“If you have an opportunity to influence the outcome, to make it better, take it. You never know what else you’ll be able to do,” said Dr. Linda Schwartz when former President Obama asked her to be the first female Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning.
The disabled Vietnam veteran served 16 years in the Air Force and 11 years as Connecticut's Commissioner of Veterans Affairs, the first woman to hold that position. She is a force of advocacy for not only female veterans but for all who have served.
“Never again will one generation of veterans turn its back on another. We want better for them than we got for ourselves. It’s kind of like a rush that sustains you,” she explains of her drive to help others. “We’ve come a long way. I’m glad to see that this generation is building on what we did.”
“Vietnam veterans, the women, we really did spark a lot of debate and break the ice. We were not even allowed to wear our uniforms on the streets of America,” she says, remembering being chased through the airport by demonstrators in Oakland upon returning from the war. “Even nurses were considered warmongers. Now, every time I see someone wearing their uniform, my heart just gets very warm all over.”
Schwartz joined the Air Force in 1968. Her father had served in World War II. She was first stationed in Amarillo, TX and later sent to Japan where she worked as a nurse, stabilizing casualties from Vietnam before they were sent home. She went on to become a flight nurse and was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany with her husband.
She recalls that at that time, women could not be in the military if they were pregnant, so when her daughter Lorraine was born in 1976, she left her job, but stayed in Germany a few more years.
“When I first joined, women couldn’t be married in the military,” she recalls. “At the same time, if you were in the Reserves, you could be married and have a child.”
When her family moved to Connecticut, she joined the 69th Air Evac Squadron – a reserve mission – and flew on weekends to earn extra money. Sadly on one flight, the door blew off her aircraft at 30,000 feet. She was thrown up in the air and hit the bulkhead. She was sent to the hospital at University of Pennsylvania, but the next morning she didn’t know her name and couldn’t hear well. She suffered from decompression sickness of the spinal cord and brain.
“A lot of damage was done,” she says. “Friends always say, when God closes a door, he opens a window. I reply, ‘yeah but not at 30,000 feet!’
“When I had the accident, I went through everything with the VA. I walked the walk, so now I can talk the talk. It took me three years to get my benefits.”
She urges those who may have had bad experiences with the VA in the past to give it another try. “If we don’t use the VA and the benefits, they’re going to go away,” she warns, regarding the system as not just free or a handout. “Friends say to me, you paid a mighty high price to be able to use those services. This is not a gift. This is just.”
During her recovery, she completed her Master’s degree in Nursing at Yale School of Medicine and went on to earn her Doctorate through VA Voc Rehab Program. She began working with the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) whose President, Mary Stout was an Army Nurse who served in Vietnam. Encouraged by VVA, Linda learned how to start advocating for more scientific research on Agent Orange and issues specific to women. After she provided testimony on the Hill, the governor of Connecticut asked her to be Commissioner of Veterans Affairs – a position she held for 11 years under 3 governors, both Democrat and Republican.
One night in 2013 when working late in that office, she received a call from the White House.
“You answer your own phone?” the caller asked. She said, “yeah,” doubting that it was truly Washington calling her. “It was 6:30pm and I should’ve been on the road. They said, ’President Barack Obama would like you to be the new Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Policy and Planning.’” She had never applied for the job. She went on to serve under President Obama until the end of his term and felt he was aligned with her concerns for veterans.
Most recently, Schwartz was elected Treasurer of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the first female in that role. She notes that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial turns 40 this year and there will be many events scheduled to commemorate the anniversary. She’s currently on a committee working for better conditions for patients in mental facilities in Connecticut. “If I can help, I will help.”
“We say, ‘May God bless America.’ Well, I believe God has blessed America many times over. The generations of men and women who have defended our nation, and safeguarded our freedoms are one of the greatest blessings we have.