Celebrating 150 years of Yale women

Lorraine Schwartz

Lorraine Schwartz

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Linda Schwartz
Veterans Advocate

By Caroline Lester ’14

In many ways, Linda Schwartz’s career started with one of the lowest moments of her life. In 1983, when Schwartz ’84MSN, ’98DrPH, was a major in the Air Force reserve, she joined a routine training exercise flight off the coast of Virginia as a flight nurse. She remembers eating an apple and jotting down notes on a piece of paper. Then, at 30,000 feet, the hatch blew off her aircraft. The apple, paper, and pencil all whipped out through the opening. “A lot of people thought that I was going to go out,” she later told an interviewer with the Veterans History Project.
Schwartz and the rest of the crew landed safely, but she suffered a concussion and decompression sickness that left her with lasting complications like those of a stroke. She lost the use of her left side.

The accident ultimately meant the end of military service for Schwartz, who had served in the Air Force since 1967, including active duty in Vietnam. In the beginning, Schwartz says, the Air Force “did not want to accept responsibility for the accident” and gave her no help. The period after the accident was draining. Schwartz and her husband coped with finances, parenting a young child, and the pain and lingering confusion from her injuries. “We did the best you could,” she says. “If I had not been at the School of Nursing, I would not be here today.”

Schwartz credits her classmates, professors, and mentors for getting her through nursing school. She later got a doctorate from the School of Public Health. Schwartz has dedicated her career to serving veterans, often focusing on women and the disabled. She became the first woman (and nurse) to be appointed commissioner of veterans affairs in Connecticut. And in 2013, she was nominated by President Barack Obama to be assistant secretary of veterans affairs for policy and planning.  

While in Connecticut, she overhauled a decrepit veterans hospital to create a 125-bed facility and improve housing for over 400 veterans. She testified before Congress about the impact of Agent Orange, arguing that the Air Force investigation into the chemical weapon was fundamentally flawed. She taught at YSN, and she launched the national “Have You Ever Served?” campaign, which taught health care providers to look for—and respond to—the unique needs of veterans.

Most recently, Schwartz authored a report on the potential impact of COVID-19 on the aging veteran population. The national State Veterans Homes system has seen growing death tolls during the pandemic, and her report is a blistering look at the responsibility (and missteps) of the VA to address the problem. “I’m not on the [VA] Secretary’s Christmas list,” she says.

In addition to Schwartz’s advocacy work, she’s currently helping to write a book; her part focuses on understanding the VA. She also regularly talks with people who call to ask for her advice, expertise, and opinions. “I wish I was this popular in high school,” she told me, with a laugh.