PORTLAND, Maine -- Sgt. Marina Gray, a petroleum supply specialist with the Maine Army National Guard, earned the title of Miss Maine USA on November 26, 2017. Gray will go on to compete at the national level Miss USA pageant this summer for a chance to represent the United States in the Miss Universe pageant.
The Mount Desert Island native comes from humble beginnings, overcoming many challenges that she says helped shape her into the strong, independent woman she is today.
"I felt when I was younger that I wouldn't be able to achieve what I wanted because I came from a low income family," said Gray. "I didn't think my life would be as fruitful as it has been, but I just kept fighting for a better life."
Gray said above all she wants to give hope to children who grow up in situations like hers -- that they can still go after what they want and should never feel like they can't achieve their goals.
"I left home when I was 16 years old," said Gray. "When I joined the Army at 17, the military immediately became my family and has supported me through the years."
Gray became legally responsible for herself through the emancipation process and graduated from high school in just three years. She left for Army basic combat training two months after her 17th birthday.
"I definitely think the military helped shape me into the hard working, moral person that I am," said Gray. "I'm thankful that I have the military in my life and everyone backing me."
Gray has been in the Maine Army National Guard for five years. She spends one weekend a month with the 133rd Engineer Battalion's Forward Support Company in Brunswick.
"Once I put my military uniform on, that is what takes precedence over my life," said Gray. "I know that the military comes first and it always will."
On a typical drill weekend, Gray and her fellow soldiers conduct bulk transfers for different units throughout the state, including dropping off anywhere from 200-1000 gallons of fuel to help support other units.
She also conducts truck maintenance, performs preventative maintenance checks and service on vehicles, conducts driver's training and load handling system training, does flat rack loading and unloading, and participates convoy operations and battle drills.
"It's a lot of hands-on work," said Gray. "We're normally out working on the vehicles and making sure they're up to standard and making sure that everyone is proficient in driving them."
Gray joined the National Guard to help pay for college. In addition to her military duties, she worked as a waitress while she attended the University of Maine in Orono. She balanced a full course load with both jobs and graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Communications.
Gray was inspired to enter pageantry by Deshauna Barber, the 2016 Miss USA title holder who, at the time, was currently serving as a captain in the United States Army Reserve. Barber was the first Miss USA to actively serve in the United States military.
"Pageantry was never something I imagined myself doing, but I think this is going to take me exactly where I want to go with my career," said Gray. "I'm super excited."
Gray said there's a lot of media interaction involved in pageantry and she's excited about the networking opportunities she'll have with the Miss Maine title.
She started prepping three months before the pageant and committed every single day to gaining experience walking in high heels and learning about stage hair and makeup.
"I've always been afraid that physical beauty can overtake who you are as a person and I now understand that's not true," said Gray. "You can be both. You can take charge of your beauty and it's nothing to be ashamed of. You should never be ashamed of feeling beautiful."
Gray said she received a lot of help from the other women competing with her. She discovered that many women competing in the pageant had overcome adversities of their own.
"It's really worth it to get to know the women you're competing with because they're amazing," said Gray. "The pageant system is a platform for them to share their stories and get other women to feel confident with who they are."
Gray said she's excited to compete on the USA stage and represent Maine.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity as a whole," said Gray. "It's honestly an amazing community of people."
Gray said she's excited to inspire other young women to join the military. They can still be as feminine as they want and not be afraid of what other people think. They should still go after whatever profession it is they want, even in a male-dominated career field.
"It's been extremely overwhelming to have people tell me they are inspired by my story," said Gray, "It's motivating me to continue this journey of sharing and helping other people."