By Patrick Buffett, Fort Lee Public Affairs
FORT LEE, Va. – About 400 military veterans and their spouses attended the Retiree Appreciation Day event Saturday at the Fort Lee Soldier Support Center.
The annual gathering was organized by the Soldier for Life Retirement Services Office and featured guest speakers, information booths, blood pressure screenings and flu shots, identification card renewal/replacement services, legal assistance, a mobile Department of Veterans Affairs service center and more.
Greeting attendees as the event got underway, Maj. Gen. Darrell K. Williams, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, said, “I cannot adequately express how big of a privilege it is to welcome you here today … You represent those things that are great about (America’s) Army and all of the other services, as well as our nation. We marvel at your heartfelt patriotism, your pride and love of country.”
Maintaining a quality of life in the military community that is commensurate with the degree of professionalism and sacrifice demonstrated by Soldiers (past and present), DOD Civilians and military families has been a top priority of service leaders for years, Williams also noted. Gen. Mark A. Milley, recently sworn in as the 39th Army Chief of Staff, has cited it as one of his top focus areas for the current and future force.
“This event falls squarely into that category,” Williams emphasized. “It’s about taking care of those who have sacrificed and taken care of us in the past. We want you to know, from the Chief of Staff of the Army level on down, we have not forgotten about our veterans or our retirees. That’s why we’re committed to continuing this program on an annual basis.”
Just over 10 percent of Virginia’s population (about 800,000 residents) is comprised of military-affiliated personnel, according to Jaime Areizaga-Soto, deputy secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs, who was spotlighted as RAD’s featured speaker.
“In no other state in the nation is the veteran’s community growing faster than ours (estimated at 5 percent annually),” the deputy secretary said. “We are very proud of that accomplishment and, as Gov. (Terry) McAuliffe says, with that honor comes a great responsibility.”
He then described some of the initiatives being undertaken by the Virginia Department of Veteran’s Services. Since 2014 when the governor signed a “mayor’s pledge” to end homelessness among former military members, more than 1,100 individuals in that situation have moved into permanent dwellings of their choosing. Many of those veterans are disabled and had been living on the street for years.
“There are now 26 DVS Benefit Services Offices across the state where veterans can learn more about, and take advantage of, the entitlements they have earned,” Areizaga-Soto continued. “These services are free of charge, and next week (Monday) we will open a relocated office at the new Freedom Support Center in Petersburg. This is a great benefit to you because, as the governor says, if there is money in Washington that belongs to Virginia’s veterans, we need to find it and bring it home.”
The DVS also manages the Virginia Values Veterans program. Its mission is to educate the state’s employers on the benefits of hiring former or transitioning military personnel, and train them how to successfully recruit and retain those individuals. The program now has 352 member companies, over 15,000 pledged jobs for veterans and more than 11,000 hires to its credit since it was launched.
Areizaga-Soto also mentioned DVS education assistance programs, medical care advocacy, burial services in state-managed veteran’s cemeteries and support programs for the families of fallen Soldiers. Additional details can be found at www.dvs.virginia.gov.
“With all these things in mind, I can say with confidence that Virginia is and will continue to be the place where veterans want to stay,” the deputy secretary concluded. “We will always remain fully committed to those who wear or have worn the military uniform, and the families and civilians who support them.”
The formal presentation portion of RAD also featured remarks by Lt. Col. Brett Venable, commander of Kenner Army Health Clinic. He discussed recent changes to TRICARE like a new requirement for non-generic “maintenance drugs” to be filled by military pharmacies or the Express-Scripts mail order service. As of Oct. 1, beneficiaries will have to pay full cost for those medications if they’re filled by retail pharmacies. The availability of flu shots and the services provided by the new Army Wellness Center also were briefed.
RAD attendees expressed a great deal of appreciation for not only the information presented at the event, but also the recognition they were given for their service.
“I have always been grateful for this opportunity to catch up on everything that affects veterans and to spend some time with my fellow retirees, many of whom I only get to see every couple of years,” said retired Master Sgt. James Malone who has attended the RAD for “as long as he can remember.”
The former drill sergeant and instructor of the Supply Specialist Course at Fort Lee (1976-1982) has a stepson, Travis Crawley, who also retired from the military as a master sergeant, and a daughter, Pamela Brown, who is a master sergeant in the Air Force. His wife Lashon works at Fort Lee.
“Coming here and enjoying the camaraderie, old military guys like us miss the most is a huge benefit of this event,” said retired Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Drakeford who was serving as a military policeman when he wrapped up his career at Fort Lee in 1992. At the RAD he was circulating through one of the classrooms filled with information tables manned by veterinary clinic, Army Wellness Center and dental clinic personnel, among others.
“The services and information provided are greatly appreciated as well. It isn’t always easy for retirees to stay informed or get the types of things accomplished that are conveniently available right here on this one day all for us. It’s a special feeling to know how much you still mean to the Army Family.”