The sound of laughter and the aroma of coffee and pancakes wafts out into the lobby of a hotel in Watertown on a Saturday morning. If you were to enter the ballroom, you might think you had just walked into an enormous Family reunion. You would not be wrong.
As coffee mugs are refilled and dishes are cleared away, individuals wearing polo shirts embroidered with "Fort Drum Retiree Council" circulate the room. Although many a story of the "glory days" can be overheard, these representatives are doing much more than visiting with the retirees who turn out for the council’s monthly breakfasts, said Sonny Mitchell, council adviser.
"One of the primary duties of the council is to communicate with retired service members within our area of responsibility and gather information on the issues that are affecting them," he said. "We serve as their voice to higher headquarters."
This is no small feat, as the council represents retirees from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, 48 counties in New York state, and seven Canadian provinces.
"We have 12 members who really represent the diversity of the population we serve in this area," Mitchell said. "Our council is made up of retired officers, warrant officers and enlisted service members from the active-duty and reserve component, as well as from other branches of the military."
This multi-service representation is something that sets the Fort Drum Retiree Council apart from others, and it is vital to supporting all members of the retiree population within the council’s area of operations, said retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Patrick R. Rourk.
"These councils are mandated by the Army, but we recognized the need for a support system for all of our retired service members," said Rourk, who serves as the council’s enlisted co-chair. "If you’ve worn the uniform and served your nation, you are part of the Family."
The council also has greatly benefitted from the diverse backgrounds of its members, Mitchell said.
"We have subject-matter experts from the medical field, logistics, economics and finance and emergency services," he said. "We have a surgeon who serves with the Reserve’s ambassador program, we have a 100-percent medically retired Soldier with a passion for helping other medical retirees, and we have a former garrison commander. They all see issues from a different perspective, and their input is so valuable."
The council is also assisted by a Canadian citizen who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Currently residing in Ontario Province, he is a liaison for American veterans living in Canada.
A local community member and surviving spouse who has volunteered countless hours in support of the council also has provided unique insight, Mitchell said.
"When we talk about supporting our retirees, many people don’t realize that we also provide continued support for our surviving Family Members," he said. "We have several thousand in our area of operations, and the council is extremely dedicated to caring for these individuals."
While the Fort Drum Retiree Council is robust and far-reaching, its 12 members could never reach every individual in the large geographic area they represent. This is where the 35 volunteers who make up smaller sub-councils play an important role.
The council and its many subgroups hold events within their local areas, as a means of providing an opportunity to network and ensuring that retirees have the most accurate and up-to-date information on issues that may affect them. In addition, these events are a perfect way to gather feedback regarding the challenges and obstacles that these individuals face.
Retired Maj. Gen. Robert J. Kasulke, the council’s officer co-chair, said that this personal interaction is an extremely valuable component of determining the most pressing needs of the retired population.
"Our council members are astute listeners," he said. "They are the individuals who are out in the community, engaging with our retiree population and bringing these issues to our attention so that we can work with subject-matter experts to do an intelligent analysis and determine the best way forward."
Once issues are voiced, the council discusses them with the command team at Fort Drum and determines whether issues can be resolved locally or need to be brought to the attention of the Chief of Staff, Army Retired Soldier Council (CSARSC).
The Retired Soldier Council’s mission is to strengthen communications between the active-duty Army, National Guard, Reserve and retired community, so that they can provide the chief of staff with information and feedback on the most pressing issues affecting retirees.
Fort Drum’s Retiree Council has been a catalyst for change in policy that has improved the function of similar councils all over the world. Last year, its members began tracking their hours in the Army Volunteer Management Information System.
"This is important because it allows Army higher headquarters to see – in black and white – the value of what the council brings to the commander and to the local retiree population," Mitchell said.
Recognizing the positive impact this could have on other councils, Fort Drum raised the issue with U.S. Army Installation Management Command. In June, IMCOM published an operations order requiring all councils to begin tracking their service hours within the VMIS system.
Over the past few years, representatives from the Retired Soldier Council have visited Fort Drum and provided local members with valuable feedback on several occasions, Mitchell said.
"Our local Retiree Council members have been able to receive guidance and mentorship directly from members of the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Council," he said. "That is incredibly beneficial. They get to learn about issues that are affecting retirees all over the world, and who better to assess the effectiveness of our local council than those individuals who are leading the way in taking care of our retired service member population?"
This September, as part of part of Fort Drum’s Retiree Appreciation Day events, the local council hosted retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler, who was recently named as the CSARSC’s co-chair.
Chandler spoke about attending his first Retired Soldier Council meeting this spring, and the reputation that the Fort Drum Retiree Council has built.
"One of the things that I was struck by is that it seemed like Fort Drum had a lot of issues that had made it all the way up to our level," he said. "They were salient issues. They were issues that applied across the retiree population."
Chandler said that he was grateful for the opportunity to meet with the Fort Drum Retiree Council, and he thanked members for providing an example for other councils to follow.
"I want to tell you thank you for – from my perspective – setting a standard for other councils to aspire to," Chandler said. "I was glad to see what ‘right’ looks like."
He also thanked the Fort Drum Retiree Council members for helping to fulfill the Army’s promise to care for Soldiers in every stage of their lives.
"Very few people even know that this is something that is a part of the Army and that there are people who – even after retirement – continue to serve," he said. "You’re a part of that group, and you make a huge difference."
While the Fort Drum Retiree Council has many broad-reaching objectives that its members hope to address in the future, Mitchell emphasized that their No. 1 priority is – and always will be – fulfilling the Army’s commitment to providing the continued support that retired service members need to thrive.
"Part of the Soldier for Life cycle is ‘Remain Strong,’" he said. "We want retirees to understand that they don’t need to do that alone. They are an important part of the Army Family, and our Retiree Council is here to support them."
To learn more about the Fort Drum Retiree Council, visit www.facebook.com/FortDrumNYRetireeCouncil, or call Fort Drum retirement services at (315) 772-6434 / 6339.