She was the first Puerto Rican to join the U.S. Women's Army Corps. She was in the first group of women deployed overseas during World War II. She saw her boss, Army Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, every day while stationed in Africa. She met her husband while the two were at a hospital recovering after the war. She met Elvis Presley and several sitting presidents. And she was a lifelong traveler, taking her granddaughter to China in her late 60s.
On Jan. 30, the 97-year adventure of Carmen Contreras Bozak came to an end. She died peacefully in her sleep at the Land O'Lakes home of her nurse.
A veteran, she will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
"She was definitely an independent, go-getting woman," said Marilynn Bozak of Tampa, her daughter-in-law.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, she later moved to New York City and graduated from Julia Richman High School in the Bronx.
"She spoke five languages," said Marilynn Bozak, "English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French."
Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bozak joined the newly formed Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, an all-female unit created as a political compromise to work with the Army.
"There was such a hype about the war and patriotism that a lot of the women that were with me joined the service," Bozak said during a 2012 interview with the University of Texas' Moody College of Communications. "So I figured I might as well go, too."
In 1943, the unit was renamed the Woman's Army Corps and became part of the regular Army.
"That was good," Bozak said in the interview, "because we had no benefits."
In September 1943, she was one of 195 women who made up the first cadre of females sent overseas. She was assigned not as a typist or stenographer, like many at the time, but to the Signal Corps — sending and receiving coded messages between Eisenhower's headquarters in Algiers and the battlefield in Tunisia.
She was part of a pool of women working for Ike and later described the extent of her conversations with the future supreme Allied commander and president.
It was not an easy time for a woman in uniform.
"The soldiers and generals didn't want us," she said. "There was a lot of discrimination. And then the women at home — wives and girlfriends — used to badmouth the WAC."
On the other hand, Bozak said, "I never faced discrimination for being Hispanic."
For her service, she received the American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with One Bronze Battle Star, and other honors.
While in Africa, Bozak suffered an eye infection and was sent to Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania. There, she met Theodore John Bozak — an Army master sergeant with two Purple Hearts who was recovering from a shrapnel wound to the head.
"That was my lucky day," she said.
Six months later, they were married. They raised three children. After the war, Bozak worked at the post office, as a real estate broker and volunteered for decades at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
She was widowed in 1991. She continued to travel, then moved to Tampa in 2008 after suffering a stroke.
Jennifer Fairbanks, one of her granddaughters, remembers the spunky senior who took her to China for several weeks to celebrate her high school graduation.
"It was awesome," said Fairbanks of Pompano Beach. "It was the trip of a lifetime."
Bozak seemed well aware of her unique life story.
"For some reason, I was always welcomed with open arms every place I went," she said in the 2012 interview. "They adored me. They loved me. They praised me. To this day I am being praised."
"Maybe because I am special," she said with a laugh.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.