HeroVet: Dr. Linda Spoonster Schwartz, Department of Veterans Affairs
"There's so much promise for change," says Dr. Linda Schwartz, a disabled veteran who was appointed the Department of Veterans Affairs, Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning in September 2014. "I've come to the VA at a very exciting time." This inspiring retired Air Force nurse overcame severe spinal decompression from a military service-related accident to earn her doctorate from Yale University before serving as Connecticut's Commissioner of Veterans Affairs and landing her current position.
"I've been part of the VA since I first walked into the door back in the 80s," she explains, referring to a time when she began dealing with a service-related injury. "Until now, I've never been at a place where I can bring the viewpoint of people from the field at the same time I understand the system."
Raised the daughter of a Navy Veteran, the Ohio native has four siblings, all of whom were taught the value of service at an early age. "For us, going to serve your country was as much a part of life as going to school or going to church." Dr. Schwartz’s father, a postman, served in the Navy during World War II aboard the Susan B. Anthony transport ship, which sank off Omaha Beach. His crew holds the Guinness World Record for the largest number of people in a sinking of a ship with no loss of life – a story he didn't share with his family for years. He remained in the Reserves as Schwartz grew up, and she recalls many proud Memorial Day parades supporting her father and the troops.
Dr. Schwartz went on to graduate as a nurse from the St. Thomas Hospital School of Nursing in Akron, Ohio. The Vietnam War was heating up just as she graduated. After coming across a Reader's Digest article on flight nurses, she realized she had a calling. "It was a high sense of adventure and being able to take care of those who are sick and injured," said Schwartz about her reasons for joining the Air Force. "My father was a little ‘ehh' because I didn't join the Navy," she laughs. She was first stationed in Amarillo, Texas and eventually sent to Japan for two years."The game changer for me was when we had casualties from an operation called Hamburger Hill." With injured soldiers coming in fast, she had a great responsibility while also appreciating the sense of camaraderie among those she met. "I made a conscious decision that I could never go back to civilian nursing after seeing such spirit and smiles through some of the most difficult wounds you could imagine."
She went to flight school and eventually, as an Air Force Captain, was assigned to the European Theater, which included the North Pole and Russia. While in the service,she obtained a dual Bachelor’s of Science degree in psychology and sociology through night classes from the University of Maryland. She married another Air Force Captain and had their daughter, Lorraine, in 1976. She decided to leave active duty, but never resigned her commission. Eventually, her family moved to Connecticut where she joined the 69th Air Evac Squadron – a true reserve mission. But her tour at McGuire Air Force Base ended with the door blown off her C-141 at 30,000 feet. She suffered from decompression sickness of the spinal cord and brain. "It was not an easy thing because I was not able to work for about three years afterward." She was forced to leave the Air Force due to her injuries in 1983, one of the most difficult times of her life.
Her advice to others who have suffered similar life altering events is to "have the life that you want. Don't let people tell you what you can and cannot do." Doctors told her she would never return to nursing or continue her studies at Yale University School of Nursing, where she had earned her Masters of Science degree. "They told me to 'go home and bake bread.' Thank God I had a husband to take care of me. The truth of the matter is my husband is a baker, and I knew he would never eat my bread," she laughs.
Her daughter was six years old at this point, and they had no health insurance. "I was not a good nurse to myself because I wasn't able to comprehend a lot of this for a while," she says, due to the nerve damage. She continued to have seizures she didn't realize she was having and loss of strength. "The rules of the road for the VA [at that time] were very different than they are today," she explains. It took her three and a half years to get her VA benefits by law. Still, Dr. Schwartz credits the VA for her learning to understand and cope with her medical condition.
The help of the VA plus her unstoppable attitude led her to her eventual recovery, return to nursing, and a doctorate in public health from the Yale School of Medicine. "What happened to me was ‘boot camp' for what I do now." She held the position of Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs from 2003 until her Senate confirmation for her current VA position in 2014.
The former Attorney General and senior U.S. Senator from Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal endorsed Dr. Schwartz for nomination by President Obama. Senator Blumenthal, currently the Ranking Member of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs and Committee on Armed Services, experienced first-hand her effective style of leadership as a fellow public servant in Hartford under three Connecticut governors. At her nomination hearing, Senator Blumenthal said he could not recommend her highly enough as "the breadth and scope of her commitment to our nation's veterans is truly remarkable." During her time as Commissioner, Dr. Schwartz initiated and led several innovative programs to improve the lives of Connecticut's veterans. She used her top position in veterans affairs to advocate strongly for improved veterans benefits and services, including the creation of the Veterans Advantage Scholarship program. A statewide scholarship program funded by a public-private partnership, and awarded by the State Department of Veterans’ Affairs, it was publically-endorsed by Governor Malloy.
As Commissioner, Dr. Schwartz also played a prominent role on the national stage in veterans affairs. In October 2010, she became the first person from Connecticut to head The National Association of State Directors of Veterans’ Affairs and the first woman president in its 65-year history. The organization, known as NASDVA, is comprised of top veterans’ affairs officials in each state. Prior to her presidency, she had served for several years as a member, representing NASDVA frequently before Congress, and testifying on a variety of topics related to the care and conditions of veterans.
Dr. Schwartz has served on the National Board of Directors of the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Inc. She now works to make the Department of Veterans Affairs more veteran-focused. Dr. Schwartz praises the changes in the VA over the years and the increase in opportunities. "My father's VA is not going to be my nephew's VA. The kinds of care and accessibility of health care are changing. It's raising the nation's awareness to the needs of veterans. The mission of the VA is to ensure veterans have the very best in care and services, they have earned them, and deserve them.”
Whether someone in the military is injured, has a brain injury or is leaving the military after expecting it to be their lifelong career, she says, "You can be what you want to be. That is the mantra of the veterans today who come to VA.I'm a product of what VA can do for veterans, and in my current position, I feel very responsible to be able to craft that. I want to be sure that we bring those services and understanding to veterans and their families. It has become one of my ways of giving back." Given her passionate service and powerful voice for veterans, it is an achievement standard set by Dr. Schwartz that few could ever match.
Dr Schwartz’s many honors include the National Commendation medal of Vietnam Veterans of America for Justice, Integrity, and Meaningful Achievement; the Legion of Honor Bronze Medallion from the Chapel of the Four Chaplains; and induction into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame. Elected to the American Academy of Nursing in 2001, served on the National Board of Directors of the American Nurses Association.
Image Credit: http://wnpr.org/post/former-connecticut-veterans-commissioner-marks-two-years-federal-va