Many military retirees living overseas want better services

Gilbert Graak, 75, works out every day in the Samurai Fitness Center at Yokota Air Base, Japan. A resident of nearby Fussa, he also stops off at the library to read the newspaper and hits the commissary before riding back home on his bicycle. Graak spent 21 years in the Air Force and left the military as a technical sergeant. He then worked all over the Pacific — including stints in the Philippines, Okinawa, Iwakuni and Yokota — as a GS-11 civilian employee for more than 30 years, ultimately retiring in November 2005.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 24, 2008

To make good on his military health care benefits, Jim Houtsma and his family must trek eight hours from his home in the southern Philippines to a hospital in Manila.

There, Houtsma, a retired U.S. Army first sergeant, and his family must still make out-of-pocket payments for care but can be treated in a hospital that has bed sheets, air-conditioning and water in the toilets.

Most importantly, Houtsma said, he can get the paperwork in Manila he needs to apply for medical reimbursements through Tricare, the Department of Defense’s health care program for active-duty and retired servicemembers and their families.

But those reimbursements often get tangled in red tape or lost, he said.

"When I file a claim, it is nit-picked to death and sent back to me three or four times," said Houtsma, who retired from the Army in 1983 after 20 years of service. "If I spend $3,000 or $5,000 for hospitalization, it might take a year to get the money back."

Such dissatisfaction is common among retired servicemembers living overseas — at least Navy and Marine Corps retirees — a 2007 survey reported. Many Navy and Marine retirees in Asia, Europe and elsewhere are unhappy with the support they get from the government after retirement, according to that survey last year by the Secretary of the Navy’s Retiree Council.

About 41 percent of 425 overseas retirees polled said they were unsatisfied in general, the OCONUS Retiree Survey found.

The survey marks the first time overseas retirees were surveyed as a group, according to one of the survey’s directors and the U.S. Navy Personnel Command.

Some retirees in the Philippines, Okinawa and mainland Japan told Stars and Stripes they feel entitled to benefits earned over decades of service despite not living in the country they served.

But more than half surveyed by the Navy Department said they never access a military base, cannot use military postal services and are dissatisfied with dental care.

To improve quality of life for overseas retirees, the U.S. government should offer better access to services such as health and dental care, commissaries, exchanges and pharmacies, and eliminate postal weight restrictions, which block many retirees from using military post, according to survey results.

The Secretary of the Navy’s Retiree Council, which advocates for retired sailors and Marines, was briefed on the findings in April.

Health care is the biggest concern in the Philippines, where thousands of retirees live around former American bases in Angeles City and Subic Bay — both abandoned by the U.S. military since the early 1990s — or in far-flung villages.

Retirees there face a lack of health care facilities that accept military health care coverage and have no access to mail-order pharmacies, Geoff Patrissi, a director of the OCONUS survey, said in an e-mail to Stripes.

Anthony Grimm, a retired Air Force master sergeant who lives in Angeles City with his family, said he must buy medications in the local Philippine economy because there’s no access to the Tricare mail-order pharmacy.

The mail-order pharmacy is the "least expensive option" outside of using a military pharmacy, according to Tricare. However, to use the mail-order pharmacy, a retiree must have a military postal address and a prescription from a U.S.-licensed physician — two things hard to come by in the Philippines.

Grimm said he is not always reimbursed for the medication bought from Filipino pharmacies.

"A lot of retirees feel like they are being shortchanged," he said.

Retirees said there is a lack of health care, mail access and other services in Japan, where the U.S. military maintains bases across the county and nearly 48,000 active-duty servicemembers.

David Mizukami, a retired master chief petty officer and veteran of two wars who lives in Sasebo, Japan, said he was forced to travel to Hawaii when his daughter needed specialty medical treatment for a tumor.

The two spent months in Hawaii while doctors did medical testing and, despite retiree medical coverage, Mizukami had to pick up the bill for the hotel, food and a rental car, which added up to about $5,000, he said.

For dental service, Mizukami said, there’s no coverage available through the military’s provider because Japanese dentists are not certified by the United States. He said he must go to Japanese dentists who routinely charge $1,500 to $3,000 for a tooth crown.

"I feel like a second-class citizen. I’m an American citizen who fought two wars. … I don’t have what I feel are the just benefits that should be [provided] to me," Mizukami said.

On Christmas, retirees on Okinawa feel the pinch.

It’s that time of year when anyone who doesn’t have a visa under the status of forces agreement and cannot get access to military postal service must take their stateside-bound Christmas packages to a Japanese post office.

The costs quickly add up to much more than what active-duty and SOFA-status residents pay for postage, said Stanley Stewart, a retired Marine master gunnery sergeant and Vietnam War veteran.

"When you go to the Japanese post office, it is about five times what you would pay on the base," he said.

Half of overseas retirees who participated in the OCONUS survey were unable to use postal services, mostly due to weight limits. Many bases restrict retiree shipments to one pound or less, and in Japan, retirees without SOFA status are not permitted to a military post office.

Of the retirees who could use military post offices, more than half were dissatisfied by the service, according to the OCONUS survey.

Paul Cassity, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, said he has been frustrated with the lack of mail service since he retired to Okinawa in the 1990s.

"I cannot even mail a letter," Cassity wrote in an e-mail to Stripes. "I have fought this for over 14 years … that retired folks can’t use the post office, let alone get a mail box."

Retiree survey results

Last year, the Department of the Navy asked 425 overseas military retirees how well they are supported. Many said they were unsatisfied with services and wanted improvements. Here’s a breakdown of what the Secretary of the Navy’s Retiree Council survey found:

  • 41 percent were generally dissatisfied with retiree support services, and among Marines, that number was 51 percent
  • 50 percent were unable to use postal services due to weight limits, and 53 percent of those able to use postal services were dissatisfied
  • 52 percent dissatisfied with dental clinics
  • 30 percent of survey comments asked for improved health care
  • 80 percent were satisfied with commissaries, fitness facilities and pharmacies

Who are overseas retirees? Here’s who responded to the survey:

  • 72 percent are older than 50
  • 41 percent live in the Philippines
  • 30 percent live in Europe
  • 20 percent live in Asia*
  • 84 percent are married
  • 35 percent are employed full time
  • 50 percent never access a military base
  • 25 percent go to base every day
  • 58 percent live greater than 100 miles from a base
  • 24 percent live within 10 miles of a base

* Asian countries other than the Philippines

SOURCE: 2008 OCONUS Retiree Survey

Jim Houtsma, retired U.S. Army sergeant, stands with his family in front of their home in Naga City, Philippines. Houtsma has created a Web site where other military retirees can vent their frustrations with U.S. health care services.

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