You’d think Paul Lanoue would be on Easy Street.
He worked for 23 years as an airman and 27 more as a Defense Department civilian. Lanoue collects two pensions, plus a Social Security check for himself and his wife.
But instead of kicking back worry free, the retired Air Force master sergeant feels a pang when he spends his U.S. dollars on euro-priced rent, heat and other necessities.
"My pay just about covers everything," Lanoue said, "barring any real serious expense.
"You live comfortably, but in the back of my mind is, ‘What’s around the corner? How far is the dollar going to drop?’ "
Lanoue is one of the lucky ones.
More than 12,600 retired servicemembers live in Europe, many on fixed incomes. Once attractive to those with military pensions and a taste for the European lifestyle, retirement here has taken a severe turn for the worse.
"It’s not a good situation," said Mike Malone, retirement services officer for Installation Management Command Europe. "And it’s not going to get better …"
The network of support facilities and other niceties used by military retirees shrank markedly after the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, when most bases closed and troops were sent home. But the squeeze has really come in the past five years with the further closings of bases — and their shopping facilities, post offices and health clinics — as well as a retirement dollar that dropped 30 percent against the euro.
At the same time, consumer prices in Germany have risen 12 percent with increases to rent, heating and electricity far outpacing overall inflation, according to Germany’s Federal Office for Statistics.
"I used to go to Luxembourg every year for a golf tournament," Lanoue said. "I’ve been going there 20 years without fail. This year I had to cancel because of the cost."
Some less fortunate, longtime retirees have essentially been stranded in Europe. They have no family ties back in the United States, and thus nowhere to go back to, and are stuck in Germany and elsewhere to scrape by on their ever-shrinking dollar.
"Some have problems with the high cost of heating oil and gas," Malone said. "They don’t have enough money to fill up their tank and can only buy several hundred liters at a time. They section off their house so the living room and kitchen are the only things heated.
"I know one individual in Schweinfurt who has a budget of 100 euros per month for driving his car. These days 100 euros basically gets you a tank of gas."
Second-class citizensA tank of gas does not go very far for old soldiers who no longer have a nearby base to which to drive.
Bases near Würzburg, Hanau and Darmstadt, to name a few, have closed in recent months and years, following the drawdown of the 1990s when U.S. facilities near Fulda, Nuremburg and Munich also disappeared.
"As installations close, for retirees living out in a little German town, there’s no way to get relatively quickly to an American installation," Malone said.
Even for retirees who live near bases, services are not assured.
Gabi Shaw, wife of Army Sgt. 1st Class (Ret.) Richard Shaw, said her husband was recently declined a doctor’s visit at Stuttgart’s Army Health Clinic, where they went to obtain medicine for a stroke he suffered on June 10.
"All I wanted was medication, but they couldn’t cut a doctor free for 20 minutes to see him," Gabi Shaw said. "They said they were busy giving kids their sports physicals.
"When you join the military they promise they’ll always take care of you, but when you retire you feel like a hot potato.
"We don’t expect them to help us for everything," she said. "But when it is something major and you really need something, they should at least see the ex-soldiers."
Richard Shaw, who was hospitalized for 16 days, instead went to a German doctor for the prescription. The Shaws then spent 228 euros, or about $360, for medicine at a German drug store, money which they will recoup after their insurance claim is processed.
"(U.S. Army) doctors and dentists have told us that their staffing is based only on people in uniform," said Army Lt. Col. (Ret.) William Torbett of the Stuttgart Retiree Council. "Retired (servicemembers) over here should not expect to be able to get into the military health system."
"I’ve had several retirees tell me they can’t make it here anymore," said Max Pfauntsch, director of retiree affairs at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, an unpaid, volunteer position.
"I can readily see where if you don’t have a good retirement, it can get really tough if you overextended yourself (with rent or mortgage) when the dollar was high."
For Lanoue, 81, and his wife, Waltraut, 71, road trips to Spain and Italy are a thing of the past now that it costs $120 to fill the gas tank of their Volkswagen.
"We don’t go out for dinner," Waltraut Lanoue said. "Our big thing is on Saturday mornings, we go to the café where I work and have breakfast, all the group together. It will cost us 10 or 12 euros.
"When we want to go out. we will just cook hamburgers here and invite people over. It’s more fun, anyway."