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Reigning Miss Sonoma County Athena Brattin-Cain is trading her sparkling crown for a combat helmet, leaving her ambassadorship for boot camp with the U.S. Marine Corps.

The 17-year-old Santa Rosa resident is barely half way through her year as Miss Sonoma County but already had enlisted when she won the local scholarship program in March. She reports to boot camp in Parris Island, S.C. on Aug. 10.

“I was a little nervous when I got that phone call, but it’s what I’ve been training for,” Athena said. “I know I’m ready. I’m excited.”

It’s the latest challenge for the teen who thrives on pushing her limits.

Sgt. Samuel Potenti of the Armed Forces Career Center, Marine Corps branch in Santa Rosa, said Athena is an exceptional recruit, one of just seven girls from Marin and Sonoma counties who signed up for service this year as high school seniors, compared to 25 boys.

“She’s very upbeat, very selfless and humble in being so young to join the Marines,” he said. “She’s definitely going to be a role model for the other female poolees (heading to boot camp).”

Athena originally applied to several four-year colleges, hopeful her 3.8 grade point average at Elsie Allen High School would open doors to a bachelor’s degree in agriculture or political science.

Instead, she listened to a deeper voice.

“I don’t really know what happened, to be honest,” she said. “College was something expected of me, but I didn’t think it was the right path for me. I knew in my heart this was the right path. There’s a lot of honor and courage and commitment, and that’s not something you can get anywhere else.”

She enlisted on her birthday, in November, but was on delayed entry to complete high school. She earned her diploma in June, with a Seal of Literacy in French, and expected to spend the summer and fall at Miss Sonoma County engagements before heading to boot camp in November. Instead, her staff sergeant called a few weeks ago with orders for an August departure.

Athena will keep several appearances at the Sonoma County Fair, now in its final week, and had just enough time to show her two FFA hogs, a darkcross named Roger and a Hampshire called Katie, named for her friend Katie Gu, the 14-year-old Miss Sonoma County Outstanding Teen, who will assume Athena’s remaining appearances. This was Athena’s fourth year raising and showing hogs.

Athena says FFA provided her with leadership opportunities that were a springboard to her crown and gave her the confidence to join the Marines. She served as vice president of Elsie Allen’s FFA chapter and was treasurer of the nine-chapter Sonoma FFA Section. Bringing Katie and Roger to auction was bittersweet on several counts.

“I’m really going to miss it, but I’m ready to go out and start my life,” Athena said.

For the past two years, she has been the only female player on Elsie Allen’s varsity football team. Petite at 5-foot, 3-inches and 100 pounds, Athena held her own as a lineman, surprising male opponents with her strong tackle skills.

“When someone tells me I can’t do something, it fires me,” she said. “It’s definitely what makes me want to prove them wrong.”

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Athena looked at several military branches before deciding the Marines offered the ultimate challenge. Only a small percentage of women choose it, she said, which made the branch even more appealing.

“I like a challenge, and I like expanding my abilities. It’s the toughest branch for females,” she said.

Athena has been getting plenty of support for her decision, even from friends and teachers who expected her to head off to college.

She received rousing applause at the packed Memorial Day service in Sonoma when she was introduced, wearing crown and sash, as a Marine Corps recruit. She considers that support from veterans among the highlights of her reign.

“I’m little, I’m blonde, I have a crown on my head ,and no one expects me to be enlisting,” she said.

Tony Geraldi, Miss Sonoma County’s secretary and appearance coordinator, said the community has especially embraced Athena, the first girl in the program’s 69-year history to depart for the military.

“She’s been serving our community, and now she’s rising to a different level, serving our nation as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps,” he said. “She’s inspired me when I’m around her.”

Although Athena has enjoyed everything from “meet and greet” events to speaking engagements as Miss Sonoma County, one experience stands out. At Petaluma’s Butter and Egg Days parade, she was able to hold a special princess coronation for a 5-year-old girl with leukemia.

“It’s something that’s really stuck with me. I made an impact in a little girl’s life,” she said of placing the crown on Anniston Klemme’s head.

Athena imagines she’ll continue to promote Sonoma County as she meets people from across the country. “Sonoma County is easy to talk about because it’s pretty awesome,” she said.

During the three-month boot camp, Athena will be able to keep up with hometown news by writing letters. Then, after a 10-day leave to Santa Rosa, she will head to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where she’ll train as a combat engineer.

To prepare, Athena has been working out twice a week with fellow Marine recruits. She can do more than the required 50 crunches in two minutes and can do a flexed-arm hang for 1½ minutes, well beyond the required 12 seconds. She also has been conditioning on her own time, sneaking in sit-ups during TV commercial breaks from watching “Sons of Anarchy,” one of her favorite shows..

The patriotic teen says completing boot camp is just her first goal with the military.

“What better way than to serve your country?” she said. “I know it’s the best decision I’ve made so far.”

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