Wanted: Tough, feminine soldiers

Rocking for U.S. Army Recruits
exp Sgt Corrin Campbell Fix_00002001

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Rocking for U.S. Army Recruits 03:15

Story highlights

  • Army Sgt. Corrin Campbell is a chameleon; she's a tough soldier as well as sexy singer
  • Carol Costello: The Army is trying hard to recruit more women and potentially open all jobs to women

Carol Costello anchors the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Army Sgt. Corrin Campbell is a chameleon. Tough combat U.S. Army veteran. Buttoned up officer. And that female singer with the pink hair and the red lips, on a high school stage, belting out Taylor Swift's' "Blank Space."

The image is far different from the hardy venerable alpha-male soldier in "American Sniper," which is just fine with Campbell.
Her goal is to convince young women to join the service. Yes, this dynamic, decidedly feminine woman is a force for U.S. Army Recruiting.
    Carol Costello
    Some call her the "Singing Sergeant" because part of her job is to use music and, from what I can see, a bit of a sexy edge, to captivate young audiences.
    "I think it kind of blows their mind a little bit that I'm a combat veteran of the 1st Cavalry Division and now they are seeing me on stage at their school," Campbell told me. "They are surprised that I have a job that makes me look like a normal person, (yet) associated with something that makes them think I'm not normal."
    There is no question that part of what Campbell does is not normal. Think about it. The military signs up people and trains them to do, without question, the most abnormal thing in the world -- run toward danger, not away from it -- to justifiably kill without question.
    It's not that women aren't capable of that -- they certainly are. Just ask 1st Lt. Ashley White's family. Their daughter was part of an elite Army unit that supported the Green Berets and the Army Rangers in Afghanistan. White died fighting for her country. She was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
    In fact, the Army is now studying whether to open all jobs to women, even elite combat jobs like the Army Rangers. Strangely, Campbell plays a role in convincing teenage girls they can be tough fighting machines -- an MP, a pilot, or a doctor -- and still be feminine.
    "I think that it's a common idea," she said, "that you don't get to be a girl or be a woman in the Army because it's seen as a masculine place to be and that's another perception I'm trying to shake up."
    It's a sentiment that frankly surprises me. And I've heard it more than once -- not just from Campbell, but from Ann Dunwoody, America's first four-star female general. Dunwoody even wrote about it in her book, "A Higher Standard." "We did not have to act like a macho man to be successful. We did not have to forsake our femininity."
    I recently sat down with Dunwoody to ask her why femininity is a concern for women entering the service.
    "I think sometimes women think when they are in an all-male environment that they have to act like the male," the general told me. "They have to start cursing or smoking or drinking sixpacks or be real rough. And I didn't find that the case at all. I didn't have to curse and swear. It doesn't mean I never did it, but you just try to be who you are. And you can be. You can be confident, demonstrate that you are capable and you have credibility."
    It's a sentiment the Army fears isn't getting through to potential female recruits. Last year, out of 195,000 applicants who signed up for the Army, just 25% were women. Of course, the reason for that low number could be that women -- and their femininity -- are not valued by their fellow soldiers.
    The number of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases are alarmingly high. According to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, 22% of active-duty women experienced some form of sexual harassment last year.
    It's a fact that's not lost on Campbell. "I have not experienced any kind of sexual harassment or assault and I feel very happy and fortunate for that. You're going to have outliers in every population." Still, she adds, being around so many men can be uncomfortable. "The girls ask me what it's like to be surrounded by men all the time. And sometimes it can be intimidating if you let it be, but I think that we need to find women that are confident, and happy to be women, to not compare themselves to the men as much as to find their strength in their own identity."
    As for Dunwoody? She experienced what she calls "subtle" forms of discrimination in the service, but is quick to credit a male sergeant for her success in the U.S. Army. He, she says, recognized her talent from that first day, and the need for a diverse military.
    "What I've realized is how important diversity is to solving complex and challenging problems that we have today," she told me. "If we are sitting with all men that look alike and trained alike they tend to come out with similar solutions. The power of diversifying ... makes any organization better. Even on the battlefield. Particularly on the battlefield."
    The Singing Sergeant is on board. "We're a minority and we're awesome ... I think there are many ways to be feminine. Femininity is strong!" It's the new message the Army is sending to teenage girls nationwide. Will it work? Campbell -- the combat soldier one day, the sexy singer the next -- is hopeful. I am, too, although it makes me wonder why it took so long for the Army to realize how vital women are to our national security.