Governor Dannel Malloy's office is searching for a new Commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The woman who has held the job, Linda Schwartz, will be heading to Washington D.C. once the Senate votes on her nomination to the federal VA.
Earlier this month, WNPR visited Commissioner Schwartz at her Rocky Hill office. She was out of breath after running from one appointment to another. It’s a typical day for a Commissioner who is well-known statewide unlike some of her counterparts in other state agencies. Her hard work and dedication has not gone unnoticed by veterans' groups and it's what allowed her to remain in the job through three different administrations. But Schwartz admits it hasn't been easy.
She said, “I remember the first day I got here and thought, ‘oh my goodness.’ When I became commissioner of this department, it didn’t have a very good reputation. Most people thought of this as a place where people would come to die, and the last place that anyone would want to be.”
Under her leadership, the state Veterans Home was renovated, and now is the second largest domicile for veterans in the country. The Rocky Hill campus also has a brand new health care center. Schwartz is quick to point out she couldn’t have done the work without the support of other veterans’ advocates.
Schwartz said, "Now people want to come here. It used to be the Department of Veterans Affairs was just Rocky Hill, but I have tried to extend the net, to modernize with the times, to be responsive to the Guard and the Reservists." But those who know her say she’s passionate about the work, because she understands veterans as a former service-member herself.
Schwartz enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1967 and became a flight nurse. She also knows what it’s like to be a disabled veteran. After active duty, she joined the Reserves. During a flight mission, she sustained a head injury when a hatch blew open while the aircraft was at an altitude of 30,000 feet. At the time, she didn’t know how bad it was until she started experiencing memory loss.
Schwartz remembered, "It was very hard to conceptualize, not having any wounds, that all of this was because of an injury to my head. That was the end of my Air Force career which I loved very much and it was hard for me to leave.” Now, Schwartz says she’s in a unique position after being nominated by President Obama to serve as Assistant Secretary of Policy and Planning at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In the leadership role, she says she can draw on her own personal experiences navigating the federal VA health care system and her observations while she served as an advocate for Connecticut veterans over the last ten years.
Schwartz chuckled when I bring up one of the biggest problems facing the federal VA: its claims backlog. As she was cleaning out her office, she recounted finding a letter from the VA dated in 1996.
“This was ten years after I had been retired from the military," she said. "The letter said, ‘we are still processing your claim. We apologize for the long wait.’ " She is the first to say plenty more needs to be done to fulfill the needs of the nation’s veterans. That's why she is leaving her job as Connecticut's VA Commissioner.
“I am heartened by the idea that it is at a time and place that the people of America, Congress, and the leadership at the VA want change," Schwartz said. "That’s why I agreed to accept this nomination.” Those who know Schwartz says her successor will have big shoes to fill.
Madelon Baranoski is a Yale faculty member and Vietnam veteran who got to know Schwartz while she was a graduate student at Yale School of Nursing. Baranoski said, "Since she took over she has established a full service one stop shop veterans center and she has connected veterans to resources that go well beyond health care, like employment, housing, education." Baranoski adds, "She has touched on all of the problems that vets face when they return that are often overlooked by society. And she knows everyone. She connects everyone and she can get things done.”
And it's not just Schwartz's tireless advocacy that will be missed. Her sense of humor comes through as she points to a particular memento in her Connecticut office. “Have you ever seen a woman’s office with a cannon in it?" she asked. "This cannon was forged just after the Civil War, and it's inscribed to the veterans of the home here in Connecticut.”
Once the Senate confirms her nomination to the federal post, Schwartz wants Connecticut to still be her home base. She and her husband enjoy living in the Stonington area, so she plans on commuting to D.C.