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Connecticut Veterans' Affairs Commissioner Linda S. Schwartz made it clear Wednesday that her approach to a top federal Veterans Affairs job is personal.
Schwartz, after 10 years leading Connecticut's department, is nominated for assistant secretary for policy and planning of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Pawcatuck resident has the professional resume to match the job — a doctorate in public health from Yale's School of Medicine, nearly 20 years in the Air Force, a master's degree in nursing and involvement in nursing and veterans' groups.
"For the past 40 years, I have devoted my life and profession to caring for others as a practicing nurse, researcher and an advocate for veterans," she told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee that is considering her nomination. "Keeping faith with the men and women who are wearing the uniform has been the fundamental and overriding purpose of my work and a guide star for my life journey."
But Schwartz made her own case most forcefully when she talked about her time as a consumer of VA services. Thirty years ago, she was a flight nurse on a training mission off the coast of Virginia when the door of the aircraft she was riding in blew off. The blast concussion she incurred ended her career as a bedside hands-on nurse, a job she loved. It took her three years before she hooked into the VA health system and other benefits.
"I was medically retired from the U.S. Air Force and the VA had no idea who I was or where I was, and I had no idea where the VA was," she told the committee.
Committee Chairman U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., asked if she would try to improve the disconnect between Department of Defense electronic medical records and those of the VA.
"This is a vital interest of my own," she said.
"You're taking it personally," a pleased Sanders replied.
The medical records are one of many challenges facing the VA. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the committee, rattled off a litany of complaints about the department. Construction is delayed at many facilities, disability claims are backlogged and Legionnaire's Disease broke out at a VA hospital. "It's frustrating to the committee we always seem to be in crisis management mode," he told Schwartz and two other nominees for top veterans' jobs.
While waiting for the hearing to start, Schwartz said the transition from active duty to veteran status is "one of my greatest concerns and greatest hopes." Her new job would entail coming up with strategies for a changing veterans' population, overseeing reams of data, evaluating programs and coordinating where resources should be used.
Schwartz was introduced at the hearing by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, who called her a "relentless fighter for our veterans" and noted her involvement in many veterans groups. "The breadth and scope of her commitment to our nation's veterans is truly remarkable," he said.
Blumenthal said Schwartz is the type of person to "speak truth to power."
"I look forward to being a force to improving the system," she responded.
Marsha Four, a Vietnam nurse and Bronze Star recipient, said after the hearing that Schwartz, her friend, is an innovative thinker who can see around challenges.
"She knows the issues. She knows the gaps," said Four, vice president of Vietnam Veterans of America. "She knows what opportunities lie ahead in the future. She brings with her — her heart and soul."
Schwartz's nomination goes next to a committee vote, and then to the full Senate for approval. Sanders did not say when the vote will happen, but that the nomination would be moved along as quickly as possible.
"I see absolutely no issues" with the nomination, Blumenthal said. "She has been very bipartisan in her service. She has strong support."
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).