FORT LEE, Va. --Hundreds of military veterans flocked to the Soldier Support Center Saturday for the annual Retiree Appreciation Day observance.

The RAD’s overarching message is that anyone who has served in the Army is a “Soldier for Life,” and as such, deserving to be kept abreast of community activities, pay and entitlement benefits, support services and more. The venue also provides valued services like ID card renewals, legal assistance and flu shots.

Opening remarks were provided by Col. Hollie J. Martin, garrison commander, and Maj. Gen. Rodney D. Fogg, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general. Both thanked attendees for their service and acknowledged their importance to the military community.

“We’re here because of you,” Fogg stated. “We stand on your shoulders and enjoy the pride of the nation because of your service. When I look back on my career, I remember the great Soldiers I’ve worked with for 31 years – officers, warrants and noncommissioned officers who are truly the backbone of the Army. They are individuals I can reflect upon and recognize how they shaped my career, and I can tell you that’s what you represent to me and many others.”

Fogg also assured the assembly that the gates of Fort Lee are always open to them. “We recognize the important role you play in our community, and we will support you with every available resource.”

The RAD’s featured speaker, retired Lt. Col. Maria G. Bentinck, is the deputy director of the Army Retirement Services Office in Crystal City near the Pentagon. In that capacity, she helps provide oversight of the transition assistance programs for military personnel approaching retirement and the support and information services made available to the nearly 870,000 retired members of the Army Family. In FY17, she reported, another 32,000 Soldiers transitioned out of the active duty force, and the government paid over $20 billion in retirement pay and survivor benefits and annuities.

“You can see by the numbers that we are many and considered to be the fourth component of the Army,” she told the audience. “My message today is that our commitment to the service should not stop on the day we hang up the uniform. We don’t become mere retirees, we become retired Soldiers, which is a big difference I hope you already feel or will realize after today.”

Bentinck is adamant about retirees staying engaged with the military community.

“Your mission has changed, but your duty has not,” she bluntly stated. “What we want you to do now is to hire and inspire. If you have a lead on a job ideally suited for a veteran, pass that information along. Make those connections. You also can help our recruitment efforts by reaching out and telling others about your experiences.”

On that point, she later noted how views about the military among the younger population today are largely shaped by the movies and video game industry. As a result, they’re not seeing the career- and leadership-building opportunities offered by the Army. Retired Soldiers, she said, can volunteer for speaking engagements and team up with local recruiting offices to “get the stories out” about what the military did for them.

The obligation to “stay engaged” also includes staying informed. Bentinck said it’s important for retired Soldiers to know what the Army is doing and what’s going on at local installations like Fort Lee. She touted the retirement newsletter Army Echoes and its associated website retireenews.org, both of which are managed by her office. Those in need of assistance, she said, should start with the Retirement Services Office locations at each major installation as they offer a “working knowledge” of VA benefits, have information about available services and can assist with referrals to the agencies that help military retirees.

Bentinck also highlighted recent changes to health benefits during her talk. She placed a great deal of emphasis on the Tricare dental and vision plan coverage that will expire at the end of this year.

“As a replacement, you have the opportunity to enroll in FEDVIP, the Federal Employee Dental and Vision Insurance Program,” she elaborated. “The cost will vary depending on the type and level of coverage desired, so what I’m encouraging you to do now is go to the website (tricare.benefeds.com) to look at the plans and figure out what’s right for you. Check with your dental care provider to make sure they accept the new coverage as well.”

The open enrollment season for FEDVIP is Nov. 12 - Dec. 10. Those who do nothing by Dec. 31, Bentinck emphasized, will lose dental and vision coverage as of Jan. 1, 2019. “There is no automatic enrollment,” she said, “so anyone who is retired or about to join those ranks needs to take action if they want to avoid losing their insurance. There won’t be another opportunity until the open enrollment season at the end of 2019.”

Offering final words of advice before concluding her presentation, Bentinck said all members of the military family eligible to do so must vote in every election.

“Our voices need to be heard,” she added. “In addition to voting, we can call and write emails to demand that our congressional representatives support our military. As members of this community, we need to do everything we can to ensure our needs are at the forefront of government policy.”

Other features of the RAD included a veterans organization area with representatives from various organizations like the VA, Army Women’s Museum, VFW, American Legion, and others on hand. In one hallway, the Family and MWR marketing team provided information about recreational opportunities on post including the annual Oktoberfest celebration set for Oct. 13. The health fair area provided information about available tobacco cessation and nutrition classes, on-post veterinary services and what’s offered at the Fort Lee Army Wellness Center. In the lobby of the Soldier Support Center were booths occupied by health coverage providers and other vendors who regularly support the retired Soldier community.

Military veteran Frankie Thomas, who was a staff sergeant when he concluded his 13 and a half years in uniform, was ecstatic about the many offerings. “I love it,” he declared. “Every year, this event gets better and better. For me, it’s not just the wealth of information that’s provided, it’s also the opportunity to get out and meet folks. I really enjoy doing that because I get to reconnect with the military community.”

An attendee browsing the health fair area offered similar sentiments. “I really feel great, and I feel proud,” said the 20-year retiree who worked in human resources during her time in uniform. “It gives me peace of mind knowing there are all these people here on post and in the local community who are enthusiastically supporting us as we get older. It’s a good reminder that you’re still valued and a welcome member of the military community.”