Ms. Veteran America contestant is on a mission to help homeless female vets
Santasha Quarles was emphatic.
"I don't do pageants," she told the Pentagon coworker who suggested she compete for Ms. Veteran America.
The coworker, though, was equally insistent. It was a competition–not a pageant. And the proceeds from the event benefit Final Salute, a nonprofit that provides transitional housing and other services to homeless female veterans.
Until that day in April, Quarles had never given much thought to the subject. She pictured homeless veterans as older men who'd somehow gotten lost in the system. Yet the Ms. Veteran America organization calls women who'd served their country "the fastest growing homeless population" in the U.S.
Final Salute estimates there are 55,000 homeless female veterans on any given day.
"These girls are young," Quarles said recently at her home in North Stafford, where is she is marking the days to the Oct. 18 competition in Las Vegas.
She is one of 25 finalists selected from a pool of 600 who will compete for the title.
As Quarles read story after story of homeless female vets, she said she realized that could be her–or one of the hundreds of women she served with during her 23 years as an Army and Air Force reservist and an active-duty soldier.
"Whether you served with her directly or indirectly, that's your girl," she said. "It's like a cousin you haven't seen in umpteen years. That's still your cousin."
Quarles joined the Army Reserves while still in high school in Macon, Ga. She served drill weekends while studying business and earning a cosmetology license.
After four months in her mother's salon, Quarles decided she wanted to join the military full time.
It suited her. She worked her way up to chief master sergeant, the top enlisted rank. She is the wife of a retired soldier, the mother of one and stepmother of five.
These days, she works as a civilian for Headquarters Air Force in Washington, serving as an emergency management specialist.
It was one of the airmen there who told her she'd make a good candidate for Ms. Veteran America.
"As a chief, you've taken care of people your whole career," she said. "You know how to ask for help for your people."
She carries around a donation box emblazoned with the cause everywhere she goes. She shares what she has learned about homeless female veterans–a cause that has become personal.
"Any day, you can walk up on the corner and it's the same girl who you hung out with, who you were in the foxhole with, who helped you get through something," Quarles said.
She intends to do what she can to help.
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