Sgt. Jill Stevens leans wearily against a wall outside the Sapphire Ballroom, Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas. She awaits direction from her handlers, having just grabbed a 15-minute nap at the buffet where 52 sequestered Miss America contestants are gathered for their version of what Stevens might normally call "chow." Stevens is used to the pace. A combat medic who served a year in Afghanistan, marathon runner and nurse, she's always fighting time. She knows how to take rest when she can. But even for her, it's difficult at this moment in her life, as a contestant for Miss America. She is exhausted, so much churning in her mind.
It is Wednesday, the seventh day of the 2008 Miss America extravaganza, with three and a half days of withering scrutiny, sleep-deprived nights, rehearsals, rehearsals, rehearsals, and preliminary and final competitions still ahead of her. It is increasingly difficult for Stevens to find time for the two-hour daily workout that keeps her sane. She wants to be free for just a few hours so she can go for a run in the crisp January sun. Even if she could somehow obtain permission to leave the building, running and cycling would be out of the question. Pageant organizers ordered her to stop a month ago because her thighs were deemed too muscular.
Most of all, Stevens - a woman of steadfast faith and morals, a tomboy who would rather be hanging out with the guys in her sweats and a T-shirt - is stuck in Sin City USA, competing for something she dislikes: attention. She feels extraordinary pressure because she represents her fellow soldiers, her home state of Utah, her family and her Mormon faith. She says she does not want to let anyone down. She is particularly worried about the 10-minute individual interview and the on-stage interview already conducted during the week's hectic schedule.
"I hate how I'm delivering," she complains, settling into a plush sofa in the hotel mezzanine. "It's crushing me. Right now, I would rather be in combat."
An Unlikely Road. Little about the life of Sgt. Jill Stevens would suggest she would land here. While most Miss America contestants grow up burnishing their skills on the regional pageant circuit, Jill was roaming the outdoors or hitting the basketball court in a boyish haircut, baggy jeans and baseball cap.
"She would be more comfortable doing belly rolls in the dirt than little princess parties," says her mother, Karen Stephens. "For a while, I worried about how I was going to get her to stop shopping in the boys section."
Stevens' family is similarly surprised that she ended up in the military at all, although there were clues to that possibility early on. She was always goal-oriented, self-disciplined and driven, the sort of girl who at age 5 lined up the shoes in her closet in perfect order and lectured her mother about the ways the family meals fell short of meeting the four food groups.
Stevens also does not come from a family with a tradition of military service. Her parents - who joined households from previous marriages when she was 7 - made it clear that in order to afford to attend college, she and her three brothers and three sisters would have to excel at something scholarship-worthy. So three months before high-school graduation, Stevens joined the National Guard. With her Guard stipend and a leadership scholarship, she entered Southern Utah University in Cedar City in 2001. There, she joined ROTC.
Stevens became the first female to compete as a regular member of the ROTC Ranger Challenge Teams from 23 schools in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. No matter how bruised, battered and tired she was, she never complained - unlike some of her male counterparts - and never gave up.
"She scored higher on the physical-fitness test than 90 percent of the males," says Maj. Brent Anderson, her ROTC commander. "She has the beauty and the brains and the strength. People look up to her because of that."
In Theater. While driving home to a Salt Lake City suburb the day before Thanksgiving 2003, Stevens got a call from her National Guard commander. She was ordered to pack for Afghanistan. She deployed to Bagram Air Base as a combat medic with an Apache helicopter battalion that had three key missions - attack, resupply and troop support. "This was not a humanitarian mission," emphasizes Chief Warrant Officer 5 Layne Pace, a helicopter pilot from Stevens' National Guard outfit, who, like many of her combat kin, has stern words for bloggers who questioned Stevens' war-zone bona-fides when the Miss America reality show started airing in the weeks prior to the pageant.
Stevens' unit still found time do humanitarian work in theater. A group of the Utah Guardsmen would hitch a ride to Jegdalek with helicopters flying resupply missions to forward operating bases, help the villagers, then catch a ride back as the choppers returned to base. Stevens had a knack for putting the villagers at ease. Because of that, she and Pace were able to take a 5-year-old girl afflicted with a cruel, cross-eyed condition called strabismus back to Bagram for surgery that restored nearly 100 percent of her vision.
Altogether, the Utah Guard unit brought more than a dozen children and adults back to the base for medical treatment, and found hospitals, surgeons and transportation to the United States for two boys to receive open-heart surgeries. Stevens, Pace and three other Guardsmen also initiated efforts to build the largest orphanage in Afghanistan. They've secured 50 acres northwest of Kabul for the facility, which will serve 500 boys and 500 girls.
Stevens also distinguished herself at Bagram as the unit morale booster, cooking chocolate birthday cakes in a Dutch oven and bread in an oven fashioned from aircraft parts. She organized movie nights, pizza nights and other stress-reducing socials.
The Pageant Circuit. Three weeks after returning to Utah in April 2005, Stevens hit the books. She took five summer-school classes, including chemistry, in order to maintain her status as a college junior and regain acceptance into the nursing program. Then Del Beatty, director of student involvement at Southern Utah University, dared her to enter the Miss SUU pageant.
"I saw in her, three years ago, exactly what America sees now," says Beatty, who has since become dean of students at the College of Eastern Utah. "She is the real deal. She has done everything that every girl has said, ‘Oh, I wish I had the courage to do that.'"
Stevens won Miss SUU, then second runner-up at the 2006 Miss Utah pageant, and planned to leave it at that.
"It was the way pageants emphasize looks and the whole vanity of it," Staff Sgt. Dallas Wilkerson, a close friend and fellow Utah Guardsman, explains of Stevens' reluctance. "She also had reservations about showing off her body. She doesn't like to bring attention to herself."
Sharlene Hawkes - Miss Utah 1984 and Miss America 1985 - persuaded Stevens to take another shot at the Miss Utah title because of the message she could carry and the example she could set. "Her whole life is about being in service," Hawkes explains. "She didn't just develop a shtick for Miss America."
Stevens entered and won the Miss Davis County crown, giving her another opportunity to compete for Miss Utah. It still didn't feel right. She called the first runner-up and offered her the Davis County honor. The first runner-up refused, and Stevens charged ahead and became the 2007 Miss Utah. "Once she decided to do it, she gave it 150 percent and never looked back," Karen says.
Stevens also felt confident becoming the first activated combat veteran to compete in the Miss America pageant, which had advertised a change of direction - the pursuit of a national role model, a "real girl" who, as one of the judges would explain during the preliminary competition, could dress to the nines for a White House audience one day and don a baseball cap and hang out with the troops in Baghdad the next.
The Contest. The day Stevens left home to drive to Las Vegas for the 10 days of preparation, preliminaries and final pageant, flags flew from every house in her neighborhood, just as they had the day she shipped out to Afghanistan. She carried a basket with a gift to open each day - a special scripture, a CD of her mother singing Jill the song she wrote for her baptism, a tube of lip balm emblazoned with the words "Modest is Hottest" - a reference to the sergeant's preference for a one-piece bathing suit and a conservative evening gown. She fielded media calls from the road - she receives three to five interview requests a week - and joked about the skills she's had to acquire for this unusual mission.
"I love to challenge myself; that's why I do marathons, that's why I'm in this pageant," Stevens says. "It's a challenge to be a lady. Who invented high heels? That is a joke." It has also been a learning experience. She says pageant competition has "enhanced my ability to interact with people of all ages, and it's definitely improved my speaking skills."
Thursday, the final night of preliminary competition. Jill appears onstage in a flowing light turquoise dress to sing "Shy" from the Broadway musical comedy "Once Upon a Mattress." She is easily the most animated of the evening's contestants, moving to the edge of the stage and reaching for the audience. But afterward, she frets about it. She did not hit her long opening note, she says, because she had a frog in her throat.
Between rehearsals Friday afternoon, Jill is back before a passel of media at the Sapphire Ballroom, matter-of-factly explaining her assessment of where she's soared and where she's stumbled. This marathon started two years ago with her first pageant, she says, and she's now at mile 26 with the most difficult part of the race still ahead.
"I've been humbled," Stevens says with a smile. "But I have a reputation for doing face plants in marathons. And you have to pick yourself back up and keep going."
A few minutes after the media din clears, Stevens quietly adds, "The hardest thing now is letting go of the week. It's in the Lord's hands."
By evening, she is more upbeat, telling another group of reporters she's hoping she's America's choice - a reference to the pageant inviting the public to nominate a 16th finalist based on the reality show that's been running in the month prior to the pageant.
"That's my in," she says. "Then it's showing (the judges) what I can do."
She pauses, invites everyone to an after-the-pageant party the following evening and parts with, "By then either I'm Miss America or I get my life back. Either way I win."
The Big Night. The front of the audience is a sea of military uniforms, from dress blues to camo. Live broadcast of the 2008 Miss America Pageant begins. Four women in combat uniforms sport green tiaras and wave signs with slogans such as "Miss American Soldier" and "Hooah Miss Utah." They haven't seen Stevens since combat medic school five years ago but eagerly came from Virginia, Tennessee, Wisconsin and California to root for her. The American Legion provided tickets for 50 members of the U.S. Armed Forces to attend the event.
"If I could choose one person to represent females in the Army, it would be her," explains 1st Lt. Jessica Melin, now a recruiter with the Virginia National Guard. "She's hard-working. She's a leader in everything she does. She sets the example for others. She never backs down on her faith or her morals.
"If you were going to change the image of Miss America - from it being about the prettiest girl in the room or the one who models the best - to it being about a leader, standing your ground on values, you would pick Jill Stevens."
Tension and apprehension silence the audience as the host starts naming the 15 finalists, based on the one-on-one interviews and the week's preliminary competition. There is palpable disappointment when Stevens is not one of the top 15. And thunderous applause when it is announced that she is America's choice.
It's a short reign. The pageant immediately proceeds to the swimsuit competition, and within minutes, Stevens and four other women are eliminated. The audience emits a sort of collective gasp of disappointment. Then Stevens turns to Miss Wisconsin, they confer for a split-second, then drop to the stage and start doing push-ups. Soon, eight of the 16 finalists are doing push-ups on national television. The theater audience, many on their feet, roar with approval.
Looking Back, Ahead. Two and a half hours later, Stevens - barefoot but in her evening gown - sprints into a reception thrown by her family and friends, four-inch high heels clutched in her hand. She gives a warm thank-you to the crowd that's gathered to support her, then jokingly asks someone to find a trash can for the high heels.
She tries to grab a bite of food, but the crowd is hungry for her attention and she selflessly obliges. When things ease off, Stevens moves close to her family. She and her siblings break into a barber-shop rendition of "Baby Face." Someone suggests Stevens sign up for the long-running reality TV show "Survivor."
"She could go 33 days without a shower," Karen Stephens offers. "But she can't go 15 minutes without eating."
Stevens, however, has more than enough ahead of her: putting her nursing degree to work, the orphanage project, writing a book about her experiences, and more than 30 speaking engagements and appearances scheduled for February alone.
"I think I made a strong statement tonight, and I think it's more than Miss America would be able to make," Stevens says, starting to relax for the first time in weeks. "It's great to know that I wasn't what those seven judges were looking for, but I was what America was looking for. I am more honored with that."
Jill's mother also looks as if she may be able to relax a bit.
"I think the world has noticed her - and noticed she hasn't been willing to compromise," Karen says. "And she's America's choice. The country wanted her to be their Miss America. How great is that?"
Ken Olsen is a regular contributor to The American Legion Magazine.
Miss Connecticut: The Legion Riders tradition continues
Dana Elaine Daunis knew just what to do as soon as she became the 2007 Miss Connecticut: grab her leather jacket, duct tape a crown to her motorcycle helmet and head out with the Legion Riders, following in the footsteps of Miss Connecticut 2006 Heidi Voight. Daunis also is a member of the American Legion Auxiliary. With the Miss America competition behind her, she now plans to pursue a master's degree and continue her child-abuse prevention work, as well as helping veterans. Daunis spoke with The American Legion Magazine the day after winning one of the preliminary talent competitions for her vocal performance of "Let Him Fly."
Q: How did you become involved with the Legion Riders and the Legion Auxiliary?
A: Last year Miss Connecticut spent a lot of time working with them, and she had hoped the new Miss Connecticut would basically carry on with the legacy that she started. I'm hoping the next one will, too, because we've really tried to affiliate the Miss Connecticut organization with the Legion Riders.
Q: What are the benefits of Miss Connecticut working with the Legion Riders?
A: It eliminates stereotypes for the Riders, and on the flip side, it eliminates stereotypes for pageant girls. People assume that we are only in heels, that we don't do anything fun, and here we are riding on the backs of Harleys.
Q: What sort of work have you done with Legion groups?
A: We've done stand-down in Connecticut. We spent the day volunteering our services, passing out clothes to homeless veterans and doing eye screenings. We also visited the veterans hospital and spent a couple of hours meeting with a few of the veterans who couldn't get out of the hospital. It was an incredibly moving experience.
Q: What do you think of all of the media attention that the Miss America Pageant has received this year because Miss Utah - Jill Stevens - is a veteran?
A: I think it's wonderful. You have someone who served her country now vying for the title of Miss America. Jill is eliminating a stereotype for women who assume they could never serve their country because they are too much of a "girly girl." She's also eliminating a stereotype that someone who has served our country cannot put on a pair of heels and compete in a national pageant.
Interview: Ken Olsen
Military Miss America
At least two prior Miss America contestants were serving in the military when they competed for the national crown. Others joined after their pageant bids.
Leah Hulen, 1992 Miss Tennessee: A second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Hulen served in Panama as an intelligence officer from June 1990 to October 1991. She transferred to the Tennessee National Guard public-affairs detachment and was promoted to first lieutenant. She transferred to the inactive ready reserve in 1998 and was discharged in 2001.
Andrea Plummer, 2001 Miss New York: Plummer served as an Air Force lieutenant during her reign as Miss New York. Now a captain, she is still serving in the Air Force.
Patricia Northrup, 1992 Miss California: Joined the California Air National Guard in 1996 as a senior airman. Today, she is Maj. Patricia Murray, flying C-130s with the 146th Airlift Wing. Her accomplishments include 75 combat sorties and three air medals.