Helpful Resources For American Veterans Overseas
“They purchased 100 water purifiers (for US$70 each), and now they’re giving them away to a local village,” writes Central American Correspondent Michael Paladin.
“They’re replacing a fisherman’s lost casting net.
“They’re sponsoring 13 local children until they finish school.
“They took the time to take the bus to a remote village to find a veteran who needed their services.
“Who are these people?
“The American Legion.
“Founded in the United States in 1920, shortly after WWI, as an alternative to the existing veteran’s service organization known as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), one of the first and more important accomplishments of the American Legion was the authorship and eventual creation of the GI Bill, which allowed thousands of veterans to complete their education, paid for partially by the U.S. government.
“The VFW requirement that a member must have served in a theater of war was expanded to include veterans who served in a support activity anywhere in the world during a period of war, thus including thousands of additional veterans and their wives. The original post, in Tampico, Mexico, wanted to be named the ‘Tequila Post.’ National Headquarters had a bit of a public relations problem with that, so Tampico Post #1 became the official title.
“Today, all of Mexico to the tip of Tierra del Fuego in South America is under the auspices of the American Legion, Department of Mexico. There are 12 posts in Mexico, 2 in Guatemala, 1 in El Salvador, 3 in Costa Rica, 1 in Nicaragua, and 2 in Panama and 1,300 members in total.
“There have been generational changes in the membership since WWII, with few of that generation left, and,as with most service organizations, the ranks have dwindled as societal attitudes have changed.
“This is a shame.
“Why should a retired veteran and his spouse join the American Legion? (Yes, there is an AL auxiliary. The local post of ladies raised money this Christmas here in Antigua for presents for residents of a local nursing home.) The benefits of membership are many. It’s an opportunity to meet other expats, to learn about the culture of the place where you’re living, to become more connected locally, and to lend a hand to your less-advantaged neighbors.
“The Post in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for example, just adopted, as it were, a school for handicapped children. They improved the buildings, purchased appliances and food, and took the children on a shopping trip for Christmas.
“There are more practical benefits, too. You can avail of help with a VA pension, burial services, tracking down long-lost decorations, shipping and mailing services, and transport to the nearest VA hospital in the United States if you need it. I have enjoyed excellent referrals plus time- and money-saving advice regarding passport renewals and immigration attorneys. And, as a member, I have access to a library of more than 30,000 volumes of the most diverse assortment.
“No, the American Legion is no longer primarily a bar with a poker table and a couple of pool tables in the smoky back room. A few of those posts may remain, staffed by older members telling war stories.
“Today, though, the emphasis is on service to the members and the community where they live. The greatest percentage of members today are Vietnam War veterans, who have given up the memories of the conflict, both the war itself and back home, and who are motivated to do something positive–from handing out water filters to covering school tuition.
“William (Bill) Shetz, a retired policeman from Philadelphia, the present adjutant of the local region, was appointed by the Department Commander for an unspecified period of time. The previous adjutant held the post for more than 20 years. Bill receives a budget to operate the office and a stipend for expenses. He presides over the monthly meetings, prepares the budget, and is the go-to guy for help or information on virtually any local subject.
“Bill has set an ambitious goal, undertaking a project more far-reaching than anything ever before attempted by the American Legion.
“U.S. census figures indicate that there may be more than 3 million Americans living south of the border and throughout Latin America. Bill estimates that, among them, there may be 200,000 veterans, living from Panama to Brazil and down to Argentina.
“These veterans are mostly out of touch with the Veteran’s Administration in the States and potentially in need of services, advice, and help. Bill’s mission this year is to reach out to these far-flung vets and, at the same time, to try to improve the image of Americans living abroad.
“The primary purpose of the American Legion is to help veterans and their families; the secondary purposes and goals are up to the individual posts and their members. I’m not a ‘joiner,’ and I learned long ago never to volunteer for anything. We vote on what we want to do (or not do).
“This exception to my usual non-joiner inclination has saved me significant money and time. It has also helped me to develop an ever-expanding group of friends, of varied backgrounds, and it has put at my disposal resources that I never would have found on my own.
“Plus, once in a while, I’m able to take pleasure from the fact that a few of my dollars are going to help to make someone’s life a bit easier.
“As a resource for someone considering moving to a foreign country, I’ve found membership in the American Legion invaluable. And the feel-good benefit…well, as they say in the credit card commercials, that’s been priceless.
“The cost of membership?
“I’m 64, a Vietnam vet, and I pay US$34.50 a year. The local post keeps US$11, and the rest goes to National Headquarters. The immigration advice I received last week saved me a $1,000 and a week of time. Do the math.
“You don’t have to go to meetings unless you want to. You don’t have to wear the pin or the cap unless you want to (and I don’t). But I guarantee you that you will meet an interesting group of like-minded people from all over the world, people with a wide variety of interesting experiences.
“Being part of this group is guaranteed to ease your transition from your old world to your new one and to help you with the sometimes overwhelming frustrations and unexpected complications and adjustments.
“And maybe it allows you to do a little good for some of your new neighbors whose circumstances might be a little less fortunate than your own.”
For more information on the American Legion in Latin America, the current South America outreach efforts, and to find out about becoming a member, get in touch with Bill Shetz directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I noticed that a reader wrote recently asking about VA hospitals and services. There are no VA hospitals in the region that I’m aware of. However, the American Legion is active throughout Central America and takes care of the vets. If you need a hospital, they’ll arrange for one in the States for you.
“The Legion is a great organization to be involved with in this part of the world. They gave me great passport renewal advice when I needed it, and, in Antigua, they have a library of more than 30,000 volumes.”
“I’m a recent receiver of your newsletter and apologize if this subject has been covered before. I am interested in Costa Rica and Panama for a possible home. I am 62 and have veterans health issues that are taken care of here in the U.S. What are my VA options in those countries? Do you have other recommendations?
“Also, I hear of crime being a problem in those countries. What are the weapons laws?”
— Jeff G., United States
Crime isn’t a big problem in Panama. Costa Rica suffers more from petty theft and house break-ins. You can get a gun permit as a resident in Panama, but the paperwork is burdensome. You also have to pass a psychological exam that I don’t think can be taken in English.
Frankly, I’m not sure, dear reader, about the presence of VA hospitals in Panama or Costa Rica, but, as there are no U.S. bases in either one, I’d guess there are no VA hospitals either. I don’t know of any.
Coincidentally, we have another letter from another reader who makes a recommendation for fellow readers interested in moving to a country where they could continue receiving their VA benefits. Rob B. writes from the Philippines:
“I’ve seen in your newsletter various questions about VA benefits overseas. Let me shed some light on the subject. The Philippines capital of Manila has one of the world’s largest VA hospitals outside the U.S. U.S. servicemen and women and Philippines fighters from WW2 were, for many years, the predominate patients of the VA health system in this country. With the aging of the WW2 vets, the VA in Manila was in trouble.
“However, with the increase of retirees from the Korea and Vietnam conflicts and especially young soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA in Manila is now exploding. I am seeing young veterans with disabilities from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taking their VA checks and retiring to the Philippines, where they can enjoy their VA benefits and a low cost of living, along with great weather, people, beaches, mountains, and one of the only pension visa programs in Southeast Asia.”
“I recently read a letter from another reader on the VA and the Philippines. As I am currently planning to move to the Philippines and have done my online research, I’d like to add the following:
“The VA has a clinic in Manila. Plus, they also have contract agreements with hospitals throughout the country (on Cebu Island, in Angeles City, Baguio City, the Subic Bay area, and other places). We also have RAO’s (Retiree Affairs Offices) in the Philippines. These offer aid and assistance on veteran’s issues, Social Security, and tax matters, plus general advice on the local area.
“We have USPS letter service, for official and unofficial mail (though no package service). And HSBC and CitiBank have banks in this country.
“Panama does not have a VA clinic or hospital. The clinic exists in the Philippines, because the veterans of the Philippines Scouts and Cavalry were members of the U.S. Army and needed one after 1945.
“Best of luck to all and a very Merry Christmas.”
— A fellow reader from the United States
“Another reader raised the question I’ve been wondering about recently–to do with VA health care outside the United States. Since VA health care is apparently unavailable in Panama, I have started to reconsider Guadalajara, Mexico. The advantage I see with Guadalajara is that it isn’t very far from San Diego, California, which I believe has a VA hospital. Plus, I understand there a lot of Americans living in Guadalajara.
“On the downside, according to recent news broadcasts, crime in Mexico is worse than ever before, especially crime committed by gangs of drug dealers, and it’s been reported that kidnapping and murders are at an all-time high. Should I assume I’d be risking my life on a daily basis if I lived there?”
— Charlie L., United States
You’re right on both first counts, dear reader. Guadalajara isn’t far from San Diego…and, indeed, as I mentioned above, there are already a lot of Americans living in the area, especially around Lake Chapala.
I wouldn’t worry too much about crime in this area of Mexico, though. Guadalajara is a big city and has its share of petty crime, but Chapala and Ajijic, nearby, are safe places to call home.
“Thanks for all of the information in your newsletter. I have really learned a lot. And I read the recent questions about VA benefits overseas with interest. I may be able to shed some light on the subject for my fellow readers.
“The Philippines capital of Manila has one of the world’s largest VA hospitals outside the United States. U.S. servicemen and -women and Philippines guerilla fighters from WW2 were for many years the predominate patients of the VA health system in this country. With the aging of the WW2 vets, the VA in Manila was in trouble.
“However, today, with the increase of retirees from the Korea and Vietnam conflicts and, especially, young veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA in Manila is exploding. I am seeing very young veterans with disabilities from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taking their VA checks and retiring to the Philippines, where they enjoy free VA benefits and a low cost of living.
“Great weather, people, beaches, mountains, and one of the only pension visa programs in Southeast Asia. With an exchange rate of about 47 pesos to the dollar, this country is a real bargain.
“As General George said, we will come again. Young retirees are coming back to this former U.S. colony for free VA health care. You should write a real article in your daily newsletter, instead of the South America/Central America news. Think outside of the box.”
— Rick B., Philippines