Linda Schwartz had the bittersweet task Friday of overseeing what was likely to be her last Veteran Stand Down as state veterans affairs commissioner. The annual event helping needy veterans was something she helped to make a tradition in Connecticut.
Schwartz, who for a decade has been commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, accepted a nomination last month from President Obama to serve as an assistant secretary within the federal VA.
Until she is approved by the U.S. Senate, Schwartz continues to work as commissioner of veteran affairs. On Friday she was at the Veteran Home in Rocky Hill, where more than 1,000 veterans came out for the 21st annual Stand Down.
Among other things, the yearly event strives to be a one-stop shopping spot for state services. There, vets can receive assistance with legal problems, get free health screenings, dental cleanings, or just stop by for a free meal and to catch up with old friends.
Schwartz was instrumental in seeing the event become a tradition in Connecticut. In 1992, while volunteering for the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), she travelled to San Diego for training on how to organize Stand Down events.
“My job was to come back and show the rest of the membership of VVA how to do Stand Downs,” she said. “And I brought it to the commissioner here and he was really excited about it. He got behind it 100 percent. That’s how we had our first Stand Down.”
The event has evolved over the years. When it started, the Stand Down spanned over three days and two nights. Schwartz said the length of the event led to some veterans running into trouble using illegal drugs and alcohol.
“It was intense,” Schwartz said, adding that some of the veterans “got themselves into a little trouble” over the course of the first event.
For a few years between 2000 and 2003, the event “floundered,” according to Schwartz, and the state did not host Stand Downs. But she said she agreed to bring the event back — and shortened it to a one-day affair — after she was first appointed commissioner by former Gov. John Rowland.
“I think we’ve really done a lot of good. We really have it down to a fine science now,” she said, adding that more community providers and state agencies have taken part in recent Stand Downs.
The event now draws around 1,000 veterans annually from around the state. Stephen Shea, a Hartford resident and Air Force veteran who served from 1981 to 1985, said he has been involved with the veterans community since 2002 and comes to the event to see old friends.
“It’s a good time. It makes me feel like people care,” he said.
Schwartz, a retired Air Force veteran, frequently described the Stand Downs as “Connecticut at its very best.” She calls her appointment to a federal agency “a bittersweet thing.”
“I have really enjoyed being commissioner here. I really did not apply for the job in Washington. I was recruited,” she said. “But I think that I have left this hill a lot better than I found it.”
She said it was an honor to be picked for the job, especially given that the federal Veterans Affairs Department often recruits from the military rather than from individual state governments.
In Washington, Schwartz said she will be working in an office which looks at trends and ways to better provide services to vets. She is well aware that she is moving to a department facing significant challenges.
At an event last month, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called on the VA to address a backlog of disability claims, which he said were estimated at as many as 780,000 cases.
“The bottom line here is that the VA can and should do better. If it doesn’t, heads should roll and procedures should be changed,” Blumenthal said in August.
On Friday, Schwartz said she has “been a thorn in the side of the VA for centuries” and wouldn’t be taking the job if she didn’t think she could help.
“The reason I’m coming is because I do believe I can do something to make it better that’s the way I’ll operate. I really do feel that all of the experience I’ve had here certainly has been an education for me,” she said.