guard Soldier
By Staff Sgt. Mary Flynn, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 31, 2007 What’s another marathon, really, for Jill Stevens?
Sgt. Jill Stevens, Utah National Guard member and the 2007 Miss Utah, smiles after crossing the finish line at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., Oct. 28, 2007. Photo by Staff Sgt. Mary K. Flynn, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The 2007 Miss Utah is no stranger to the physical and mental discipline required to knock out 26.2 miles. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon here on Oct. 28, finishing in about 3.5 hours.
It’s the third marathon she’s run since winning the pageant title in June. “I love challenges,” she said. “That’s why I joined the military.”
No, that’s not a misprint. For one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, Miss Utah becomes Army Sgt. Jill Stevens of the Utah National Guard. She trades in her high heels and gown for combat boots and combat uniforms, her bouquet of roses for a combat medic aid bag, and her sparkling tiara for a beret or patrol cap.
Wearing the uniform, she said, feels more natural to her. “I’m first-off a soldier, always,” said Stevens, who had originally laughed at the idea of participating in a pageant. “I don’t do heels. I didn’t even know where to buy them!”
Having deployed as a combat medic with 1st Battalion, 211th Aviation Group, in April 2004 to Afghanistan, Steven’s lifestyle isn’t what one would expect of the typical pageant winner. The 25-year-old previously shared the same opinion of pageant contestants that many people hold. “I thought that all these girls do is wave their hand, look pretty and do nothing,” she said. “I didn’t want to be associated with that.”
She soon discovered, however, that the organization actually had a lot in common with the military. The Miss America program promotes education and teaches leadership, she said. It also promotes fitness and well-being, while focusing on bringing out one’s best.
“I saw a great opportunity that would open doors,” she said, referring to the titleholder’s position as a chance to start organizations or pass bills to create change. “(These women) can move people to action and really make a difference.”
One way Stevens has chosen to make a difference is by raising funds and awareness for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a support network for families of those who have died in service. TAPS offers peer support and assists survivors through a wide variety of programs, including programs for youths.
“(I’m running) for my battle buddies and their families, people who have lost loved ones over there,” she said.
While in Washington for the marathon, Stevens met with families and visited soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “I thought of them along this run,” she said. “I’m doing this for them.”
Stevens said she intends to participate in more marathons before her reign as Miss Utah is over. In each one, she will run for TAPS.
Stevens was first exposed to the National Guard when recruiters set up a booth in her high school. Beyond the tuition assistance and hands-on medical experience she would receive as a combat medic, she said she was drawn to the challenge that being a soldier presented. “I wondered, ‘Can I hack that?’” she recalled.
Today, the recent graduate of Southern Utah University has a bachelor’s degree in nursing, 12 marathons under her belt, six years as a combat medic in the Utah National Guard, and she’s just applied for a direct commission to become an Army nurse.
Stevens said she attributes much of her success to her experiences in the Guard.
“The military has really, truly provided me with a lot of opportunity” in addition to teaching her to make the best of a difficult situation, she said. “I turned Afghanistan into a positive experience, an incredible experience, and I’m able to share (it).”
Since her return from Afghanistan in April 2005, Stevens frequently has been invited to give talks on her experiences. She said it’s an opportunity to give back, one that has only been fueled since her venture into pageantry.
Her schedule is packed with speaking engagements at junior high and elementary schools, where she discusses her platform: “Ready When Disaster Strikes: Emergency Preparedness for Everyone.” She also teaches the importance of living life to the fullest.
“I love giving back,” she said, citing her opportunities as a soldier, a medic, a nurse and now, a titleholder. “It gives me the best feeling in life; it’s my passion.”
Stevens will compete for the Miss America crown in January.
(Army Staff Sgt. Mary Flynn is assigned to the National Guard Bureau.)