REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Retiree Appreciation Day returned in a big way with a wide range of events that appealed to the interests of retirees from across North Alabama and South Tennessee.
From the golf tournament Sept. 18 to the Health Fair with drive-through flu shots Sept. 19 to the informational program Set. 20 at Bob Jones Auditorium, veterans gladly returned to Redstone to enjoy an event that was canceled last year due to sequestration.
"We're glad they brought it back again," said retired Master Sgt. Jerry Garnett, who attended Friday's and Saturday's events with his wife, retired Staff Sgt. Jackie Garnett.
"They provide a lot of real good information. It's very helpful for retirees."
The couple travel from Birmingham every year for Retiree Appreciation Day, staying on post at Redstone Lodging. Last year, they were on vacation returning back through Tennessee with plans to stop at Redstone before their final trek home when they learned about the last-minute cancellation of RAD. They had called Redstone Lodging to confirm their reservation when they were given the news.
While the cancellation was disappointing, the couple knew they would be back with the next RAD in 2014.
"We like to come up, stay on post, and go to the Commissary and Exchange," Jackie Garnett said. "We like being here with the other retirees. We love it."
That was the sentiment expressed by many retirees as they enjoyed the combination of activities, social times, meals together, shopping and information that Retiree Appreciation Day offers. While many installations only offer a half day or a full day RAD, Redstone is known for its multi-day event that addresses all aspects of military retiree living.
"This is one of the best Retiree Appreciation Days anywhere," said Mac Sanders, who represented Tricare South Region during Saturday's informational presentations.
"I look forward to being part of this RAD."
Of the many presentations Saturday, retirees were especially interested in the legislative update offered by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Shane Ostrom, deputy director of the Benefits Information Department for the Military Officers Association of America.
MOAA is one of several military organizations that lobby for retirees on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. When those organizations lobby together on issues, they represent 5.5 million retirees, veterans and active duty service members.
"Numbers are what it's all about," Ostrom said. Even though a coalition of 5.5 million members is influential, it does not have the impact that an organization like the American Association of Retired Persons -- with its 38 million members -- can have on legislators.
Combine the AARP numbers with the lack of military experience within the ranks of Congress, and it's often difficult to lobby for the earned benefits of service members, he said.
When talking to congressional members and staffers, most "don't have a clue what we're talking about. They don't have a clue of what it means to walk a mile in your shoes," Ostrom told the retirees. "They don't have a clue what it means to wear the uniform."
While military retirees gave 20 to 30 years of service to the nation, "over 99 percent of Americans didn't raise their right hand," he said and, because of those years of service, "we've earned these benefits. They are not given to us. You gave up 20 to 30 years of your young adult lives in service to your country."
Obtaining survivor benefit upgrades, defeating major Tricare hikes and ensuring 9/11 GI Bill transferability options are among the "wins" that MOAA claims in their lobbying work for retirees.
The organization considers congressional consideration of a 1 percent pay raise for current service members as "embarrassing," Ostrom said, adding that it should be at least a 1.8 percent pay raise.
Yet, in lobbying efforts, MOAA and the coalition of military organizations are battling against defense cuts that threaten the military retiree community. In addition, they must compete with "pet projects" of non-military organizations for funding.
"We're up against these pet projects of Hollywood types all the time. There wouldn't be any pet projects if it weren't for the people in this room today," Ostrom said. "Folks who served their country first ought to be first in line.
"They say we must share the pain. We did share the pain. We want to avoid disproportional sacrifice. We believe we have made our sacrifice."
Besides trying to cap a pay raise for current service members, the Department of Defense is also considering cutting housing allowances, reducing Commissary offerings and consolidating Tricare programs. MOAA is lobbying against these financial cuts.
"When troops are given the chance to say what they want to say they are not for cuts in pay and health benefits," Ostrom said.
"The military costs money. The military should be a priority. The nation should take care of troops and deployments and hardware. That's the responsibility when your constitutional requirement is to make national defense number one."
Ostrom urged the military retirees to visit the MOAA website (www.moaa.org) to check on current legislation and then to contact their congressmen through email to influence their vote.
"Those legislators and senators up there have staffs and they understand when one person contacts them on an issue they mathematically stand in for hundreds or thousands of people based on their district," he said.
"Your voice matters."
In other presentations, the military retirees received a Redstone overview from Garrison commander Col. Bill Marks, who outlined Redstone's role as a federal center of excellence, reviewed facility and road construction on the Arsenal, discussed the implementation of handheld scanners for visitors at the control access points, announced the addition of Marriot Town Place Suites to the growing list of future tenants for Redstone Gateway and explained the concept behind the Exploration Park project that will link the U.S. Space & Rocket Center to a quality of life corridor on the Arsenal.
There were also words of appreciation from Madison Mayor and retired Lt. Col. Troy Trulock and Huntsville city manager retired Col. John Hamilton, who also spoke about the partnership between the Arsenal and the surrounding area that is of benefit to all who are associated with the military.
But it was Redstone's senior commander Lt. Gen. Patricia McQuistion's words of thanks that were the most personal to the retirees and their spouses.
"There's no place that I'd rather be this morning than to come here and be with you," she said.
"You are an example of what we aspire to -- retirement after service to our nation. … My favorite retirees are my husband -- retired Col. Leif Johnson -- and my dad, a World War II veteran, Korean War veteran and Cold War veteran. Leif is a great volunteer here at Redstone. He is my best example of what retirement looks like and I tell you it's a good looking thing."
McQuistion introduced her audience to the Army's new "Soldier for Life" concept, saying "we are recognizing your service for life. We want to never forget your service, to honor it and to provide the services you've earned. We want you to always consider Redstone Arsenal as your home. You are members of a valued and trusted team."
About 96,000 military retirees live in the North Alabama/South Tennessee area, and the average length of service of retirees is 23 years, she said.
The kickoff for "Soldier for Life" is Oct. 1, Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. Kyle Crump told the retirees. It will incorporate the elements of all stages of military service, from Start Strong to Serve Strong, Reintegrate Strong and Remain Strong.
"Once a Soldier, always a Soldier. Soldier for Life," said Crump, who will join the ranks of military retirees this week.
That "Soldier for Life" concept will include retirees like retired Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Thomas, who now works for the Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space, and his wife, disabled veteran Tyanne Thomas, who works for NASA. It was their first visit to Retiree Appreciation Day since their other visit in 1995 right after Gregory Thomas retired.
"There is a wealth of information provided here that retirees wouldn't get otherwise," Gregory Thomas said. "You can talk to people from the different organizations face-to-face and take advantage of what you've earned."