When basic trainees arrived at a Sand Hill obstacle course Saturday, they were greeted with a surprise - 41 Miss Georgia pageant contestants.

"I had heard rumors there might be some pageant contestants out here, but we didn't really expect them to be," said PV2 Wilson Jackson, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment. "But they were there, and they were all really nice. It was a blast."

The contestants' visit to the obstacle course was part of A Salute to Our Troops, a program created by members of the boards of the Miss Columbus and Miss Southern Rivers pageants to give pageant contestants a firsthand look at a day in the life of a Soldier. Contestants participated in initial tactical training, had lunch with Soldiers in a dining facility, and participated in a basic rifle marksmanship course and a confidence course. In the evening, pageant contestants presented a concert for Soldiers.

Sherilyn Johnson, co-executive director of the Miss Columbus and Miss Southern Rivers pageants and one of the creators of A Salute to Our Troops, said the program grew out of her desire to put on a USO-style show for Soldiers while giving pageant contestants a meaningful experience.

"I didn't want the girls to just stand onstage and wave," she said. "I wanted them to feel a part of what these young men do."

Now in its seventh year, the program has grown beyond Johnson's expectations, evolving from a tour of the installation to a hands-on event that has changed the lives of many
pageant contestants like Lauren Edmunds, who participated in her third salute.

"The first year I did this, I was 18," Edmunds said. "We sat down to lunch and one Soldier told me he was also 18. I asked him, 'Why are you here' Why are you doing this'' A tear rolled down his cheek and he said, "I'm doing it for you, ma'am.' It gives me chills to this day. I'm here because they are doing it for me and they don't even know who I am."

Ashley Voyles, who participated in her first A Salute to Our Troops, said she learned a lot about the Army.

"It put (the military) in perspective for me," she said. "I'm just so amazed and even more thankful now for what they do."

Darlenda McNaull, event coordinator, said A Salute to Our Troops has had a ripple effect in the pageant contestants' lives.

"One of the parents said to me, 'The daughter I dropped off at 8 o'clock this morning is not the daughter I picked up,'" she said. "The girl's grandfather had been at the Normandy landing and she said she felt like he talked to her that day."

The day was not only an opportunity for the pageant contestants to change their views, but also for Soldiers to change theirs, McNault said.

"They might think because they're beauty queens, they won't do (the activities), but they jump right in," she said. "The Soldiers get to see these girls in a different light."

Voyles said she relished getting "sweaty, dirty and rough," as she called it.

"It was exciting to see them go through the obstacle course like we did," said PV2 Armando Estrada. "Their visit definitely gave us a boost."

SSG Todd Wilson, a drill sergeant, said he appreciated the pageant contestants' support.

"Not only does it say a lot for the Miss Georgia contestants, it also says a lot for these guys," he said. "It lets them know there are a lot of people who care for what they do."

Voyles said she hoped to participate in the program again next year.

"It lets them know somebody out there besides their drill sergeant supports them and wants to see them succeed," she said.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16