She performs for troops all over the country, stands up for bullied children, and also finds time to compete in beauty pageants.

She is Miss New York—Kaitlin Monte—and I recently caught up with her over the phone after she earned second runner-up at the 2012 Miss America Pageant, Jan. 14 in Las Vegas.

“To make it as far as I did was just a blessing,” said Monte, who demonstrates through her humility and her civic involvement that Miss America isn’t just a beauty contest—it’s a contest of character.

“The literal pageantry of it all becomes so small when you realize what’s really going on there,” she said. “It starts to be so silly what color lip gloss you’re wearing when you’d rather talk to the girl next to you about how she’s impacting her community. That’s what Miss America is all about.”

[caption id=“attachment_6663” align=“aligncenter” width=“352” caption=“USO Liberty Bell and Miss New York Kaitlin Monte”][/caption]

For the past three years, Monte has provided joy and entertainment to troops and veterans across the country as a member of the USO Liberty Bells, a throwback performance group that sings and dances to classic hits like the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” as well as other contemporary music of today for active duty military.

Originally from Rochester, N.Y., Monte joined the New York-based troupe after graduating from college to spread the message about an organization that she felt her generation didn’t know enough about.

“There was a time when troop support wasn’t needed as much,” said Monte. “But today it’s needed more than ever and it’s great to be a young person who can explain to people what [the USO] is because it’s such a powerful resource.”

She’s found inspiration from meeting and talking to men and women who’ve served and sacrificed.

“There’s one gentleman we met at a show who had suffered some pretty severe burning,” Monte recalled. “Despite his injuries being very significant visually, you hardly noticed because he was by far one of the most jovial people we had ever interacted with.”

“That’s where veterans become so impressive,” she added. “Despite major sacrifices and losses, their spirit remains so alive and you can take so much away from that. Our problems as civilians can start to look so trivial when you look at what they’ve gone through.”

Monte’s experiences with the USO were so impactful she was even inspired to start her own non-profit called Project Empower, aimed at broadening the world view of school-age children who are being bullied and cyber-bullied.

“The USO is really where I learned how powerful the individual could be,” she said. “It’s one of the most effective community organizations out there because of [its volunteer base] … and many people don’t realize how powerful that can be.”

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities in my life,” she added, “but I never took for granted the fact that those who serve are the reason why I have those opportunities and I appreciate it very much. The USO is such an iconic name and has so consistently over the past 70 years been supporting the military. It has been so great to be a part of such a rich and historic American organization and I’m proud to help spread its message.” - Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer