Home away from home
Like many before him and countless afterward, Dennis Provencher married a local national while serving overseas in the Pacific and settled down in his host nation after retiring in 1971. The former Air Force staff sergeant is now 81 and has spent the past 53 years in Okinawa with his wife.
Like many who have retired to far flung locales like Guam, the Philippines and South Korea as well as Japan, Provencher is living the good life. He keeps busy with the USO, Boy Scouts of America, American Red Cross and as district and post commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Post 9723. He even holds the Guinness World Records title for donating the most blood – 37 gallons in 46 years.
Does he have any regrets about retiring overseas?
Are you kidding?
“In the beginning I thought I might go back (to the States), and I went back twice a year after I retired,” he says. “But I am more comfortable here now.”
That’s not to say that retiring in one’s host nation or territory is not without its challenges. Many say it takes a lot of advanced research and planning to live “the retired life” abroad – especially in a foreign country without many of the familiar active-duty privileges that are usually forfeited.
Like Provencher, most Department of Defense military and civilian personnel that retire in Japan are married to local nationals, according to Vincent Dean, 39. The junior vice commander at VFW Post 9612 on Camp Zama, Japan, has been helping retirees navigate the process since trading many of his status of forces agreement rights for a spouse visa after separating from the Navy in 2010.
He says there are many things people might want to consider before making the big leap, including employment, education, housing and medical opportunities – for their families, as well as themselves. And situations vary significantly depending on whether you are active duty or civilian, single or with family, as well as your age and future plans.
It’s best to start planning and preparing at least a year before retiring or otherwise separating abroad. Usually, there are transition or retiree-assistance offices on base where people can get general information on retiring. However, Dean says people who want to stay in a foreign country such as Japan would do well to check local U.S. embassy or consulate websites for up-to-date information on local immigration and visa laws.
“What they need to do is go to their command and put in the paper work,” says Dean. Ideally, their command will have an actual check list of must-dos that you can follow based on an embassy website. “And each command also has its own stipulation on what you need to do and how far out you need to start the process.”
Then, Dean says, comes priority No. 1: “Where you are going to live.”
“The first thing you need to do after you decide you want to stay in Japan, is consider the fact when you are out-processing from the military is that your housing is important,” says Dean. “Even though you have a lease for renting an apartment or your house or whatever you may be living in, once you get out of the military, that lease is no longer valid.”
With the challenge of finding new digs and securing a lease or mortgage as a foreigner or non-permanent resident, comes paying for it. While you might expect high rent in big cities like Seoul or Tokyo, things are not much better on comparatively tiny Guam, says Bryan Strickner, 44, senior vice commander of VFW Post 1509.
“My job has nothing to do with DOD, so I live on the economy just like everyone else,” says Strickner. “I would say a three-bedroom house will go for anywhere from $1,500 to $1,800 a month. It all depends on where you live, of course.”
Planning can make all the difference in the world, even in locales with a high cost of living like Japan.
“We bought a house in Saga and it’ll be paid off in a few years,” says Richard Delaura, 57, an Army reservist and Army civilian at Camp Zama who is primed to retire in 2015. “I believe I will be financially capable of sustaining my life once I retire here in Japan. (The) house is an hour-drive away from Sasebo. … So I still have access to a lot of the things at (Sasebo Naval Base).”
Delaura also has an ace – or make that, four aces – up his sleeve.
“I do have four levels of retirement,” he says. “I have Active Federal Service Retirement; Army Reserve Retirement; my own saving retirement plan; and, if Social Security is still around, it will be another tier of retirement for me.”
Employment plays a major role in most foreigners’ ability to live abroad. And for retiring military and DOD civilians, nothing can be more prized than a GS (general schedule) U.S. government job. That’s because these jobs are SOFA sponsored and offer most of those familiar pre-separation benefits, such as on-base housing and free priority access to Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) schools.
NAF, or non-appropriated-fund, government positions can also be a boon since they can ensure some SOFA benefits such as national residency and commissary and driving privileges. However, these jobs tend to offer less pay, perks and overall privileges than their GS counterparts.
The other employment option that can ensure residency is a local employer that will not only hire you, but expend the extra time and resources needed to sponsor your work visa. In such cases, retirees will lose all SOFA-related privileges in a foreign country. Dean notes that in Japan these forfeited benefits include use of the military postal service, and “Y–plate” vehicles with lower licensing and registration fees that do not require navigating a complex vehicle registration system in a foreign language.
Aside from income and benefits, however, employment begs another question that many Americans may be more familiar with asking than having to answer. “What are you going to do to give justification to stay in the country?” asks Dean.
SOFA or Visa
In Japan and Korea, U.S. citizens can stay on a tourist visa for 90 days after their SOFA standing ends, according to American embassies. If you can’t find a job on base that extends it, and you don’t have a visa for being married to a local national and aren’t working for a local company, etc., you’ll have to leave.
’s something that Michael Snell, 40, a former Army sergeant at Camp Zama, knows all too well. Snell, who just out-processed in December, is single, lives off post, no longer has SOFA standing and currently is looking for a job that will allow him to stay in Japan. He says he made plans to retire here; he just didn’t make them soon enough.
“I completed my bachelors in business administration last December, the same timing as my retirement,” says Snell, who is now looking to teach English in Japan. “I wish now that I (had graduated) years ago instead of waiting. Graduating right after retirement was too close. I could have done more things and had more potential opportunities.”
These days, the job market is not much easier on Guam, says VFW Post 1509’s Strickner.
“For employment, you got to hustle. Just because you’re a retiree does not mean you are going to get a job here in Guam,” he says. Ironically, unlike Japan, he adds that DOD-related employment is why about three-quarters of the former military he knows have retired on island. But times have changed. “Off-base employment is a little tough and Guam’s economy isn’t the greatest right now.”
Those retiring or otherwise separating abroad with school age children should bear in mind that there are different levels of eligibility for DODEA schools – even if you do have SOFA standing. Eligibility can vary according to location, employment or status and range from whether you have guaranteed or space-available access, to whether attendance is free or tuition must be paid.
John Zakutney, 53, of V.F.W. Post 10216 in South Korea, retired from the Air Force there in 1999. He strongly recommends checking with DODEA schools in your area before taking the plunge to retire there with school age kids.
“For school, if you are a contractor, you are on space-available basis. So there might be an opening, but you still have to pay and it is very expensive,” says Zakutney. “I am a contractor with SOFA status now, and I am a retiree, and I am paying $22,000 for my eighth-grade daughter (to go to school) on base.
“As retiree, I still have to pay because I am a contractor; if you are GS, it’s free,” he adds. “I sent her to Korean school when she was in third grade, but I still had to pay lots of money.”
It should come as no surprise that the adventure of retiring overseas will also extend to health care. Military medical facilities are primarily for active-duty personnel, and retirees generally must look to the outside community for a lion’s share of their health care services. Similarly, Veterans Affairs assistance and services are limited, at best.
“VA health care is really geared at domestic veterans, unfortunately,” says Anthony Politelli, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs representative at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. “It is made to be a supplement of another health plan.”
He adds that would-be overseas retirees should also understand that the VA’s Foreign Medical Program only reimburses for medically necessary treatment of VA-approved conditions that were incurred while on active duty. Those traetments must also be accepted by the VA and/or the U.S. medical community.
“They (retirees) cannot just go (to a doctor) for a cold that they get once they retired and expect FMP reimbursement, he says. “It has to be service-connected conditions.”
In old age
After more than a half century on Okinawa, Provencher may have little to complain about but he admits that at age 81 he’s still learning new things about retiring there. The V.F.W. district and post commander says that it has recently come to light that many older retirees neglect to teach their spouses about their finances and other essentials such as insurance, banking and important military and family contacts.
“I found out we’ve had many deaths here (among retirees) – at least 20 in the last 10 years, and most of the wives don’t know anything. They don’t even know how to go to the credit union and get the money out or make a claim for insurance,” he says, adding that some kind of class should be developed. “We have a lady now that we’re working with whose husband died eight months ago and she still needs help because he didn’t teach her anything.”
Challenges aside, however, Provencher says he’s enjoying the retired life abroad. Sure, he may miss the States and family back home, but there are ways around that these days.
“We went back to States last year to see our grandkids, but, you know, with Skype, you don’t need to go there that often. And I don’t have to shovel the snow here,” he adds with a laugh. “Okinawa is my home.”
VA Retirement Tips
Education (Post 9/11 GI Bill)
- 36 months of active duty service is required to get 100 percent education benefits at public in-state schools; coverage is prorated for less time. Otherwise there is a cap of $19,138.
- At least 90 days of service are required for the minimum amount of education benefits (40 percent)
- Not all foreign schools are enrolled in the GI Bill program but if they are not, they can be; make sure they participate before enrolling.
- The VA pays a monthly housing allowance. The foreign rate is $1,429 per month if you are going to school full time overseas – half that for online courses.
- For more Information on the Post 9/11 GI Bill, visit: www.gibill.va.gov
- Think about disability compensation at least a year before separating to gather treatment records. Enroll in a foreign medical program to get treatment out on the community.
- The Foreign Medical Plan is a program for veterans who live or travel overseas - excluding the Philippines - that pays the VA-allowable amount for the treatment of a service-connected condition or any medical conditions associated with and held to be aggravating a service-connected condition.
- For more information on the Foreign Medical Plan, visit: www.va.gov/hac/forbeneficiaries/fmp/fmp.asp
- In Japan, people with disability compensation don’t need to go back to the States to get an exam done. Once they file their claim, VA works with embassy and contractor doctors go to Yokohama and Tokyo to see veterans at one of two facilities.
- For GS federal employment jobs, visit: www.usajobs.gov
- Veterans preference: You have five points preference, if you are service-connected veteran with a disability, you have 10 points preference. For details, visit: www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits-portal/ebenefits.portal
- • Retirement checks are a taxable
- • You may also be eligible for a disability compensation check after 20 years of service
- • You cannot receive both retirement and disability checks simultaneously – unless you get a 50 percent rating and they have 20 years in the military.
– Source: Anthony Politelli, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Representative, Yokosuka Naval Base
TRICARE for retirees overseas
FALLS CHURCH, Va. – If you are an overseas-based uniformed service retiree, you enjoy much more flexibility in choosing providers than TRICARE Overseas Program (TOP) Prime enrollees, since you don’t have a primary care manager and don’t need specialty care referrals. That’s your advantage when using TOP Standard.
Many overseas host nation providers require up-front payment for services, and you usually have to file your own claims when using TOP Standard. Contact your TRICARE Overseas Program Regional Call Center (www.tricare-overseas.com/ContactUs) to get help in finding a host nation network provider or filing a TRICARE claim. You can also find a provider by using the overseas online TRICARE Provider Directory.
If you live in the Philippines, you must get care from a TOP-certified provider. You may find a certified provider from the Philippines Certified Provider Directory.
Referrals are not needed for TOP Standard, but you must get prior authorization for some services:
- Adjunctive dental services
- Home health services (only available in U.S. Territories)
- Hospice care (only available in U.S. Territories)
- Nonemergency inpatient admissions for substance use disorders or behavioral health care
- Outpatient behavioral health care visits beyond the eighth visit per fiscal year (Oct. 1–Sept. 30)
- Transplants – all organ and stem cell
Always contact your TOP Regional Call Center and select option 3 to check on any new prior authorization requirements.
If you become Medicare-eligible, be aware that TRICARE For Life acts the same as Standard overseas except in U.S. Territories. Although Medicare services are only available in U.S. Territories overseas, you must still enroll in Medicare Part B and pay the monthly Part B premium to be eligible for TRICARE For Life, regardless of location.
You may sign up for Medicare at the Federal Benefits Office located at U.S. Embassies. In U.S. territories, go to your local Social Security Administration office. Enroll no later than two months before you turn 65, or if you qualify for Medicare due to end-stage renal disease, disability or Lou Gehrig’s disease, purchase Part B as soon as it is offered. Once you receive your Medicare card, verify that your record in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) was updated to reflect your Medicare status.
Uniformed services retirees cannot enroll in TOP Prime. At some overseas military treatment facilities, retirees can enroll in TRICARE Plus to obtain no-cost, space-available primary care in the facility. TRICARE Plus enrollees must make their own appointments, file their own claims and pay appropriate deductibles and cost-shares, however, when seeking host-nation care.
For more information regarding TOP Standard and TRICARE For Life in overseas areas, visit: www.tricare.mil
– Chris Hober, TRICARE Management Activity
FOR MORE INFO
Camp Foster: 634-3151
Kadena Air Base: 634-3366
Yokosuka Naval Base: 243-9621
Atsugi Naval Air Facility: 264-3958
Camp Zama: 263-3940
Yokota Air Base: 225-5370
Retirement Service Office:
RSO USAG-Red Cloud and USAG-Humphreys: 730-4133
RSO USAG-Yongsan and USAG-Daegu: 723-2781
Retiree Activity Office:
Osan Air Base RAO: 784-1441
Veterans of Foreign Wars:
V.F.W. Post 10216: www.vfw10216.com/contact.htm
Retiree Activity Office (Guam):
Andersen Air Force Base: 315-366-2574
Veterans of Foreign Wars:
V.F.W. Post 1509 (Yigo): 671-653-8903
V.F.W. Post 2917 (Agat): 565-8397/4839