Dr. Linda Schwartz still has the issue of Life magazine that made her want to join the U.S. Air Force as a nurse during the Vietnam War. It was filled with photos of soldiers covered in mud, some of them dying. “We saw the war every night on TV, but something about that magazine made me get up off the couch and join,” said the member of Abigail Phelps DAR Chapter, Simsbury, Conn. “I said to myself, ‘Those are Americans, I’m a nurse, and I should be there, too.’”
She volunteered in 1967, but because of a rule that no more than 2 percent of the armed forces could be women, she didn’t begin training until the following year. By 1968, she had arrived at Tachikawa Air Force Base in Japan, a battle casualty staging area for the Vietnam War. Stationed there for two years, Dr. Schwartz sometimes worked around the clock caring for injured soldiers.
Nursing casualties from the bloody Battle of Hamburger Hill in May 1969 reaffirmed Dr. Schwartz’s decision to join the Air Force. Wounded soldiers, even those with severe injuries, were pleading with her to take care of their worse-off buddies first. “To see how they cared for each other, it made me realize that I would never be able to go back to civilian nursing,” she said.
After returning to the United States, Dr. Schwartz became a flight nurse for the Air Force. From Rhein Main Air Force Base in Germany, she helped evacuate injured military personnel and civilian Americans from locations throughout Europe, Africa, Russia and the Middle East, including Iran during the Iranian Revolution.
Dr. Schwartz was a reservist and flight nurse instructor in 1986, when her Air Force career came to a screeching halt. During a training mission 30,000 feet in the air, an overhead hatch blew off the aircraft, which caused severe, debilitating decompression sickness in her brain and spinal cord. Her doctors told her she would never go back to nursing or be able to complete the graduate degree she was pursuing at Yale University. “They told me to thank God that I had a husband to take care of me, and that I should just go home and bake bread,” she said.
The doctors clearly underestimated her. She earned the degree and continued on to obtain a doctorate. She still hasn’t baked a loaf of bread. “My husband is the baker in our house,” she said.
Three years later, when she finally received health benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), she was disappointed by the inefficiencies she saw and the shortcomings in care, particularly for women veterans. It was then that she became an advocate, speaking up on behalf of a variety of veterans’ issues, including women’s rights, Agent Orange exposure, homelessness and suicide prevention.
As an advocate, Dr. Schwartz helped change the VA’s position on women veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 1987. “Previously, women weren’t allowed to have a diagnosis of PTSD,” she said. “We studied this issue and realized the salient question was not, ‘Do you have a combat infantryman badge?’ but ‘How often were you exposed to the sights, smells and sounds of death and dying?’”
For almost a decade Dr. Schwartz served in an advisory capacity to the VA before becoming the state commissioner for Connecticut in 2003. Today, Dr. Schwartz is finishing her first year as the assistant secretary for Policy and Planning at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. One of her many duties is to help streamline veterans’ transition from the military to the VA. “My goal is for no one to fall through the cracks,” she said.
It was in Connecticut that Dr. Schwartz first became acquainted with the DAR. After substandard conditions at a VA facility in the state made national headlines, local DAR chapters started reaching out to her, offering to help buy new beds for the facility. “I still get a little choked up thinking about it,” she said. “The DAR is such a vital part of the veteran community, and I am so very proud to be a Daughter.”