Putting on a sequined dress, placing manicured feet into high heels, and wearing a sash and crown on stage is a little different than putting on a camouflage uniform, lacing up your combat boots and roughing it in a tent outdoors.
But for Miss William Carey University Jennifer DeMelo, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, it’s the best of both worlds.
When this active duty soldier wasn’t conducting medical missions throughout the United States, she found time to enter the William Carey pageant and won.
Now, she’s got a shot at winning the Miss Mississippi Pageant, an opportunity that would allow her to serve in a different way.
“When I first meet people, they never realize that I am a soldier in the military because I do not fit their ideal mold of what a soldier looks like,” said DeMelo, a Louisiana native who has served in the U.S. Army the past five years.
Raised in a middle class family with a father who owned a carpet cleaning business and mother who worked different jobs to support the family, DeMelo was working two jobs at Radio Shack and Taco Bell during her first year of college at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., to pay for school. In April of 2008, she decided to join the military.
“I had to do something different,” she said. “I was the first one in my family to actually go to college, and I didn’t want to give up on it.”
Inspired by her Navy grandfather Raymond Hood, who passed away before she was born, DeMelo said she wanted to fight for her family’s freedom, her rights and have the ability to go to college. So she called a recruiter on her own, met him the next day, and signed the contract within two weeks. When her dad came back from a trip, she told him she had joined the military, and “he freaked out.”
“He made me watch a lot of scary boot camp movies before I went, but I had already signed the contract,” she said.
That summer, DeMelo was assigned to boot camp at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.
“Being in boot camp was one of the most frightening experiences of my life while I was there,” she said, “but I made so many friends and had so many experiences. I grew up as a woman. It’s made me more responsible. All of my nieces and nephews look up to me for it. It’s such an honor.”
In the winter of 2009, DeMelo became a dental hygienist through the Army. She later transferred to Delgado Community College in Louisiana for a year to be closer to her family, and in 2011, enrolled at the University of New Orleans working on her bachelor’s degree in biology.
In the summer of 2011, she was sent on a medical humanitarian mission in Arkansas with her New Orleans unit for two weeks.
“We were spread out into three different cities,” she said, “and were providing medical vision and dental care for any civilian who could come out. Before that experience, I didn’t realize how many people in America were deprived of medical and dental care. I saw so many people who hadn’t had any dental care in their lives. It was sad.”
DeMelo returned to college in the fall of 2011, and in December, she was mobilized full-time to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, where she provided medical and dental care for soldiers being deployed and coming home.
“I was working from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Then, I would go to class at William Carey University at night,” she said. “Sometimes, I had Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes. I was taking well over full-time credit.”
DeMelo entered William Carey as a sophomore and graduated in May with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry and gerontology. She is currently working on her application for dental school with plans to become a dentist specializing in oral maxillofacial surgery. Her pageant platform is “Healthy Smiles, Happy Smiles; Promoting Good Oral Hygiene.”
Just as she had made a quick decision to join the military, DeMelo quickly decided to enter the Miss William Carey University Pageant last October.
“The day before the paperwork was due, I decided I was going to do it,” she said. “I never had the time to have a real college experience. I think I just wanted to do the pageant because I wanted that college experience before I graduated.”
“That was the first pageant I’ve ever done. There were 12 contestants. I had no idea what it actually consisted of. I just went out there and was myself, and they liked me. Afterward, the judges took me back stage, and they were like, ‘We’ve got to get you some eyelashes and touch this up before the Miss Mississippi Pageant.’ I didn’t even know I would be going to the Miss Mississippi Pageant.”
Cindy Cofield, director of the Miss William Carey University Scholarship Pageant, said she noticed DeMelo during the pageant orientation.
“I looked in the back, and there was a little soldier sitting back there in uniform with her hair all up under her hat. She was just smiling at everything I said. I thought: ‘This is interesting. This is a first for us.’
She’s been an absolute delight to work with. I think (she was chosen) because of her life experiences and her maturity. She’s confident, warm and very genuine.
DeMelo’s Miss Mississippi hostess said she’s amazed by her guest.
“It sounds like she hasn’t had that fairy tale life, and it just makes me really proud of what she wants to do to serve her country, and what she’s had to do to further her education,” she said. “She is just a really special young lady.”
Being in the pageant has some differences and some similarities to military life, DeMelo said. “A week before I came here, I had to go to South Dakota for a medical support mission,” she said. “We were literally living in a tent eating MREs (meals ready to eat) out of a bag. We got showers every other day.”
But because pageant week is rigorous, it is a little like the military.
“I said jokingly that being here reminds me of being in boot camp because you’re on a tight schedule and people tell you where you need to be at all times,” she said.
There are also some similarities in being Miss Mississippi.
“One of the reasons I joined the military – they are all about selfless community service,” she said. “To me, that’s what it’s about when you’re Miss Mississippi.”
DeMelo said she’s in the reserves and only has to participate in drills one weekend out of the month, so she doesn’t see her military work interfering with her reign as Miss Mississippi, should it happen.
“If I can be mobilized, go to college and serve my country, I’m perfectly capable of taking this on as well,” she said. “I’m a soldier. That’s what we do.”