A permanent change of station (PCS) is a big change for any military member and their family. During a PCS, the plan you started with is rarely the one you end up executing. Things change.
When I PCS’ed from Izmir, Turkey, to Peterson AFB, I thought I knew what to expect when it came to my new position. But, as life and the military would have it, the plan had totally changed when I arrived at Peterson AFB. We know change is inevitable, but how do we prepare ourselves and our families for the change?
Preparing for Change
A good colleague of mine, Dr. Lisa Sayegh, studied reintegration for the U. S. Army Research and Materiel Command – and her findings have proven to be helpful to service men and women with reintegration after a deployment.
While these findings were initially aimed at helping service members reintegrate after deployment, they may serve as valuable lessons for military families looking to seamlessly integrate into a new community after a PCS, too.
While these tips might prove helpful to most, it’s important to remember that if you are having a particularly difficult time or feel like you are struggling with something that seems bigger than yourself, reach out to your supervisor, first sergeant, commander, chaplain, or family readiness at either losing or gaining locations.
Take Some Down Time Before Reporting for Duty
After a PCS, it isn’t uncommon for a service member to reach the next duty station, unpack the coffee pot and bed sheets, then rush off to work. I’ve done this – and while rushing off to work may work for the military member, it may not be especially helpful to family members. If time and leave permit, military members and spouses should plan some dedicated down time intended for establishing their place in a new community.
My mentors taught me to balance family and mission. They told me, “you can’t do mission without family” – and they were right. We all have demands on us, both intrinsic and extrinsic. I’m hopeful that all commanders share this thought and afford the right amount of time for arriving families.
For the servicemember, rushing off to work after a PCS might help them integrate into a new unit, but it should be remembered that this same kind of immersion is important to families as well. The next few paragraphs will connect Dr. Sayegh’s findings on reintegration to a PCS and recommend ways in which her findings may help the military family become one with their new home, too. By focusing on the verbiage soldiers used to describe their experiences, Dr. Sayegh’s interviews found seven coping skills that helped soldiers reintegrate after a deployment.
Lessons from Reintegration Applied to PCS
Strong couples act as a team, building on each other’s strengths and helping with weaknesses. In the same manner, military families may want to discuss the following information as a team and build a strategy for the PCS that serves each member, equally. The quotes that follow are from Dr. Sayegh’s report, “Soldiers Helping Soldiers in the Reintegration Process after Redeployment.”
- Plan: “Soldiers say it is important for them to prepare for reintegration with a plan while they are still deployed.” While PCSing, the military members plan is clear; report to the next unit, receive the assignment, and get to work. But rarely is it as clear for the families. It’s important to consider what the spouse and kids will face when it comes to reintegration after PCS. After the boxes are mostly unpacked, the family should have a plan for what they are going to do next. How are they going to get involved? It’s not as important WHAT the plan is as it is to HAVE one in general. The plan could be the addition of a new hobby or a total career move.
- Purpose: “Soldiers report that it is important for them to find a new sense of purpose for themselves when they return home.” Again, military members have an instant purpose on reporting to the new unit – but families may want to explore several questions to help them find their sense of purpose in their new home environment. Is the spouse continuing an education or a career? Do the kids have a purpose they may pursue at their new home base (this is especially important during a summer move when school is not in session)?
- Routine and Structure: “Soldiers report that reestablishing both routine and structure upon reintegration are major sources of stress but are also key components to their ability to cope successfully.” In my experience with PCSing, the same was true. Learning the new assignment was always a source of “healthy” stress – it gave me something to work towards. Families may have to define a new structure and routine to help them achieve this. Having meals together is a great place to start building routine and structure.
- Engagement: Returning home, “most soldiers acknowledge the importance of facing their problems, emotions, thoughts, and other people sooner rather than later.” After a PCS, there are a lot of new problems to solve. Families struggling with a problem should reach out and engage with their community. Military members are wired to serve and there are formal Military Family Support services that may help as well when families encounter a particularly difficult transition.
- Control: “Soldiers who cope well, know to attend to the aspects of their lives that are within their control, while not trying to change aspects of their environment over which they have no control.” If you have house hunted around Washington D.C, you know you can’t control all the aspects of your housing. I wanted to be “on the Metro” which reduced the apartments I could consider. The apartment I chose wasn’t perfect but I could walk to the Metro. The military family may face issues that are out of their control, too. One way to exercise control over your situation is to ask colleagues who know the area if they know of any potential solutions to any of the issues you may be facing as a newly transplanted family. This is one way you can feel confident that you’re making the best choice you can for the family.
- Knowledge: “Soldiers report that being aware of normal emotional reactions and what to expect after deployment is helpful.” After a few assignments, military members know the processes of a PCS, but families may want to discuss what the “the future” looks like for them after a PCS. Walking through the PCS, similar to pre-exercise planning or a tabletop exercise may be helpful to the family members – especially children.
- Social Support: “Soldiers report the most important factor to successful coping is the support they receive from and give to those around them.” Again, the military is a family. We are wired to serve. There are experts at both ends of the PCS for a military family to consult. Be sure to leverage the resources that are available to you.
These seven coping factors from Dr. Sayegh’ s report help service members reintegrate after a deployment. The military family may benefit from these lessons when adjusting to a new environment following a PCS. Discussing these factors may also help the military family build an effective strategy for the PCS. What does your family do to ensure a seamless transition from one duty station to the next?