Originally created 04/09/00

Ex-servicemen seek benefits



For more than 20 years, Maury Rice held the front line against America's enemies.

Now, nearly 15 years after he retired from the Army as a colonel, he's fighting another battle -- this time for the benefits he and other retirees were promised.

"There's many of us in the organizations I belong to that are trying to get the health benefits that were promised to us when I went into the service, which simply translates into free medical care for you and your family as long as they live," the 70-year-old North Augusta resident said.

He's got supplemental insurance to cover the gaps now that he's older than 65, but there are thousands of other retirees in Augusta that do not.

"Without that, you'd be paying out of the pocket for a lot of it," Mr. Rice said.

Mr. Rice is just one of more than 20,000 retirees living in a 42-county area surrounding Fort Gordon who are served by the post's Retirement Services Office. The office handles everything from pay concerns to family benefits for retirees from each branch of the armed forces, said Ann Harrison, retirement services officer.

She deals with retirees every day, and it's usually the health care benefits -- or the lack thereof -- that they want to talk about. Lately, their discussions have gotten some attention.

Legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood -- H.R. 3573 -- would provide the promised benefits to anyone who enlisted before June 7, 1956, which would include Mr. Rice. All a retiree would have to do is use the Army's Tri-Care, which is comparable to an HMO plan, a local military hospital or join the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan.

The bill also would open the benefit plan to anyone who enlisted after 1956, but they would enroll under a plan identical to federal retired civilian employees, which gives them the choice of plans and coverage levels. They would also have to pay part of their medical bills.

"We were told we ... would not need a big retirement check since we would have fully funded health care for life," said Dr. Norwood, who opted out of left the armed forces in 1969. "We could live off a lot less since we would never face big health care bills."

Dubbed the Keep Our Promises to America's Military Retirees Act, the bill now has 260 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed on as co-sponsors and will come up for a vote later this session.

Many retirees say that's a good start, but hopefully that's all it is -- a start, Ms. Harrison said.

"They are afraid his plan is not going to encompass enough of recouping those long-term benefits," she said.

And the bills that can pile up for medical coverage are one of the many reasons military retirees look for a second career. In fact, some retirees see "retirement" as a dirty word.

"Almost every retiree I know doesn't retire," said Dick Manion, a retired Army colonel. "It used to be, even with civilians, people got in the rocking chair at about 50, 55 or 60 and they stayed there for life. Today, the military people are usually absorbed right into the civilian sector for second careers."

For Mr. Manion, second careers included a computer business in Kansas City and a stint as a college dean before coming to Augusta. In Mr. Rice's case, it was a partnership in an Aiken John Deere dealership and volunteering in various community and military groups that capped a 28-year military career.

Butch Buoni, a retired chief warrant officer, likes to joke that he just traded uniforms. He's now the ranger for the Linwood Hayne Boy Scout Camp.

And retired Col. Everett Greenwood knew he had to do something to fill his time after the Army.

"You had a pretty aggressive life, so to speak," he said. "When you retire, you are usually still at an age where (going from) being very active and involved to doing nothing is difficult."

So he spent 11 years working with the United Services Planning Association and Independent Research Agency, which helps Army families with financial planning.

"For many people the retirement pay by itself is just not enough to live on," he said.

For example, after 20 years of service, retirees get 40 to 50 percent of their base Army pay. After 35 years, that number jumps to 75 percent -- but it's still just a part of the base army pay, which doesn't include the various allowances for housing and other needs, Mr. Greenwood said.

And often it is almost too late before retirees find out the reality of retirement pay.

"They get out the door and they start to think about it," he said. "Even if you are going to do nothing, plan how you are going to do nothing."

One thing nearly every retiree does is keep tabs on the current Army. During his two decades in the Army, which ended in 1989, Mr. Buoni watched the service change dramatically -- leading to the Army of today.

"The Army I went into and retired from was evolving into more technology and intelligent," he said. "It's a smaller army and it's a very well-equipped technological Army. It's also an Army that thinks on its feet more, that's for sure."

Although Mr. Manion sees a more intelligent military, he considers it a "pawn" of the current federal administration -- a group of men and women used all over the world to fight other countries' battles.

"If one of my grandchildren asked me if they should join, I'd be a little reluctant to recommend it," he said, adding that more and more retirees are becoming disillusioned with the modern Army. "We were the best recruiters that the services had."

He also says many soldiers carry a different view of their role in the military.

"It isn't the same type of service we are used to," Mr. Manion said, adding the Army is now filled with "9-to-5" jobs. "The whole approach to service has changed. It used to be truly duty, honor and country seven days a week."

But to Mr. Greenwood, that means the Army has just adjusted to fit society.

"The kids today are different from the kids of my age," he said. "There's nothing wrong with kids today. The real challenge is to lead them."

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115.

Military minded

Here are local veterans and military-oriented organizations:

American Legion Post 192: P.O. Box 458, Evans, GA 30809

American Legion Post 205: 2101 Highland Ave., Augusta, GA 30909

American Legion Post 178: 3219 Richmond Hill Road, Augusta, GA 30906

American Legion Post 232: Carolina Springs Road, North Augusta, S.C. 29841

American Legion Post 505: 1678 15th St., Augusta, GA 30901

American Legion Post 63: No. 1 Milledge Road, Augusta, GA 30904

VFW Post 649: 2430 Windsor Spring Road, Augusta, GA 30906

VFW Post 3200: 1 Gun Club Road, Augusta, 30907

Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA): P.O. Box 7677, Fort Gordon, GA 30905

The Retired Officer Association: P.O. Box 2617, Augusta, GA 30904

Signal Corps Regimental Association: P.O. Box 7740, Fort Gordon, GA 30905

Armed Forces Communications -- Electronics Association: P.O. Box 8054, Fort Gordon, GA 30905

Fort Gordon Officer/NCO Retiree Councils c/o Retirement Services Office,: Military Personnel Division, Fort Gordon, GA 30905

Southeastern Paralyzed Veterans Association Inc.: 4010 Deans Bridge Road, Augusta, GA 30815-5616

Disabled American Veterans Pendleton King Chapter 10: P.O. Box 2791, Augusta, GA 30914

Source: Fort Gordon Retirement Services Office