Before Maura Spence Carroll could sign up to compete in the Miss Colorado pageant, she had to check her schedule. Notably, the 21-year-old active duty army specialist had to make sure she wasn’t set to be deployed during any pageant events. She also didn’t want to skimp on any other duties at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, where she is currently stationed.

“My responsibility as a soldier comes first,” says Spence Carroll, who ultimately competed in and won the Miss Colorado pageant this past June. “We’re soldiers 24/7, but thankfully, we do get time off throughout the day just like any civilian job.”

Still, being both a pageant queen and U.S. soldier is rare. Spence Carroll is the first active duty military member to hold the title of Miss Colorado, and she will be the only soldier competing in this year’s Miss America pageant, which is set to begin on December 16.

As a teen growing up in Katy, Texas, Spence Carroll always dreamed of being both a pageant queen and military member. The goals were inspired by her grandparents; Spence Carroll’s grandfather was an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Air Force, and her grandmother always wanted to watch her compete in Miss America. She made good on the first aim when she joined the U.S. Army at the age of 18 and became an intelligence officer, which requires her to process crucial tactical information. She later made her grandmother even more proud by swapping her camo for evening gowns and regularly competing in pageants.

Since winning the Miss Colorado crown earlier this year, she has been able to blend the two roles. Much of her activism has focused on mental health issues affecting active duty members and veterans. “After I joined the army, I was diagnosed with ADHD,” says Spence Carroll. “Being in an infantry unit, which is such a male-dominated experience and so different from civilian life, I realized that there is still a stigma that exists around receiving mental health care.”

Her efforts have included things like helping organize coat drives for veterans and visiting Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center to personally thank veterans for their service. She’s even begun to collaborate with Army leadership to identify ways in which mental health care can be made more appealing to soldiers and veterans, including being involved with Army marketing campaigns.

Fulfilling all those obligations is far from easy. Spence Carroll typically starts her day at 5:45 a.m. and often doesn’t get a moment to herself until 9 p.m. She has on-call duties at Fort Carson several days a week, which means sometimes waking up at 2 a.m. to fix broken alarm systems or check security panels. In between, she fulfills her Miss Colorado obligations, including seemingly endless interviews, events, and social media posts, along with practicing her pageant talent: singing. She often finds herself sitting in her car on her lunch breaks training her vocal chords. “It’s definitely a lot to keep track of, but so many positive experiences have come from this,” she says. “I think it’s worth it, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Spence Carroll hopes her advocacy will help people see the Miss America pageant as much more than just one night of television. “An overwhelming amount of the women who participate in Miss America, whether they win or not, take what they’ve learned and use those skills to continue to positively impact the communities that they’re a part of,” she says. “It’s not just a beauty pageant. It’s not just looking great. It’s about acknowledging what needs to be changed, and then going out and creating that change.”

Whether or not Spence Carroll brings home the crown on Thursday, she has big aspirations beyond the stage. If Spence Carroll decides not to reenlist (her contract expires in six months), she hopes to move to Denver to pursue a law degree, striving to eventually become a civil rights attorney specializing in LGBTQ+ issues. After connecting with friends who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, she says she realized how much discrimination and inequality queer folks still face in today’s world, inspiring her to chase her dream of one day working for the ACLU.

“The past few years have changed me in ways I never would have imagined,” Spence Carroll says. “I’m so thankful for my time in both the U.S. Army and Miss Colorado, and I’m so proud of all of the advocacy I’ve been able to do so far. This is just the beginning.”

Where to watch: The Miss America competition will be streamed live on December 16 at 6 p.m. You can tune in via NBC’s Peacock.