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july/august 2008

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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 Center.

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.”

Connecticut 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.

The 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.

And 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.

“I 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.”

When 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 Cemetery.

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.”

There will 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 privacy.

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.

Medal 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 asked tentatively.

She turned to him. “When?” He hesitated.

“When can we move in?” he asked.

“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 at linda.schwartz@po.state.ct.us

 

 

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