BY MICHAEL KEATING
On May 22, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Gordon Mansfield, Connecticut Commissioner of Public Works Raeanne Curtis,
and hundreds of others joined Connecticut Commissioner of Veterans’ Affairs
Linda Schwartz to dedicate the new Sgt. John L. Levitow, USAF, Veterans Health
Our Linda Schwartz. Linda Schwartz, who served on the VVA
National Board of Directors, chaired national committees,
and was the first woman to receive the VVA Commendation Medal
for Justice, Integrity, and Meaningful Achievement.
“This is the change
that I wanted to see at Rocky Hill for many years,” Schwartz
said. “I remember first reading about the appalling conditions at the Connecticut
Veterans Home. In fact, I first read about them in The VVA Veteran.”
is the home of the nation’s first state veterans’ home.
In 1863, Benjamin Fitch, honoring his promise to soldiers recruited for Union
regiments, established the Fitch Home for Veterans, which offered shelter and
support to veterans, their widows, and their orphans. But by the 1930s, the strain
on the Fitch facility finally caused Gov. Wilbur Cross to start a land search
which resulted in the establishment of a new Soldiers’ Home in Rocky Hill.
handsome, 90-acre campus has rolling lawns and views of the
Connecticut River Valley. Wild turkeys promenade in the morning,
and groundhogs scurry just out of sight. The copper-domed
tower of the Administration Building glints in the early
sun. Billowing cumulus clouds glide across an achingly blue
sky. A handsome Civil War marble carving at the entrance
depicts the tearful joy of the returning soldier.
But all had not been well at Rocky Hill. Although there
were forty buildings, none had been built within the past
sixty years. The main building, the Veterans’ Home
Facility, was put up in 1940. Its dedication plaque gratefully acknowledges the
assistance of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Prior to Schwartz becoming
Commissioner, the Connecticut Veterans Home was run with
all the compassion of a military institution. Residents were
addressed by rank rather than by name. There was a bar on
campus; drunkenness was rampant. “Veterans
were sleeping on World War II cots,” VVA’s Sandy Miller said.
there were empty beds. Hundreds of them. But when the problem
of homeless veterans finally became pressing, some suggested
housing them at Rocky Hill. The Commissioner at the time
took decisive action: He burned the extra beds.
wanted to right a terrible wrong,” Schwartz said. Actually, no
one at Rocky Hill refers to her as “Mrs. Schwartz” or even “Dr.
Schwartz”: She’s universally referred to as “the Commissioner.”
she was offered the position by the former governor, Schwartz
made one thing clear: “I’m not going to be the one to close Rocky Hill.” Once
she received his assurances that such was not his intent, Schwartz accepted the
new position and launched into it with relish.
For as long as anyone can remember,
there’s been talk about a new facility
to replace the FDR-vintage building. But in Commissioner Schwartz’s five
years on the job, talk turned into action. And work. Lots of it. Fortunately,
she has a hard-charging, hard-working staff. And together they saw the opportunity
to transform dreams into reality.
“She’s a take-charge person,” Peggy
Pantoja, Healthcare Services Assistant Administrator, said. “When she walks
through these halls, residents and staff call to her. They love her.”
Together, they talked about and planned
the facility they wanted. “What
we wanted,” Chief of Staff Charley Williams said, “was a place that
veterans wanted to come to, rather than one to which they had to come.” The
design contract was awarded to Moser Pilon Nelson Architects, a company, the
staff decided, that shared their vision.
On February 24, 1969, John Levitow was
load master on an AC-47 gunship in South Vietnam flying a
night mission dropping huge magnesium flares to light the
ground for troops fighting the enemy. Suddenly the plane
was hit by a VC mortar, which ripped more than 3,500 holes
in the fuselage.
Stunned and bleeding from many shrapnel
wounds, Levitow saw an activated flare rolling around the
compartment floor. It had been wrenched from another crewman.
Unable to pick it up, he threw his bleeding body on the flare,
dragged it to the open cargo door, and pushed it out of the
plane. “At that instant,
the flare ignited in the air, but clear of the aircraft. Sgt. Levitow, by his
selfless and heroic actions, saved the aircraft and its entire crew from certain
death and destruction.”
That’s a quote from his Medal of Honor citation.
On May 14, 1970, John Levitow became the first enlisted Air Force member to be
awarded the military’s
highest honor for valor. He went on to give his entire life in service to veterans.
For nearly a decade he was director of planning at the Connecticut Department
of Veterans’ Affairs. Levitow died in 2000 and is buried at Arlington National
The Levitow Health Center is an appealing, clean-lined structure
that sits astride the main hill of the Connecticut Veterans
Home. It’s full
of big windows: the light pours in and the seasonal variations of the scenery
are nothing short of awesome.
A huge undertaking, construction cost $24.4 million, with
a total budget of $33.8 million. The U.S. Department of Veterans
Affairs contributed 65 percent of the funding; the balance
came from the Connecticut state treasury.
The facility has
two floors and covers 87,000 square feet. Residents will
live not in wings or units or wards. “We’re calling them ‘neighborhoods,’” said
the Commissioner. “And that’s what we want them to be. Neighborhoods
where people live and grow; not wards where people go to die.”
be no more four-to-a-room situations. The new facility has
25 single-bed rooms and 50 two-bed rooms. Even in the shared
rooms, hard permanent walls separate residents and ensure
There’s an Alzheimer’s unit, hospice
and respite care, a central dining room, recreation room, chapel, canteen, library,
and barber shop. In the great room, named for Gov. Rell, a massive stone fireplace
climbs all the way to the cathedral ceiling.
State-of-the-art medical technology, including piped
oxygen, helps minimize the clutter and reduces the impression
of institutional life. It’s clean, it’s
new, and it’s pleasing to the eye.
At the dedication ceremony, Gov. Rell
spoke, Public works commissioner Curtis spoke, as did “our” Commissioner.
Deputy Secretary Mansfield was interrupted by a flyover by an AC-47 identical
to the one used by Sgt. Levitow.
of Honor recipient and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the
Navy H.C. “Barney” Barnum
vividly recounted the story of John Levitow’s heroism, much to the evident
delight of Levitow’s grandson. The younger Levitow received his kindergarten
diploma during the ceremony.
Afterwards, people swarmed into the new health center
to take a look. Legislators were there, and contractors,
and the press, and the curious. Among the crowd were the
folks who lived at Rocky Hill. For many, this was their first
glimpse at the facility they had heard so much about.
One elfish man walked slowly down
the halls, his sparkling eyes sweeping like search lights
from side to side, taking in as much as he could. A broad
grin told the tale.
He delicately tapped a nurse’s elbow. “When?” he
turned to him. “When?” He hesitated.
“When can we move in?” he
“Well, there will be inspections
and plans need to be made for the move, but maybe by July,” she replied.
The happy blaze in his eyes faded like
expiring fireworks. He clearly had hoped—recklessly,
perhaps—that she would say, “Now.”
Linda Schwartz, the
Connecticut Commissioner of Veterans Affairs, can be reached