Monday, April 03, 2017

Preparing for Retirement – Back to Bragg

After my last active duty tour in Germany ended on 30 Sep 2016, I returned home to Michigan.  After a few months at home, I am now back at Fort Bragg, NC for my final weeks of service in the U.S. Army.   Shortly after I leave here I will retire from the Army, having served a total of 28 years since I first joined on 11 April 1980, 37 years ago.
It’s kind of a strange feeling being here at Fort Bragg, and knowing that when I leave I will take off my uniform and hang up my dogtags for the last time.   
On the one hand, I am enjoying being around the “Big Army” again – Fort Bragg is home to the XVIII Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division, as well as U.S. Army Forces Command and U.S. Army Reserve Command.  Everywhere you go here, you are simply immersed in the Army.  Troops doing PT, tactical vehicles driving around and parked by the hundreds in unit motor pools, planes and helicopters flying overhead, and the occasional sound of artillery and small arms fire from the ranges are part of everyday life.  Driving around the installation and knowing that I’ll soon be finished with it all has put me in a strange frame of mind over the past few weeks.  I often find myself reminiscing about the many experiences I have had over my military career, and feeling a bit wistful that it’s all coming to an end in just a few more weeks.
On the other hand, preparing for retirement as an Army Reservist has been an extended reminder of all the irritating bureaucratic inefficiencies I’ve experienced over the years, and has contributed to a feeling that I’m really ready to go – these are the kinds of things about the Army that I definitely will not miss.
Preparing to retire as an Army Reservist has been like a game of “Where’s Waldo?”, as I have worked over the past few years to assemble a coherent set of plans and procedures.  Like so many other aspects of serving as a Reservist on active duty, there are multiple sources of information and guidance, many of which are incomplete, unclear, or inconsistent with each other.  It isn’t as though it’s deliberate – everyone means well and there are lots of resources intended to help the soldier preparing for retirement. But as Mark Twain once said: “It isn’t what people don’t know that can hurt you, it’s what they know for sure that ain’t so.”
First and foremost, Reservists are treated differently than active component soldiers.  In the active component, when you retire after 20 years or more, you immediately draw retirement pay and qualify for medical benefits.  Reservists, on the other hand, do not draw their retirement pay or receive their medical benefits until they reach age 60.  There are some benefits that start immediately (including the option to purchase health coverage), and others that you can’t use until you’re drawing retirement pay.
These different stages of retirement/eligibility are one potential source of confusion.  
When a Reservist has served 20 years of qualifying service, they receive what is known as a “20 Year Letter”, which is the main document that proves they are entitled to retirement pay and benefits.  There are some personnel actions that must be taken upon receiving the 20 Year Letter, others that must be done at retirement, and others when you turn 60.
When you retire from the Army Reserve, you are not actually “retired”, per se.  You are actually a member of the “Retired Reserve”, unless you choose to be discharged at that time.  If you remain in the Retired Reserve after retirement, you continue to accrue a certain type of seniority which can increase the value of your pay at age 60.  People in this stage (whether in the Retired Reserve or discharged) are referred to as “gray area” retirees.  Upon reaching age 60, you are placed on the Retired List.  At that point you are fully retired, just like an active component soldier is immediately upon their retirement.
One additional complication to this is that in an effort to compensate Reservists for the multiple extended deployments required by the transformation from a strategic reserve to an operational reserve, Congress gave us a significant benefit as part of the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  For every 90-day period served on mobilization or active duty orders in support of a contingency operation (what we used to call “war”), Reservists are entitled to collect retirement pay 90 days earlier than we otherwise would have.  For example, if you were mobilized for six months in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and were otherwise entitled to retirement pay as a Reservist, you could begin to draw it at age 59 ½ instead of age 60. This is known informally as "Early Age Drop". There are some esoteric details as to how the actual time is calculated that have to do with fiscal year boundaries, so figuring out exactly what this means is not quite as simple as it sounds.

Most retirement-related publications and processes assume that there will be a several-year gap between when someone moves to the Retired Reserve and when they move to the Retired List and start to draw their pay (usually at age 60).  But because of the early age drop, those Reservists who, like me, have been on extended active duty since it took effect in January 2008 have several years of eligibility built up. In my own case, I will move to the Retired List the next day after I enter the Retired Reserve.  (I've actually been eligible since August 2013). This has created some interesting challenges resolving conflicting instructions and policies with respect to the timing of certain processes, submission of forms, insurance coverage, etc.  But I can live with these challenges - overall it’s a Very Good Thing.
So how does one begin the process once they receive their 20 year letter? That depends upon who you are, and whom you ask.
The central office for personnel actions in the Army is Human Resources Command (HRC) at Fort Knox, KY.  They set policies, establish processes and procedures, manage the central records repository, and manage personnel actions such as promotions, selection for military schools, awards, and retirement. They have a website that has information and forms available to help you get started.  But they are not generally the people you are supposed to talk to about it.
Individual Reservist personnel actions are usually managed by their reserve unit.  Additionally, there are several Regional Support Commands (RSCs) that cover different geographic areas of the country.  Each of these has a Retirement Services Office (RSO) that provides support for Reservists retiring in their area of responsibility (AOR).  Since historically most Reservists have been members of Reserve units doing traditional Reserve service, the system is oriented towards that model.   Being from Michigan, I am part of the 88th RSC, which covers most of the upper Midwest.  I have been getting email notices from the 88th RSC RSO for some time now.  They have informational publications and checklists, as well as regular retirement briefings that they hold in various states.  Having been on active duty almost continuously since 2006, however, I was never located anywhere near any of these briefings and was never able to go to one.  But at least I had access to their materials, and could read them and ask questions.
While I was in Germany, I went to a retirement briefing held by the RSO in Stuttgart.  It was somewhat helpful, but was oriented towards active duty soldiers.  Not only did some of the information not apply to Reservists, the people presenting it really had no idea about many of the details of reserve retirement.  So I walked away from there with some information, but there were a lot of gaps.  
As I looked for additional information about how my own process would work, I learned that a couple of other aspects of my status have further complicated things for me.

First of all, I am what is known as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA).  This is a Reservist who is assigned to an active component unit as their permanent assignment.  As such, we do not have a reserve unit, but are managed centrally by an office at HRC.  For this reason, some of the guidance put out by the RSC RSOs does not apply to us.  As an IMA, finding out who to ask questions and where to send forms at HRC is its own special challenge.  
Furthermore, I am an O6 (Colonel), which means that my records and personnel actions are supposed to be managed by the Senior Leader Development Office (SLDO), a separate office at HRC.  This made finding the correct information even more interesting.  As you might expect, there are both overlaps and gaps.
I’ve run into much the same thing here at Fort Bragg that I did in Stuttgart.  I have tried to go through parts of the retirement preparation process here so as to take advantage of all the resources on an active Army installation.  Because they are set up to deal with active component personnel, they not only do not know a lot of the reserve information, but many activities simply will not talk with a Reservist at all. Even if they are willing to help, they usually cannot access your records to do anything for you, because the reserve and active component personnel systems are on different platforms and can't talk to each other.  The RSO here at Fort Bragg simply gave me the number for the HRC RSO and said to call them.  
One group that has been very helpful is the Veterans Administration (VA).  They have an office here, and there are also representatives from several  veterans service organizations to help a prospective retiree get started with the VA.  I went to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and their representative was extremely helpful in getting me started down the right path.  One thing I learned was that the VA and the VHA (Veterans Health Administration) are related but distinct entities.  You have to deal with both of them, each for different things.
So far I have at least four or five different pre-retirement checklists produced by these various organizations.  No two are alike, and each has at least one piece of information that the others lack. I have folders and envelopes full of information, including one very useful summary publication.   I have dozens of sheets of paper on which I have kept notes of conversations I have had with people in different organizations regarding various aspects of retirement, which include contact names and numbers, email addresses, websites, and process details.  I have a large box of military medical records to organize, and requests out to civilian doctors for their records of treatment I have received.  I have a to-do list a mile long, most of which has to be accomplished before the actual date of retirement.
Here are a few links that should be helpful to someone getting started in this process:
HRC Reserve Retirement  (Requires CAC or DS LOGON):
https://www.hrc.army.mil/content/Reserve%20Component%20Retirements 
Army Reserve Non-Regular Retirement Guide:
www.armyg1.army.mil/rso-migrated/docs/ARReserveRetirementGuide.pdf 

Soldier For Life - Reserve Retirement Services Offices
https://soldierforlife.army.mil/retirement/reservecomponent
Tricare on how to get a Retirement Physical (SHPE):
https://tricare.mil/LifeEvents/Retiring 
More SHPE information on Health.mil  (I never heard of it before either):
https://health.mil/SHPE  
Veterans Administration:
https://www.va.gov/ 
VA Disability information:
http://militarydisabilitymadeeasy.com 
The bottom line for any Reservist approaching retirement is that you have to be aggressive and persistent in ferreting out information.  Don’t rely on one source alone, and don’t assume that just because you’ve gotten an answer that it’s the right one.  Ask your retirement questions the way they vote in Chicago – early and often.  Compare the information you have with what others around you have learned, and be prepared to adjust your understanding, read between the lines, and submit the same forms more than once to different offices.  Keep copies of everything.  And above all, be prepared to manage and track the process yourself.
Mood:  Ready to go
Music:  Joe Walsh (Life's Been Good to Me)

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