When Maura Spence-Carroll was a little girl, she begged her mom to let her enter a pageant.
"I watched the Miss America competition on TV at some point when I was very young, and I was in love with it from that first viewing," the 21-year-old Katy, Texas native told TODAY Health, adding it took many years for her mom to finally acquiesce.
Spence-Carroll's mom believed pageantry would be a good avenue for her daughter to build self-confidence.
"She also thought that it would be a one-and-done situation," Spence-Carroll said. "A decade later, I’m still enamored with Miss America, so she was a little off on that estimation."
Her love of pageantry has paid off: The Texas native was crowned Miss Colorado this summer in the pageant system she adored as a child.
But that's not the only important title she holds. Spence-Carroll is an U.S. Army Specialist stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado where she works as an intelligence analyst, as well as a security manager.
She told TODAY her decision to enlist in the military was two-fold.
"I knew I wanted to get out of my hometown, but I also needed a way to pay for my education and gain life experience," she said, adding she has known from a young age she wanted to be an attorney.
Because Spence-Carroll's parents could not financially support her educational endeavors, the military became an attractive option.
"With the GI Bill I’ll be able to pay for my undergraduate degree, and the scholarships I’ve earned from Miss America will go towards law school," Spence-Carroll explained.
While the active duty soldier balances two professional careers, the topic she is most passionate about is a bit more personal.
"After being diagnosed with ADHD in 2020, I had a better understanding of how the military behavioral health resources functioned," Spence-Carroll explained. "I also understood the cultural and command barriers to service members receiving mental health care."
Spence-Carroll said knew changes needed to happen.
"I decided that the best way to make sure it happens is to do it myself," she said.
The Colorado-based soldier, who hopes to be promoted soon to sergeant, told TODAY that one of the most difficult barriers to care is the social stigma that surrounds receiving treatment in the military community.
"Female veterans are more likely to die by suicide than their civilian counterparts, mostly due to the access and willingness to use firearms as opposed to other means of self-harm, and veterans and service members, are more likely to commit suicide than the average civilian," Spence-Carroll said.
She continued, "We’ve found that access to care, social support, and a sense of belonging to a community — such as that found within the military — are the greatest tools in preventing suicide."
This December, Spence-Carroll will represent Colorado on the national stage of the 100th Miss America Pageant in Connecticut.
"The message I share with veterans who are struggling is the same message I share with every person I meet who may or may not be going through a difficult time," Spence-Carroll said. "You are a valued person, friend and member of our community, and options for treatment are out there."