SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The military often conjures images of combat boots, firearms and fatigues; hardly a scene of beauty. Yet for female veterans around the country, the Ms. Veteran America contest affords an opportunity to trade their uniforms for glamorous evening gowns. Now in its third year, the pageant features contestants who are all current or former military members.
The Ms. Veteran America contest sets itself apart in a unique way. In addition to awarding tiaras and sashes, the contest's organizers also raise money and awareness for the Final Salute organization. Final Salute is a fund-raising initiative that helps homeless female veterans get access to safe and suitable housing.
Staff Sgt. Katie Jo Williams, of Altamont, Illinois, a recruiter with the Illinois National Guard Recruiting and Retention Command, said she decided to compete when a friend brought the organization to her attention on Facebook.
"My friend sent me the link and I thought it was a good cause," said Williams. "I got to thinking, when most people think of homeless vets they think of men, not women. I'm not a big feminist, but I think women get downplayed a lot."
Williams said she didn't have very high hopes when she decided to compete.
"I've never really been a girly-girl, I was always a tomboy," said Williams. "I had never even really tried something like this but I thought the worst they would say is 'no'. I deal with a lot of young women in high school and I feel like they don't have enough confidence. I want to show them how. Even if I don't win, I can be a cross-fit competitor and a pageant competitor. Just getting the word out there will help those homeless female veterans," said Williams
Outside her military career Williams also practices competitive cross-fit. She placed 21st in her division at "The Event," a cross-fit competition at her gym in Bloomington, Illinois, in April.
Williams said it was family legacy and personal drive that convinced her to join the military seven years ago.
"My grandpa was in the Navy and then the Army. My father was in the Marine Corps. And now I am the only female in my family to be in the military," said Williams. "My grandpa told me stories when I was young about his time in Vietnam. Since I was ten I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to travel the world and have all those experiences."
After enlisting as a motor transport operator, Williams deployed with the 634th Brigade Support Battalion, out of Mattoon, Illinois, to Camp Phoenix, Afghanistan, from 2008 to 2009. It was in the 634th when she met Staff Sgt. John A. Howard of Champaign, Illinois
Howard, who is now the full-time readiness noncommissioned officer for the 1544th Transportation Company Detachment in Danville, Illinois, has given Williams many pointers throughout her career and has always helped her through tough situations.
Howard said he thinks Williams stands a solid chance of winning because of her work ethic and her reputation as a motivated Soldier.
"I wouldn't bet against her if she stays true to herself and continues to do what she has been doing and doesn't deviate from what she knows is right," said Howard.
Williams will compete not only for the title of Ms. Veteran America, but also for two additional awards. Williams elected to compete for the titles of "Social Butterfly," which requires the most "likes" on Facebook to win, and "Iron Princess," which is awarded to the competitor who best works fitness and healthy living into their lifestyle. Williams said she wants to compete for the Social Butterfly title because, as a recruiter, she likes to connect with people and make new friends.
Williams said Iron Princess was also a natural choice given her involvement in cross-fit and healthy life style.
So what is next for Williams? For now she is preparing for the regional competition in Arlington,Virgina, which will take place on June 8. Though that is right around the corner, Williams said she believes she is ready.
"I'm not nervous about the experience, but maybe I am anxious," said Williams. "This is something I have never done before, so I do have some stomach butterflies, but it is excitement and nervousness all at the same time."
Williams said she wants to wow the judges with her voice during the talent portion of the competition. She has chosen to sing "I see the Light" sung originally by Mandy Moore from Disney's 2010 animated musical "Tangled."
"My sister tells me I sound like Mandy Moore," said Williams. "My sister and my friends told me I should do that one. It's a nice simple song just to show the judges what I can do."
For now, Williams is keeping herself grounded but hopeful about the regionals contest in June.
"If I do win, that would be awesome," said Williams. "I wouldn't know what to say. I would be ecstatic about being able to represent female veterans everywhere. I don't think there's another title that can compare."