Providence VA Medical Center, Rhode Island
She Joined on a Dare
She joined on a dare.
One ordinary day during a lunch break at her job at Providence City Hall in 1942, Charlotte Kwasha signed on the dotted line. Two weeks later—not knowing whether our country was really ready for women to serve—she found herself heading to Iowa for Army basic training. "I couldn't get out of it, so off I went…My father gave me great advice as I boarded the train: ‘No matter what you do, Charlotte,’ he said, ‘always keep your chin up and your head held high.’”
That she did. Ms. Kwasha vividly recalls her three years as a female women's auxiliary member. "As soon as I arrived (in Iowa), I began scrubbing the dorms, pulling K.P. (kitchen police) duty, and marching in the bitter cold. Food was not very good. Field meals consisted of mostly Spam, bully beef, and canned fruit. Most everything else was powdered.” One time while performing K.P. duties, she received a visitor. "This very tall lady entered the mess hall with two female officers. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her I was watching the stove…When she asked me why I was watching the stove, I replied: so it doesn't run away!" The tall lady laughed and smiled and invited Ms. Kwasha—a young Private--to sit with them for a cup of coffee. She politely declined because it was not appropriate for a Private to sit and have coffee during K.P. duty--especially with two officers. “The tall lady insisted,” Ms. Kwasha continues, “and introduced herself by saying: ‘I'm the President's wife… I'm Eleanor Roosevelt!’ She was so gracious; it was a wonderful honor to have coffee with the First Lady…one of my best memories.”
After completing basic training, Ms. Kwasha’s cohort relocated to Fort Sam Houston, Texas and was the first female group at Fort Sam. Although a milestone for women, she considers it at best bittersweet. She relates how she experienced discrimination for the first time—not as a female in the military but as a Jew. Her first assignment was to a service club on post; however, she was quickly informed by the manager that "no Jew was going to serve in my club." In those days, Ms. Kwasha explains, people actually believed that Jews had horns on their heads. One person even asked her why she didn’t have horns. She told them that she had surgery to remove them, and the girls actually believed her! "I didn't want to be treated differently than anyone else, and it was important to be accepted." At times, she felt alienated and looked at discharge from the service as a viable option. Her sole reason for repeatedly turning down the opportunity to become an officer was related to being Jewish. “I finally felt safe in San Antonio, and re-training as an officer meant possibly being singled out again because I was Jewish. It wasn't a risk I was ready for." By the end of 1942, the war in the Pacific was heating up, and Ms. Kwasha was sent to New Guinea and the Philippines to support the war effort. During her time overseas, she worked under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. “I actually was present on the harbor when the Japanese formally surrendered. Can you believe it? It all worked out."
In 1946, Ms. Kwasha—now a civilian--became the first female service officer accredited to work here in Providence. She worked hundreds of claims cases until she officially retired at the age of 72. "That's just an age,” she says. “I didn't get paid after that, but I continued to volunteer until I was 83." One case in which she worked on for over 8 years resulted in a Veteran receiving a lump sum of $40,000 in 1990. "I received a gift of dried apricots as a thank you, and I was so proud because justice had been served."
Ms. Kwasha was one of the first Veterans treated when the Providence VAMC first opened its doors. She recollects being treated very well. "All the veterans would come and visit me, and I believe I was the first female patient at this facility.” She has fond memories of the VA and during the recent “Tents to Tea” event, everyone in attendance expressed gratitude to her for helping pave the way for all women Veterans. She has indeed held her head high—not bad for a woman who joined on a dare.
The next Tents-to-Tea event is scheduled for October 28, from 09:30 a.m. - 11:00 a.m. (Main Building, fifth floor classroom). For more information, contact Beth Grady, Women Veterans Program Manager, at (401) 273-7100, ext. 6191.