For those of you who don’t know who Jill Stevens is, you should get to know her. As she competed in the Miss America pageant tonight, she represented what I thought was a real role model – not just a “model” – and came away a winner despite what the judges said by their votes! Of the 52 contestants, she was in the top 16, being voted as “America’s Choice” by an online poll taken on TLC’s website. THAT speaks for itself right there!
Sgt. Jill Stevens is an Army medic who served in Afghanistan for a year from 2004 to 2005. While there, she tended not only to soldiers in the clinic at Bagram Air Field, but also to the Afghan people in the surrounding villages. It was on one of those trips to the village of Jegdalek that I had the privilege of meeting her.
I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t know her… nor did I converse with her much. My only recollection was being a part of a conversation with her and several others at one point when I was drinking the green tea offered to us by the village elders, but that’s about the extent of it. My day there in Jegdalek was about so much more and our chance encounter was relatively uneventful. What that day did, however, was bring focus and purpose to my desire to help the Afghan children in some way, and changed me in ways that I cannot begin to convey. I have spoken of that day many times with friends and family and some still ask me about it. When my kids first learned I was heading back to Afghanistan, the first sentence out of their mouth was a disappointed, “Again??!!”….. The second was an excited, “Are you going back to see Zahid??!!
Zahid was a young, twelve-year-old boy whom I befriended when a series of events led me to him as I cleaned and bandaged several of the other villagers who had cuts or other minor injuries. He had severely chapped lips so I gave him my lip balm out of my medical kit and some baby wipes to clean his face with. We spent the entire day together, getting to know each other… our families… our professions. I discovered that at the young age of twelve, he was already an English teacher in the school there in the village. At one point, Zahid and I even taught an impromptu English class together to the other pre-teen boys of the village. Much later in the day, we walked up a nearby hill that overlooked the village, to the top of a very long rocky staircase leading to the school, and sat down together. It was quiet up there…. We shared more stories, talking again about family as I showed him pictures of my kids. He then introduced me to his father and uncle who were masons and mixed the cement for the new school. As we relaxed there in the breeze on the top of that hill, we shared one of the most memorable moments of my young life as we seemingly broke the language barrier with hand motions, simple expressions, and newly-learned expressions in each of our own languages. At one point, I had run out of paper with which to write, so Zahid used my pen to write on the palm of my hand. *lol* And then, without warning, Zahid reached back into his pocket and pulled out a small rock with a large ruby still embedded in it. He took one of my hands, flipped it over and cupped the palm of my hand. He then placed that ruby in my hand to give to me, as he simultaneously patted his other hand over his heart and said, “You! My friend!”
He was “giving” me that ruby because he considered me a friend! *sniff* That ruby was probably worth more in value than a month’s salary, yet he gave it to me. I’m telling you, I almost “lost it” right then and there! As I fought back the tears, I fumbled for something to give back to him as my way of affirming my friendship as well…. and then I remembered - every teenage boy in the tribe had asked me repeatedly for my sunglasses and I had turned them down. I even had to fight some boys off as they grabbed for them. Knowing they were of some value to Zahid as well, I took them off and proceeded to slowly slip them over his eyes and ears as I mimicked his same motion over my heart and said, “Zahid! My friend!” It was, without hesitation, one of the most amazing moments in my life.
Soon we had to head back down the hill because we got the call over the radio that the Chinook’s were on their way back, and it was at that moment when I observed Jill playing tag with the young girls of the village. I admired how she was not afraid to be goofy, and it was evident all the girls knew her and loved her by their laughter and the expressions on their faces. (I even remember all the girls shouting, “Jill!..Jill!!” when we first got off the helo' after landing!) As I watched fondly from a short distance, I took pictures of that moment and remember thinking to myself, “Whoever this girl is, she GETS it!” I also observed at least half a dozen other young male soldiers there providing security for our contingent who were obviously smitten with her, but she had nothing to do with that. She was there for those kids, and it made quite an impression on me.
Fast-forward to a few months ago - I saw a news story on the Internet with the headline, “Soldier Trades in Kevlar for Tiara” or some such thing. Intrigued, I clicked on it and saw someone done up in makeup in an Army uniform that I didn’t recognize at first, but then I scrolled down, and there was a photo of Jill, holding a young girl that I recognized from the village of Jegdalek that day. I can only imagine the wild ride she’s had since those days in Afghanistan that led up to the stage at The Planet Hollywood Resort tonight in Las Vegas!
As I worked tonight, with the AFN (Armed Forces Network) channel set to “Miss America - Reality Check” and later the pageant itself, I was impressed with her conservative approach to dress and appearance, not wanting to make her body a showcase. She was funny, and had more depth to her than any of the other contestants. And when the final 15 were announced - sans her name - it didn’t surprise me at all to see that all the fans had voted her to be the 16th contestant to vie for the crown. To me, she had already WON the competition at that moment. It didn’t matter what the judges thought about her unwillingness to change and make herself more competitive by mimicking the likes of Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan. She stayed true to herself and her values and set the “real” example for all young girls out there who look up to her. I can honestly say she is someone whom I wouldn’t mind my “own” daughter meeting and looking up to.
At the end of the day, I’m sure she’s glad to be able to get her life back after all the fuss and preparation for the Miss America pageant, but “post pageant”, I can still see her in a leadership role somewhere, paving the way for young women in America and even abroad to believe in themselves and their capabilities.
One such way where she still "paves the way" is by being the spokesperson for The Afghanistan Orphanage Project (http://www.taoproject.org/). She and others from her Army unit formed that non-profit organization after coming back from Afghanistan. That chance connection to her is what led me to the TAO Project several months ago as I emailed them offering any help I could for them since learning of my impending trip back to Kabul, Afghanistan -just 12 short miles from where they want to build the orphanage. To make a long story short, I have been helping behind the scenes logistically, and have also been the “address” for them with which to send humanitarian assistance and any items needed for the orphanage that they are building. I would encourage you to check out their website and please donate to their efforts, no matter how large or small the amount.
Well, that’s about it for now…. It was nice to see Jill do so well, but better yet, it was nice to see her come away from all of this with her identity still intact, confident in who she is and still a role model to others. Congratulations Jill!
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