For three decades, Linda Spoonster Schwartz has been a powerful voice for veterans.
Schwartz, of Pawcatuck, has served as the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans' Affairs since 2003. Keeping faith with the men and women who have worn the uniform, she says, has been the fundamental purpose of her work and a guide star for her life journey.
"I feel almost like I am a protector of veterans, that I make sure they get an honest and fair treatment," Schwartz said. "That is what I mean by 'keeping faith.'"
Schwartz is passionate about making sure today's veterans are treated well because when she was a young veteran in the 1980s, she was not.
A nurse, Schwartz joined the U.S. Air Force in 1967 after she saw photos in LIFE Magazine of soldiers fighting in Vietnam.
"I did not think about the politics of the war. I just saw those soldiers in mud and bandages, who were so determined, and I said, 'I've got to help them,'" she said.
But an accident during a training mission in 1983 ended her career as a hands-on bedside nurse. Thirty thousand feet in the air, the hatch blew off the aircraft she was riding in off the coast of Virginia.
Schwartz suffered what is known today as a blast concussion, which caused memory loss and other issues. Three years passed before she managed to navigate the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy to receive care and benefits.
While she was being treated in West Haven, Schwartz said she once waited for a prescription for two hours, which was typical then. Another veteran in line lost his patience, grabbed a nurse, and started screaming.
"The nurse in me, even though I was in 'la la land,' I realized there were things that could be better," Schwartz said. "Especially with women veterans, it was very primitive compared to what we have today."
The prevailing attitude at the time, Schwartz said, was that it did not matter how bad the health care for veterans was because it was free. Schwartz said she believed that too, until one day another veteran told her, "It's not free. You paid a mighty high price for this care."
Schwartz turned to the local congressman, Sam Gejdenson, for help after the Air Force ruled that her mental fatigue and inability to remember her own phone number was caused by a car accident she was in as a child.
"I was a major, a flight nurse and a graduate student at Yale, and this slowness suddenly came upon me due to a car accident when I was 6? It was insulting and it demeaned my injuries," Schwartz said.
Gejdenson asked Schwartz to testify at a congressional hearing about women veterans. It was the first of many times Schwartz would appear before Congress to talk about veterans' issues, and the start of her vocal advocacy on behalf of veterans.
Schwartz remembers listening to a senior officer at the hearing talk about toiletries, as if there were not larger problems with the VA. When it was her turn, Schwartz said she told the other witnesses that she respected them, but, "I don't know where you've been because it is not where I've been."
Then she told her story.
Gejdenson still remembers how Schwartz stood out at that hearing because of her knowledge and her commitment.
"She had a lot of ability and she puts in a lot of effort," he said in a recent interview. "If she hadn't started where I was then, she would've started with somebody. There was no doubt she was going places."
"In the Air Force we have wingmen," Schwartz said. "I'm a wingman. I'll do the fighting."
Schwartz, who served nearly 20 years in the Air Force, first volunteered with Vietnam Veterans of America and lobbied for the establishment of a Vietnam Women's Memorial, which was dedicated in 1993. She earned a doctorate in public health from the Yale School of Medicine. On numerous occasions she consulted on veterans' studies and advised the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on policies.
VVA National Vice President Marsha Four considers Schwartz a close friend. "She has a lot of fortitude," she observed, adding, "And when she's fighting for something, you don't want to get in her way."
The first woman to run the State Veterans Home in Rocky Hill, Schwartz oversaw the renovation of the home and construction of the Sgt. John L. Levitow Veterans' Health Center. The State Veterans' Cemetery will soon be upgraded.
"When I came to Rocky Hill it was the last place on Earth people wanted to be, and now it's vibrant," Schwartz said. "We're reaching out to veterans across the state and I believe we've created changes which everyone in Connecticut can be proud of. That is the thing I'm most proud of."
A chair in Schwartz's office is a daily reminder of what Rocky Hill was like a decade ago. When she became commissioner, Schwartz said veterans were charged a daily rate to live in the home even if Medicare or Medicaid covered most of the cost of their care. Veterans died owing thousands of dollars to the state and their debts were settled through the probate process.
One veteran died leaving a single possession — a carved wooden chair. It was appraised at $50 and put up for sale. Schwartz bought it, and she worked with the state to change the billing process so federal reimbursements were considered full payments.
"That chair represents the way things were when I got here. It gave me both the inspiration and the impetus to make it much better, so that was then and this is now," she said. "I tell the story of the chair because I want people to know we've come a long way." (The chair is shown on the Grace cover.)
Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell recalls listening to Schwartz speak so passionately at an event once, she was mesmerized.
"She was so natural talking about her experiences as a nurse and about why she is dedicated to veterans," Rell said in a recent interview. "And I thought, 'Now here is a lady who really cares.' I remember looking around at the audience and realizing that everybody in this room knows it. It was special. It was one of those "a-ha!" moments — this is why she is where she is."
Schwartz has worked for three Connecticut governors. As lieutenant governor, Rell first interviewed Schwartz and recommended her for the job. As governor, Rell reappointed her.
One of the many initiatives they worked on together was expanding the annual "Stand Down" event at the Veterans Home. Veterans go to it for the free legal, medical, educational and employment services, assistance and information offered by federal and state agencies and local businesses. Schwartz started Stand Down at the home as a volunteer with Vietnam Veterans of America.
The first time dental services were offered, Rell said tears came to Schwartz's eyes when she saw veterans getting their teeth checked. Some had never been to a dentist. Others had not gone since they were in the service.
Schwartz really cares, Rell said, and as a veteran, "she has been there."
"That especially is what veterans really look to her for — 'here is somebody that when I tell my story, she listens.' And you can't beat that," Rell said.
President Barack Obama has nominated Schwartz as the next assistant secretary for policy and planning at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a post that requires Senate confirmation. Schwartz likely will take on this new role early next year and commute between Pawcatuck and Washington, D.C.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs during Schwartz's nomination hearing in November that he could not recommend her highly enough. "The breadth and scope of her commitment to our nation's veterans is truly remarkable," he said.
Schwartz was the first woman to serve as president of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs, an organization made up of top veterans affairs officials, and she is leading the effort to create a memorial to honor veterans as the president of Connecticut State Veterans Memorial, Inc.
Blumenthal called Schwartz "a tireless advocate, a relentless fighter for our veterans and a personal emissary to each and every one of them."
One Army veteran, Tara Vega, said she would have been homeless if she had not met Schwartz.
Last Christmas, Vega said the lease for her apartment in East Hartford ended. She could not find another apartment she could afford, or a shelter with enough space for her and her four children.
Vega, who was pregnant at the time, said the VA hospital in Newington referred her to Schwartz. Schwartz moved Vega into transitional housing the state offers even though the houses are not for families. Vega described Schwartz as "actually awesome."
"She gave me some advice," Vega said. "She told me not to give up because there are people who will help. And she did, she actually helped."
"They said she was moving," Vega added. "I wish her luck because she did a great job over here. I know wherever she goes, people who need help, if they find her, they're going to get the help they need."
Another veteran Schwartz helped would have been put back on active duty — even though a psychiatrist advised that he should not be handling guns — if Schwartz had not intervened with his superiors. They agreed to fully assess his condition and injuries. He was medically discharged.
Many of the 277,000 veterans living in Connecticut have similar stories of being helped by Schwartz personally, or by initiatives she put into place. Schwartz is especially proud of the jail diversion program for veterans struggling with war trauma-related problems she helped convince state legislators to support.
Schwartz said she does not know how many veterans' lives she has affected.
"I don't count them. I just look for the ones that need the help," Schwartz said. "I think that is always the way a nurse is."
Someone once introduced Schwartz to a group as an "activist." She says she never considered herself as one.
"I just thought of myself as trying to get what is right for people, and not taking 'no' for an answer," she said. "Because I think a lot of veterans, they try and then nothing happens and they feel like no one is listening. And at least with being the commissioner, I hope that is something I will be remembered for."
of Veterans’ Affairs
Veterans Service Officer Norwich: 860-887-9162
State Veterans Home Healthcare: 860-616-3705
Substance abuse support, Veterans Home
Information line: 2-1-1, ask for Military/Veteran Listings
Coaching into Care
Brain Injury Alliance
of Connecticut: 860-219-0291
CT Soldiers’, Sailors’
and Marines’ Fund
or Toll free 1-800-491-4941
Military Family Relief Fund
Connecticut Department of Labor, Veterans’ Programs
U.S. Department of Labor, Veterans Programs/CT
Connecticut Housing Finance Authority Veteran Mortgage Refinance Program
U.S. Small Business Administration/Patriot Express Loan Initiative
of Insurance/Consumer Affairs
of Social Services/Veterans’ Programs: 860-424-5024
for Homeless Veterans
or Toll free 1-800-VET-HELP
Connecticut Trial Lawyers/VA Appeal Specialists
Connecticut Employer Support
of the Guard and Reserve
Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society: 860-694-3285
Connecticut Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services: 860-418-7000 or Toll free 1-800-446-7348
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
VA CT Healthcare System:
West Haven campus
Errera Community Care
Center in West Haven
Hartford Regional Office
555 Willard Avenue, Building 2E, Newington 1-800-827-1000
John J. McGuirk (New London)
VA Outpatient Clinic Shaw’s Cove Four, New London
Norwich Vet Center
2 Cliff St., Norwich