Beyond duty: Veterans honored for giving back

2016 Connecticut Veterans' Hall of Fame inductees Frank Conahan, William 'Paul' Orstad and Linda S. Schwartz.
2016 Connecticut Veterans' Hall of Fame inductees Frank Conahan, William "Paul" Orstad and Linda S. Schwartz.

Hartford — Three locals will be inducted into the Connecticut Veterans' Hall of Fame, which recognizes honorably discharged military veterans for their contributions to their communities, in a ceremony on Dec. 7 at the Legislative Office Building.

The selection was a surprise and "quite an honor" for Ledyard Navy veteran Frank Conahan, who didn't know why his wife kept bugging him for information.

Conahan joined the Navy in 1960, having only completed the eighth grade, and went on to serve for 26 years, retiring as a lieutenant commander.

After getting out of the Navy and pursuing an education — he obtained two associate degrees and a bachelor's degree — giving back was imperative to him.

He's a regular blood and platelet donor, and was a 10-plus-year member of the Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad. He and his wife, Donna Adams-Conahan, are licensed foster parents with the state.

"He's a very giving, caring man who would give you the shirt off his back in a heartbeat," his wife said. "Most people don't do that nowadays."

On a wall in the couple's Ledyard home hang framed pictures of several of the nearly 130 children they have fostered over the past nine years. Conahan remembers the story behind each one, like the young girl whom his wife taught how to swim.

Conahan found himself in foster care "a fair amount" when he was a youth. As the oldest of nine children, every time his mother got pregnant, "the rest of us would end up in foster homes or orphanages for a month or two months," he said.

Maybe for that reason he can't say no when the Department of Children and Families calls asking if the couple can take in another kid. His wife recalled coming home from work one time to find five children in their living room.

"From now on, you are now allowed to say yes to DCF," she recalled telling him, laughing.

"He's afraid to say no, because he's afraid the kids won't have a place to go," she said, noting that he is the one who takes care of the kids during the day while she is at work.

Conahan is known as one of the most authentic Santa Clauses around; he starts growing his beard in late summer. His wife dresses up as Mrs. Claus and the two make the rounds to many social service organizations.

The 73-year-old veteran is showing no signs of slowing down, his wife wrote in nominating him.

Navy veteran William "Paul" Orstad, 75, of Norwich also will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Dec. 7.

Orstad spent 20 years in the Navy and served on five different submarines, retiring in October 1979 as a chief petty officer.

A former Boy Scout, Orstad been involved with the organization since 1982, he said. He's currently the Mohegan District Eagle Scout coordinator, which makes him responsible for all Eagle Scout projects in the district and setting up their boards. He estimated he's helped to set up close to 590 boards. Eagle Scout is the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouts.

Orstad tries to honor all Boy Scouts that achieve Eagle in honor of deceased Navy Rear Adm. Eugene B. Fluckey, according to friend and fellow Navy veteran P.W. Louthain.

Some days Orstad had so many scout events to attend that he asked Louthain to go in his stead, he said.

"He also involved me in helping two scouts complete their eagle project, so I know how much time, effort and expense went into his volunteer jobs," he said.

After 25 years, he stepped down this past September as the chairman of the U.S. Submarine Veterans Inc. National Scholarship. Under his tenure, what started as $250 for five students grew to about $40,000 a year for nearly 40 students. The scholarships go to dependents of Subvets members.

"He's just the guy if you need something, you go to him, and he'll get it done," said John Carcioppolo, a fellow Subvet member who nominated Orstad for Hall of Fame induction.

Carcioppolo pointed, as one example, to Orstad volunteering "for a number of years" to carve turkeys at the Groton Subvets' annual Thanksgiving dinner that feeds hundreds.

Asked why he gives back, Orstad, who grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minn., said, "The community supported me when I was a kid growing up." 

A previous commissioner of the state's Department of Veterans Affairs also is among the inductees.

Linda Schwartz, 72, of Pawcatuck, an Air Force veteran, has served as assistant secretary for policy and planning for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs since October 2014.

She founded the Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund, a charitable organization that focused on the needs of the country's Vietnam veterans and their families.

As a volunteer with Vietnam Veterans of America, Schwartz started the state's "Stand Down," an annual event that has provided thousands of veterans with free services, assistance and information. She worked to provide housing for homeless veterans and those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

She organized a company that hired out-of-work veterans to transport other veterans who couldn't make it to the hospital on their own.

She's also advocated on behalf of fellow female veterans, receiving the Outstanding Woman Award in Connecticut for her work.

j.bergman@theday.com

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