Jill Stevens Shepherd has been through her share of battle zones in recent years, and she brought photos to a Young Single Adult summit to prove it. Shepherd was the keynote speaker Saturday at the annual three-day event for young Mormon singles in the Bonneville, Granger, Murray East, Holladay and Sugar House regions. Speaking at the Salt Lake Institute of Religion, Shepherd rifled through photos projected on a screen of her time serving with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan and her experience representing Utah in the 2007 Miss America pageant. While Shepherd's combat experience might be a bit more literal than most of the 1,600 people's in the audience, Shepherd said getting through challenges was possible because she made setting goals a priority. \"We all face our personal combat zones,\" said Shepherd. \"Having a goal or target is essential in all aspects of life.\" The Southern Utah University nursing school graduate outlined the three goals she had before departing for Afghanistan that would help her to stay focused despite being in a war zone peppered with land mines. She said she wanted to:
  • Stick to her standards
  • Be a missionary
  • Bring joy to a war-torn country
By focusing on those goals, Shepherd said she hoped to not get overwhelmed by all the obvious difficulties and trials that surrounded her. One of the more difficult things to see was Afghani children who would come to the clinic where she was a medic after being maimed and burned by land mines. \"Ninety-five percent of the patients we took care of were locals,\" she said. \"There were so many of the local people there, especially children, that were flown in ... just for doing simple things that you and I would like to do.\"Suffering was everywhere, she said, from the native women who weren't allowed to make eye contact to fellow soldiers who were sometimes pessimistic from being in such an unpleasant situation. Shepherd took her third goal seriously during this time and made an effort to perk up soldiers in combat. She had her mom send her a bread machine and baked for others when it was birthdays or they'd had a bad day. \"When morale was down, missions weren't performed as well,\" she said. \"I tried to plan parties. We'd do girls-nights out and such and really keep morale up.\" When November came around, she asked her mom to send her some poster board so she could create a \"thankful tree\" like the ones her family made each year. Shepherd cut out the shape of a tree and provided fall-colored paper leaves onto which people could write the things they were grateful for and paste the leaves onto the tree. \"At first, it was hard because they weren't grateful for anything,\" she said. But she refused to be discouraged and eventually people got on board and the tree was covered in hundreds of leaves. One experience for which she is especially grateful was being able to help a young Afghani girl with vision problems improve her sight. She spent the entire week playing with and talking and hugging her, and it was amazing to know that she made a difference in her life. \"That right there made every sacrifice worth it. I didn't care that I had to drop out of nursing school or give up my life for 17 months. Knowing that I made a difference in that little girl's life ... wow. That was it for me,\" she said. \"This was truly one of the happiest moments of my life.\"Shepherd spent the majority of her YSA address retelling stories from her war experience to \"give you a taste of a soldier's life.\" The last minutes of her speech were focused on her other battlefield, competing for the title of Miss Utah and later Miss America, which may seem tame to some, but was very challenging. Shepherd said the \"mines\" she encountered in the pageant world were more subtle than those she faced in Afghanistan. Staying true to herself in the pageant world meant wearing a modest evening gown and a one-piece swimming suit. She was the only contestant to do so. While some told Shepherd, who has run 14 marathons, to show off her fit and toned body, it was never an option for her. \"That (swimming suit) was my title of liberty to wave for the whole world to see,\" she said. Her biggest challenge came during the national competition when she was riddled with self-doubt and insecurities. \"I don't have a voice like Indiana,\" she said she thought. \"I don't walk like that.\" At one point, she felt so lonely she would have preferred to have been in Afghanistan. One night, she went back to her hotel room with her headphones on, feeling very alone when a song came on that reminded her to have faith and be of good cheer. \"I tried to focus on myself, and who I was. And I tried to let that shine out.\" \"We all need to wave that banner, and be proud of who we are.\"

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com