By Mr. Kevin Downey (IMCOM)January 14, 2009
ChiAfA..vres Air Base, Belgium - As President Nixon swept Europe and history in 1969, becoming the first U.S. president to visit Belgium since a triumphant Woodrow Wilson after negotiating the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Bill Lilja simply remembers being hungry.
The young sergeant was a military policeman based at ChiAfA..vres Air Base at the time and served in the presidential security detail while Nixon was in Brussels, highlighting the U.S. commitment to the NATO alliance.
The significance of the moment suddenly lost a bit of luster in comparison with the plush presidential amenities now available to him.
"You wouldn't believe how well we ate," Lilja recalled with mischievous animation. "I was starving one night and [presidential secret service agent] Frank asked me what I wanted to eat. He came back a few moments later with a king's feast. When I offered to pay what I owed, he made the mistake of telling me the secret code to pay the bill, which was 'security.'"
Lilja flashed a smile. "I was not hungry again."
Lilja was among the first U.S. Soldiers in Belgium since NATO moved its headquarters to Brussels from outside Paris in 1967 and retired as a sergeant first class out of ChiAfA..vres in 1980. While he enjoys a laugh recalling free presidential food, it's his vivid memories of volunteering as Santa Claus each December for nearly 25 years at the Belgian orphanage "La Fermette" in Ath that pause him.
"The joy on the faces of these kids..." he broke off, searching for words. "There's nothing more pure in the world."
Supporting the orphanage program is one example of the year-round contributions military retirees make to their local communities, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux Retiree Council President Charles Westpheling said.
The retiree community numbers approximately 525 veterans and widows throughout Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, said Westpheling, a retired Army colonel and Silver Star recipient during the Vietnam War.
"Our retirees are an integral part of the local tapestry," the Waterloo resident said. "They're retired from active duty, but still serving in many ways."
Dan Ehrich, a dentist who retired as a Navy captain after 21 years of service, volunteers his endodontic specialty skills at the SHAPE Dental Clinic.
"It's not a question of why am I volunteering," Ehrich said. "It's a question of why not. Through my volunteer work, I get a sense of satisfaction that the skills and knowledge I spent a lifetime acquiring are being used to benefit others."
He approached clinic leadership about opportunities to contribute to the SHAPE and NATO military communities while he and his family live in the area, said SHAPE Dental Clinic Commander Nasrin Masuji.
"Dr. Ehrich has been a great asset to the clinic," Masuji said. "He is board certified in his specialty, a credential that less than 20 percent of the civilian specialists have, and he has 20 years of experience with the Navy.
"He volunteers part-time at the SHAPE clinic, which has resulted in over 20 patients treated, producing almost $15,000 worth of dentistry in just a few months," she continued. "He has enabled the clinic to offer specialty care to beneficiaries. He's a great resource for the more junior staff, providing an opportunity for them to be mentored in this specialty. His professionalism and clinical expertise make him a real joy to have working here."
Ehrich retired in Belgium to perfect his French and experience the culture, he said, but at the same time it seemed a natural fit to put his specialty skills to use.
"The army's doing a lot for me," Ehrich explained. "There's tremendous value in doing your 20 years in the military. The networking, medical and support issues are fantastic, and it's all because I have a military retiree card in my pocket. To me it's a wonderful opportunity to be here. I welcome the opportunity to give back."
Netherlands resident and 26-year Army veteran Conrad Payne said he retired in the Netherlands for reasons common among military retirees: family, cross-cultural relationships and the travel opportunities. He said he became fascinated with experiencing cultures much older than his own during several duty stations around Europe. Payne eventually settled down with a Dutch wife and two children, becoming entrenched in a town near Schinnen.
"I was asked once if I would like to be prince of [a local Dutch fraternity] because they thought I would have been an excellent choice," said Payne, USAG Schinnen Retiree Council president. "I had to refuse because I was studying for my college degree, but I was honored because it meant I wasn't considered to be a foreigner, just one of the boys."
USAG Benelux retirement services officer Joseph Troxell said retired veterans also make up a sizable portion of the civilian workforce on Benelux installations, bringing along their decades of military experience. He estimated upward of half of the retired veteran population in the Benelux area are civil servants.
"Many of our retirees feel the need to give back to the military community for what the military has given them," said Troxell, who retired in 1993 after 30 years of Army service. "They're using their decades of military training to continue serving the nation. Often we don't necessarily think of the word 'retiree' to describe them."
Outside of the American military communities, many retired veterans coach sports, lead Boy Scout troops, organize cultural exchanges for active duty military members and establish long-term bonds with the local population, Troxell said.
Westpheling, declining to speak of his own career, enumerated ways retired veterans in the Benelux are shaping the lexicon of post-military life within their communities.
"They're the volunteers on base in the post office during the holiday season, or who you'd call for a tour of the Ypres or Waterloo battlefields," he explained. "They establish scholarships for the students and cadets at American military schools here. They continue relationships within the European communities as the active duty service men and women rotate. ..."
He interrupted his list as the examples mounted, becoming cumbersome.
"You see, they're not particularly known as retirees," he stated, plainly. "More so they're known as community members pulling their weight as much as anyone else."