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Garden Party

J. D. Pendry

"I went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again
When I got to the garden party they all knew my name
But no one recognized me I didn't look the same"
- Garden Party - Ricky Nelson

I went to a retirement briefing the other day. The room was filled with seasoned soldiers (read codgers) like me. From the looks of everyone, you'd have thought we were about to make Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. I've never seen so many thousand-meter stares, so much fidgeting, shuffling around, hands in pockets or staring at feet - and all of that accompanied by nervous laughter. The kind you hear when suddenly you find yourself faced with uncertainty and approaching the rest of your life. Our great new adventure, the Garden Party we all claimed to have looked forward to, was more like walking off into an abyss. Mentally, we were all much more prepared to grab our bags and deploy to anywhere than we were to make that last PCS move.

It's an odd feeling realizing that what you've been doing for more than half of your life is over and that soon you'll be one of them. A retired old fogie who's driving too slowly down the street, in the way at the commissary, the clinic, the PX and just about everywhere else on post. Who's often under-appreciated if not completely unappreciated. With so much to offer on life, so much experience to share and unable to find anyone interested in either. You've been to the top of a profession where many counted on you for so much, now you long to have a young soldier just give a common courtesy. Or, in the best of all worlds, you hope he'll say, "Can you help me with this?"

With those thoughts bearing on your mind, you start wishing you'd been more help to retired soldiers. Then the Survivor Benefits guy gets up to start the daylong briefing. After he's through you're convinced that you have to die to get a good deal. If you can call that a good deal. He points out that with a good insurance plan, which you can't afford, a maximum SBP deduction, a second retirement of some kind, social security and another half a million bucks or so laying around you just might be able to maintain your lifestyle during your retirement years.

If you're not depressed enough by the time he's through, you have another chance - the finance lady is next. She runs through a laundry list of things you can do, can't do and must do. Forgetting any of them assures that your first and maybe subsequent retirement checks may never show up. She then explains that once you retire you have to deal with Cleveland, not her. I got this mental picture of frozen Lake Erie, cold blowing snow and me living in a card board box above a steam grate because my retirement checks didn't show up. Nope, don't want to have to deal with Cleveland. Better pay attention to the finance lady and take good notes. The finance lady was just full of information. We learned about leave we could take, leave we could sell, leave we could sell only if we sold the same amount of days we were taking. It was called save-pay days. Never heard of it - don't want to try and explain it either. This is my fifth cup of coffee. My stomach's upset and I got a headache, so it's a good time for Bubbles, the ACAP lady.

"Down at ACAP we all got Master's Degrees in Human Resources and stuff (hmmm... didn't do much for you did it?) so we know how to help you make the transition (but we're lifetime civilians so we've never made the transition). Make sure you fill out the form so we can get you in the system (read justify my job). Here's a Green to Gray book (this guy has a good racket going). Come in and let us help you with your resume. Here's a box full of flyers on job fairs. Good luck. The social security lady'll follow me." Social Security?

"Hi everyone, I'm the late social security lady. Well not late, but not on time. I'll try to shorten my briefing a little so we can get back on schedule. Here's our 800 number, our web site and a form to fill out. All of them will tell you that there will be no money left when it's your turn to get some. You can start when you're 62, but get more if you wait until you're 66 and even more than that if you wait until you're 75 or a hundred. I'll hang around in the hallway about 30 seconds if you have any more questions."

"Hi. I'm Miss Tricare. The answer to your question is no (Better get a good first aid kit). The VA guy'll follow me.

"I'm the VA guy. I really got busted up in Nam, but I didn't have anyone to tell me about my VA benefits. Took me 12 years to get something. What you brought with you 20 something years ago the Army has broke. OK. So fill out these forms the way I tell you and give me a hundred and 20 copies of your medical records. Do everything I say and chances are you won't get anything anyway, but what the heck, I'll still have a job processing all of these applications. Maybe later I can cut us a deal with the guy who wrote the Green to Gray stuff. Where's the ACAP lady?"

Some future members of the AARP were at the briefing for the fourth time. I could understand why. It's depressing. There's more paper required to get out of the Army than there was to get in it. You get more don'ts than do's. All the stuff is piled up on my desk. It'll sit there for awhile too. Maybe for three years since I got that many left if I want. That'll give me time to locate a good steam grate, a sturdy cardboard box and a first aid kit as my medical benefit. I went to a garden party...

Copyright 1998 JD Pendry All Rights Reserved