- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) - The Disney princess in combat boots wants to make you an offer you can refuse.

As a recruiter serving with the Illinois National Guard Recruiting and Retention Command in Peoria, Staff Sgt. Katie Jo Williams doesn’t believe in spinning fairy tales. She does love all things Disney, however, and sees herself as a wannabe Disney princess. But she won’t sugarcoat her pitch to recruits.

The soldier from Altamont truly believes the military life is the best thing since sliced bread and points to its wondrous offerings, such as paying for your college education. But those who wear their country’s uniform have to accept certain cold realities: “You’re the nation’s defense,” explains Williams, 24. “Chances are, when war breaks out, you are going to deploy. You can’t be afraid of that, because that is your job, that is what you signed up to do. If you can’t handle that, the military is probably not going to be for you.”

Plenty of would-be soldiers, meeting the gaze of her honest brown eyes, tend to say “yes,” however. Everyone seems impressed with the integrity of her recruitment battle tactics, and female recruits are also thrilled to discover their persuasive sergeant is no one-dimensional GI Jane.

“I tell young women I am doing this pageant and everything, and they are just so excited about it,” she says with a smile. “They think it’s great.”

The pageant here is the “Ms. Veteran America” contest open to women who are currently serving or are former members of any branch of the nation’s armed services. The winner has to triumph in a series of tests that probe their knowledge of military history and even their performance talents, which might be anything from painting to singing and dancing. There is a tough interview process, too, which will engage contestants on areas the judges describe as “grace, poise, confidence and personality.”

Looks are not officially listed as a mission objective, but Williams says many contestants, including her, will be wearing pretty frocks rather than desert fatigues, and she suspects appearance will factor in, at least a little.

The winner will collect $15,000 and a lot of kudos, but what motivates Williams is the cause: The Ms. Veteran America contest raises money for the Final Salute organization, which provides homes for homeless women veterans and their children.

“Apparently, there are 55,000 homeless female vets out there,” says Williams, her ever-ready smile fading for a moment. “I had no idea, and now I want to help.”

The Ms. Veteran America contest began in June with 63 competitors, and a regional round has cut that down to 25 soldiers heading to the finals in Leesburg, Virginia, on Oct. 11 and 12.

Williams will be one of them after wowing the regional judges with her version of the “I See the Light” song from the Disney movie “Tangled.”

“My sister says I sound like Mandy Moore, who sang it in the movie,” she adds with her smile back in place. “I don’t know yet what I am going to sing in October.”

She’s a little anxious about making the right choice, but it’s hard to imagine the dilemma will inflict many casualties on her nerves.

Williams grew up on the one hand as a “girly girl,” loving the Disney fantasy but also as a bold tomboy, swayed by tales of derring-do by her late grandfather, who served in the Navy and Army.

By age 10, she had moved on, at least temporarily, from Disney to Steven Seagal movies, and that was when she told her mother she was probably going to become a hit man (or perhaps, hit person) for the Russian mob. As she mellowed with age, however, a stateside military career seemed a more reasonable choice.

By 17, her elfin 5-foot-3, 130-pound frame was wearing a National Guard uniform, and by 18, she was serving a yearlong overseas tour “driving trucks all over Afghanistan.” She only hints at some of the dangers lurking on the remote dusty roads out there but says all’s well that ends well: “And all of our guys came back intact and alive,” Williams says.

Her idea of a good time includes training for intensive CrossFit sporting competitions, and it was while working out at the CrossFit East Peoria gym that she met her boyfriend, gym instructor Cris Melton, a former Marine.

He says his girl is ready to stage a frontal assault on the Ms. Veteran America event.

“She’s awesome,” says Melton, 25. “And when she finds something she wants to do, she dives in head first. She’s real keen.”

Her recruiting boss, Sgt. 1st Class James Cowen, team leader of the India Company Recruit Sustainment Program, is equally impressed.

“Recruiters are the face of the military the public sees,” he says. ” So we have got to have somebody who is going to go out there and represent us well; Sgt. Williams is very good at that.”

Cowen agrees that she is honest and straightforward with her recruits, and Williams says you should expect total truth from a warrior who isn’t afraid to admit she’s a Disney princess at heart who once dreamed of working for Russian gangsters but now recruits for Uncle Sam and likes the idea of stepping out in ball gowns to aid homeless veterans.

“Disney princesses wearing combat boots can’t lie,” she says firmly. “It’s not in our genetic code.”

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Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, http://bit.ly/1wmv8bO

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Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com

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