By Lauren Zaepfel
As Veterans Day approaches, volunteers at the Retiree Affairs Office at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station in Niagara Falls would like to remind local military retirees of the resources they have access to as a result of their service.
As the new director of the Retiree Affairs Office, 1st Sgt., USA, (Ret.) Joseph T. Reele would like to help inform local military retirees of all branches of their benefits and privileges they have earned.
"Many of these veterans do not know of our office and may have questions regarding their health benefits, free travel, lodging and many other benefits, including burial rights and free processing of personal wills," said Reele, a former reservist in Niagara and current resident of Youngstown, originally from the Town of Niagara.
"I think that most retirees know most benefits, but if they would like to visit our office on the Niagara Falls Air Base, we can address what they do not know. For instance, military retirees can get free eyeglasses, at-cost hearing aids and free flights on military aircraft," Reele said. "Other benefits include use of commissaries, base exchanges, on-base lodging and use of all base facilities. Our base can also provide simple wills by appointment."
Certain benefits are applicable for those from all branches of the military, including the U.S. Coast Guard, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and some Department of Defense personnel.
"Military retirees are able to travel on space-available basis on military airplanes," said WWII veteran Arthur Cline of Lewiston, who is also a volunteer at the Retiree Affairs Office.
"The C-135 tankers here - they go all over the world, and if they have room, they take retirees as passengers," said Cline, a retiree himself.
Cline explained, when retirees arrive at their destination, the base will normally have quarters available for them to stay on a space-available basis. They are usually cheaper than commercial hotels.
"These benefits are for military veterans who have served 20 or more years of service or have incurred a disabling injury while on active duty," Reele explained. "Benefits vary. Active duty (full-timers) are eligible after 20 years. Reserve/National Guard must complete 20 'good years.' Active duty retirees receive pension as soon as they retire. Reservists must wait until age 60 to draw pay. This earned income helps their families to live a little better."
Reele helped define "good years," stating, "If you are in the reservist, you have to obtain 50 points, which can be achieved at active duty summer camps, for example."
Along with these benefits, both Reele and Cline stressed the importance of becoming familiar with the Survivor Benefit Program. "The spouse, on the death of the retiree, is eligible to draw up to just about 55 percent of what the retiree base pay was," Cline said.
"In years past ... we get an occasional widow who comes to the office and asks about retiree pay or witness pay and it's very disappointing, heartbreaking ... when the widow says 'My husband didn't take that out,' " Cline said. "It's like an insurance program."
Another point the volunteers can help clarify is not all retirees are veterans. Therefore, different benefits are available to them.
"The definition for a veteran is that they have to have served at least 90 consecutive days during a war-time period, and we have some retirees from the reserve base who have served at least 20 years, but never had 90 consecutive days of active duty. ... That means they can't participate in the VA benefit programs like home mortgages and what not. ... Various military organizations like the American Legion and the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and so forth have been after Congress for years to elevate that ... and make all retirees veterans," Cline said.
"We put out a newsletter quarterly and that newsletter has items of interest to retirees, ranging from health care to occasionally pay matters," Cline said.
The retiree newsletter can be found at www.niagara.afrc.af.mil, listed near the bottom left corner of the home page.
The Retiree Affairs Office is located in building 800, room 113. Visitors can stop by during office hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays. All those who work to run the office are volunteers and can be reached to answer questions and provide further information at 236-2389.
"My message to all military retirees ... stop by our office ... you will go away with a better knowledge of benefits that you have earned," Reele said.
When asked what motivates him to volunteer year after year, Cline summed up the camaraderie many local retirees have. He simply said, "I like to talk to them. We have a lot of interesting conversations."