All military moves and separations are difficult to some degree. Unaccompanied tours add a different type of angst because they equate to a separation by location, not war. Sometimes spouses choose to relocate to foreign countries unsponsored. This doesn’t happen very often because it is difficult to move without the military’s support. First, it is the family’s responsibility to move the spouse (and if applicable, kids) on their own dime. Flying space available is an option, however, unsponsored family members are the lowest priority. Second, pets have to remain behind, as well as furniture, toys, books, musical instruments, and anything else that won’t meet the airlines two piece per person luggage rule. Third, unsponsored families do not have the same privileges as sponsored family members.
Aside from the financial disadvantages to an unsponsored tour, the biggest obstacle to overcome (and the reason most families do not join their spouse during a year-long unaccompanied tour) is schooling. Unsponsored children may not attend the Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DoDDs) unless there is space available for them, which is determined after the school year has started and usually not available. Other areas impacted by being unsponsored are health care (which is available but changed to co-pay and off post in a foreign country), Child and Youth School Services (again space available only), driving privileges (this is a big one), visas, and more. All of these challenges generally contribute to the family members remaining stateside for the year.
If you are considering moving overseas during an unaccompanied tour (especially if you have children), I would like to share some tips on how to have navigate the new adventure.
From the moment you decide to move, jump into this new adventure in your life. Go online and find out what is happening in the area you are moving. Volunteer on post, jump into whatever activities are going on during that season, and enroll your child in activities to make friends. The longer you wait to engage, the more disengaged and disenchanted you could become because living in a foreign country can feel more isolated than living in a familiar place where everyone speaks your language. People were shocked that one week after arriving in country, I volunteered to help with the Chapel’s Vacation Bible School. I corresponded online and the day I got to town did the finger prints for my background check (last day I was eligible before it would be too late). This gave my kids the opportunity to meet other kids their age and they made friends the first week in town.
Engaging kids immediately is especially important if you have opted to homeschool. It also allowed me the opportunity to meet some other women and learn more of what to expect and the area.
Be Humble and Live Simply!
Because you cannot bring your household goods with you or even your kids’ Lego buckets and books, you will need to live simply for the year and remain humble. You may only own one pot, four dishes, and four cups and all of them may or may not be used. It is not financially prudent to purchase an entire house’s worth of furniture, kitchenware, books, and toys for a one year tour. Instead, take advantage of the on-post thrift store (if there is one) and the online classifieds to purchase only what you can’t live without for one year. Buying used helps recycle fully operational items at a fraction of the cost for buying it new. But being humble is also important because you may have to put aside a lot more of your time to rewash the only four dishes you have several times a day!
You may also have to give up on luxury items. For instance, I can live without my KitchenAid and professional blender, but I did need a cheap hand mixer and when the $5 blender became available after one month here at yard sale, I bought that as well. When at all possible buy used and make friends willing to share. One friend gave me her appliances because they were 220 plugs and she lived on post and couldn’t use them effectively.
What could have been a cultur-ally insen-sitive inci-dent turned into an oppor-tunity to discuss World history, eco-nomics, cultural differ-ences, and more.
Explore and Engage!
America is unique in that it is truly a diverse society with many ethnicities. However, aside from visiting restaurants, most ethnic groups don’t spend much time learning about each other’s cultures. Most of us tend to naturally gravitate to those similar to ourselves and we remain ethnocentric. Moving to a foreign country means being completely immersed in a new culture. Sadly, it is still possible to isolate and avoid foreigners by only shopping or eating at restaurants on post and only engaging in social activities on post. However, in my opinion, this limits self-growth and could become dull - how many times can you eat at the same exact restaurants? - or even depressing.
A better option is to explore the culture around by learning some of the language, trying their foods, visiting their historic places, traveling to their favorite weekend get-a-ways, and so on. It’s important to remember though that some cultures might have foods we find revolting or customs we find strange. Keep those opinions amongst your family. For example, don’t give disapproving looks when you see someone eating something you find completely unacceptable as “food.” In Asia, many people still eat silkworm larvae or bugs. The first time this was served to our family at a restaurant as a side dish, I moved it out of my direct line of vision, warned my children not to comment on it and continued with our meal. Later when we were no longer in public, the kids and I discussed the extreme poverty South Korea had overcome less than 50 years ago and how eating bugs was not revolting to them because they had survived on whatever food they could find or received from the United Nations. Now, they have progressed financially to actually being the first and only country to once be a recipient of aid to now giving financial aid to the United Nations. And so what could have been a culturally insensitive incident turned into an opportunity to discuss World history, economics, cultural differences, and more.
There are many obstacles to overcome, but none of them make an unsponsored tour unattainable. I have so many examples of small challenges and solutions that I could share, but I’ll focus on a two of the bigger problems faced by families. Transportation could be one of the hardest obstacles to overcome, should your spouse’s commander not give you an exception to policy memorandum and allow you to get your foreign driver’s license (even though you passed the test and the memo came from the transportation office themselves). Some ways to overcome this obstacle is take public transportation, use the shuttle services (if offered between camps), take taxis, purchase used bicycles, walk, and make friends with someone who is allowed to drive!
However, thinking outside of the box includes things like applying for an International Driver’s License (through AAA) and seeing if your host country allows state license swaps. South Korea allows certain states’ licenses to be swapped in and out while in country (even if just visiting). You would just turn in your license and then when you are ready to exit the country show your plane tickets (or eTickets) to receive your state license back and give them the Korean license back. My point is that when “no” seems like the only answer, find a “yes” a different way.
As an animal lover, I would unequivocally say, leaving my dog with my mother has been the most difficult challenge on this unaccompanied tour. To the non-animal lover, none of this will make sense so you might as well skip to the next part. To overcome missing my dog, I Skype with my mother and make her show me my dog. I don’t think my dog’s eyes focus on the phone but she perks up and wags her tail and barks when she hears my voice. Do I still miss my dog? Yes of course, but I keep myself connected to her and find pleasure seeing her chase the cat. Others I know have volunteered with their children at the vet’s office on post to get the animal interaction they need. There’s also the option of fostering animals.
By far, being flexible is the most important trait necessary to take a difficult situation and turn into a positive experience. The Army has a saying, “Be flexible like Gumby.” It means to expect the unexpected, adapt and overcome, and don’t get bent out of shape when things change. Your happiness cannot depend on controlling your circumstances or you will never be happy. Instead focus on how you react in situations and focus on coping and adapting to change in a positive manner. This lesson applies to life in general and especially to life in the military!
Many Kind Regards,