CHELSEA — When Scott Karczewski started at the Department of Veterans Affairs Togus Regional Office in 1977 as a temporary warehouse worker, World War I veterans were being cared for and World War II veterans were largely in charge.
In his time working up from a mail clerk to director of the regional office, he saw veterans from the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Gulf War and from more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The only ones I didn’t get to know were Civil War vets,” he said from his office on Friday, his last day as director of the veterans benefits office at Togus.
Karczewski, 61, of Augusta, was hired as a temporary worker in the warehouse shortly after returning from his four years in the U.S. Navy, where he served from 1971 to 1975, largely on board the USS John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier decommissioned in 2007. He soon found a permanent job as a mail clerk and rose through the ranks of the benefits arm of the Togus campus over the next three and a half decades. He was promoted to director in 2009.
During his time, Karczewski said he saw the attitude of employees at Togus — which also includes the VA Maine Healthcare Systems and the Togus National Cemetery — and the culture of the VA department evolve. Veterans returning from the unpopular war in Vietnam weren’t always received with open arms from the American public or the VA, Karczewski said.
Dale Demers, who retired as director of the Togus regional office in 2007, said the World War II veterans running the office when he started in 1972 tried to avoid giving out benefits to Vietnam veterans.
“Unfortunately, their attitude toward the Vietnam-era veterans wasn’t a very positive one,” he said in a phone interview Friday.
Demers said he nearly left because of the attitude. Instead Demers stayed and, shortly before he retired, the office was recognized for giving out one of the highest percentages of benefits among state offices, he said.
“That was my legacy and Scott was very much a part of that,” Demers said. “We are now an agency that truly cares about veterans and tries to help them.”
Karczewski said the Togus regional office now gives out $34 million in benefits a month to veterans and dependents, totaling over $400 million a year. He said veterans have a much better chance today of getting their claims granted than ever before.
“If I’m particularly proud of anything, it’s the cultural change and attitude difference. It’s a shift that has occurred, and it’s absolutely wonderful to see,” he said.
Karczewski said he didn’t plan on going to the Navy or working at Togus while growing up in Augusta. He dropped out of high school in 1971 to join the Navy, however, after his daughter was born.
He said he figured it was the best way to take care of his family. Karczewski later earned bachelor’s degrees in business management and accounting after he returned from the Navy. Togus seemed like a natural transition for someone in the military, Karczewski said.
“How many jobs can you have where you’re serving American heroes? And that’s what we do here,” he said.
Karczewski will be replaced on an interim basis by Jill Kupec from the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington D.C., according to Dawn Haskell from the regional office. A new director will be hired in the next few months, Karczewski said
Karczewski said plans to continue helping veterans in a volunteer capacity during his retirement, possibly with the Disabled American Veterans, an organization of which his is a member.
He said he also has duties around the house that he’ll be getting to now once he retires.
“Then we’ll see from there,” Karczewski said.