A Mile in Miss Utah's Combat Boots

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First she joined the National Guard, then she did a stint as Miss Utah and competed in the Miss America pageant. Jill Stevens took an unusual route from the fighting in Afghanistan to the photo sessions in Los Angeles.

ALISON STEWART, host:

The first battalion of the 211th Aviation Regimen of the National Guard must be proud of Sergeant Jill Stevens.

She earned five medals for her outstanding service as a combat medic in Afghanistan. Sergeant Stevens graduated summa from the nursing school at Southern Utah University on a four-year leadership scholarship. Oh, yeah, she's also crowned Miss Utah, by the way. This past weekend, she competed in the Miss America pageant, making Jill the first Miss America contestant to have served in a combat zone. She was one of the 16 semifinalists.

(Soundbite of show, "2008 Miss America Pageant")

Mr. MARK STEINES (Host, "2008 Miss America Pageant"): Our fifth semifinalist eliminated tonight, Miss Utah, Jill Stevens.

(Soundbite of cheering)

STEWART: Okay, do you hear that cheering, Rico?

RICO GAGLIANO, host:

Yes.

STEWART: That's because Jill hit the deck, assumed the front-leaning position and gave them at least 10 full military push-ups.

GAGLIANO: Oh, man. Taking a cue from - oh, man I can't remember his name.

STEWART: Jack Palance.

GAGLIANO: Jack Palance.

STEWART: There. Well, Miss Michigan took the tiara from Miss America this year but Miss Utah, Jill Stevens, is taking our hearts here at NPR and THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

Hi, Jill.

Sergeant JILL STEVENS (First Battalion, 211th Aviation Regimen, U.S. National Guard; Contestant, 2008 Miss America Pageant): Hi.

STEWART: How are you?

GAGLIANO: Hey.

Sgt. STEVENS: I'm doing well. How are you guys this morning?

STEWART: Doing great. I want to get a little bit of your back story and then I want to dive into the pageant stuff.

Sgt. STEVENS: Okay.

STEWART: When did you first head to Afghanistan and what was your official assignment?

Sgt. STEVENS: You know, we deployed in 2004 and got back in 2005. It's a year deployment in Afghanistan. But we did some train up beforehand, so I was gone about a year-and-a-half total but a year of that was in Afghanistan.

STEWART: So what were your day-to-day duties?

Sgt. STEVENS: I worked in the aid station, kind of like a family clinic -you would described here - and I took care of soldiers whenever they were sick or injured from doing their daily jobs. But I also went on a lot of missions. I was in an aviation unit and flew in a lot of Black Hawks and Chinooks and other aircrafts to remote villages to help - well, yeah, humanitarian or medical missions.

STEWART: I know you became the caretaker of a little girl. I think her name is Halima(ph)?

Sgt. STEVENS: Yes. Halima.

STEWART: Yeah, tell us who she is and what she came to mean to you?

Sgt. STEVENS: Oh, my goodness. She became almost like a little sister to me. We - I met her at one of the villages called Vedvelek(ph) and we noticed - we saw her eyes and realized that she is not seeing well at all and that we could probably help her out with that. And a long process to get the approval for that. And she was on our base for a week and I was her - really, her nurse, her big sister for the week and took care of her every moment that I was able to. And wow, what incredible memories we had. I tried to really treat her like a queen, like - give her an American experience and showing her and teaching her all I could to seize every opportunity during that week, and we really became really close.

STEWART: What was the most hopeful thing that you saw during your time in Afghanistan and what was most troubling, something that still kind of stays with you?

Sgt. STEVENS: Wow. Okay, the most hopeful would definitely have to be on my last mission to Vedvelek, this particular village. As we were leaving for the last time. This last mission was incredible. we dedicated a school for girls so that these girls can have a future and an education. And as we took off, saying goodbye, wow, it's a torn experience, wasn't sure if my girls realized that I'm going back to America and not just back for the Army base this time. And I would turn around every 10 feet or so and they were blowing kisses, showing (unintelligible) I love you signs - things I taught them. And I was like, okay, I can't cry. Soldiers don't cry. But as we flew in that aircraft, we looked out the window and there they were, our friends from this village waving the American flag, you know.

GAGLIANO: Oh, man.

Sgt. STEVENS: I was just, like, every soldier - it was hard to have a dry eye…

STEWART: I could imagine.

Sgt. STEVENS: …on that aircraft seeing that our flag, which represents our freedom, now being, you know, here, being waved this country by these people in this war-torn country. It was an incredible and emotional experience.

STEWART: Is this something that still sort of haunts you a little bit about the experience?

Sgt. STEVENS: The women of Afghanistan, but that's also what probably brings a lot of hope as well, because that changed even during our year there. That was probably the most haunting when I first got there was to see how the women were treated. There was a lot of - oh, it was sad - just suicides. Because these women would see how other women were treated across the world and they would commit suicide because there was - what I hope do they have from living here. But that changed. Women started making a difference. And so it soon became a huge hope and a great strength to these women that they started to make, take a stand, make a difference.

STEWART: Go ahead, Rico.

GAGLIANO: Well, it's, obviously, a huge shift to go from seeing these sort of scenes to obviously into the pageant circuit. And you've just been quoted as saying "I do combat boots, I don't do high heels."

Sgt. STEVENS: That's true.

GAGLIANO: What is the means by which you got into the pageant circuit? Who suggested it?

Sgt. STEVENS: You know, I really saw an opportunity to serve and I love giving back to my country in some sort of way as a soldier. But now I guess, as a beauty queen, I saw an opportunity and I really just wanted to give, I don't know, a positive story out there for girls to look up to that - not necessarily to go on a pageant. That's why I don't really push that on anybody. But to go out and try new things, to experience life. Because I feel we are so blessed as Americans, especially with the experiences I had overseas, that we have so many freedoms and that these girls and just even boys need to grow up and, you know, live those freedoms to their, you know, the fullest, and to experience life. And it would teach them so much.

STEWART: We're talking to Jill Stevens, who is Miss Utah, who also served as a combat medic in Afghanistan.

So Jill, what was your first experience like when you walked into your first, sort of, pageant scenario and you saw the big hair and the dresses…

GAGLIANO: …and the teeth everywhere?

Ms. STEVENS: Oh, wow. And I sort of put my hat backwards, just coming from the gym.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEVENS: Eye-opener. I was like, okay, what am I getting myself into? I almost walked out. But my friend dared me and said if I am doing this, you are doing it. And I just decided, you know what, why not? I've never done anything even extremely close to this. Let's just try it. And it was fun to kind of play the game at first, you know? I'm walking - I think there is a few bloodstains on the stage that I signed my name to, walking in high heels.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEVENS: It was fun. And then as I gone into it, it was like competing for Miss Utah and then Miss America. I've realized, you know what, it's fun to be a lady. It's kind of fun. And I really am excited for this woman I've become.

STEWART: So what was your platform as Miss Utah?

Ms. STEVENS: It is emergency preparedness - and that is very different in the pageant world.

STEWART: I can imagine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEVENS: I don't think there is one out there like it. And it really just stemmed from my soldier experiences. Being a medic, you know, we have to be ready for any medical emergencies on any mission. We never know what to prepare for, well - what we're having. But you have to prepare for everything.

And now, being back on America's soil - oh, my goodness, we have like our own enemy that we're fighting. It's like national disasters, terrorist attacks, shootings at schools. And I believe America needs to be prepared, and especially our youth. And that's what I'm focusing on - is really trying - with the CERT program - that CERT, Community Emergency Response Team.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. STEVENS: I'm really trying to get America aware - just to do simple things or have a scavenger hunt with your family because most of the supplies for an emergency preparedness kit are in your home. And it would be a fun way to involve the family and the kids.

STEWART: Now, Jill, given all the things that you've accomplished in your life, what you've done, where you've been - I didn't mention you're a marathoner. I'm going to put that one in there, too.

GAGLIANO: Man.

STEWART: When you were in the pageant and you're thinking of yourself, okay, I've got a put a bathing suit on and walk out there. Did you ever have this sort of - the two parts of your brain, one saying like, Jill, this is frivolous, why are you doing this?

Ms. STEVENS: Absolutely. And it really had me stunned last week. I was just like, how did I get here? What am I doing? Here I am, walking on the stage, first 15 seconds in a swimsuit, and then a gown, and then making a fool of myself for two minutes for my talent. And it's just like, what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEVENS: What am I doing? And it's really - it's almost just like this little game you have to play to - because I love what comes after. That's the job. That's what I - that's why I did it. And so, it definitely set me for - well, really opened my perspective. It's just like, what am I doing? But you have to play the game for a little bit. And then, hopefully, you know, you win the interview to get the job.

STEWART: Which took more out of you mentally: going overseas in uniform or going backstage at a beauty pageant?

Ms. STEVENS: I think backstage at a beauty pageant, just because it was so recent. But wow, just being a soldier is more of who I am. And this whole beauty queen thing is very different. I have - I thought I was prepared for the mental games and the mental battles and emotional rollercoaster. But wow, it took me for a whirlwind - mainly because I did not perform to my potential. It wasn't - it was kind of like in a Olympic athlete going for the Olympic games. They only get like maybe one or two chances at it ever in their life. And I feel like - and, you know, and they might have had a bad run when it counts the most. And I felt like I had a bad run this last week.

STEWART: I don't think so.

GAGLIANO: No.

Ms. STEVENS: And so, I was beating myself up and let the heck happened. And, you know, it's just happened that way.

GAGLIANO: Because between medics and beauty pageants and marathoning, you've already thrown off the curve for the rest of us. It's okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GAGLIANO: We forgive you.

STEWART: Jill Stevens, hey, thanks for letting us track you down and thanks for joining us here on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT at NPR.

Ms. STEVENS: Well, thank you guys. You guys were a lot of fun. Hope you're having a good morning.

STEWART: You, too. Take care.

Ms. STEVENS: Bye.

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