As military families, we get to see much more of the world than the average American citizen. Even if you’ve only experienced just one tour of duty, odds are you didn’t stay close to home. Managing a cross country move within the continental US is challenging enough, but when you’re a growing or established family with little ones, uprooting and handling the transition with grace (ha!) can be daunting. And as if that wasn’t enough to make your head spin, maneuvering an OCONUS PCS complicates matters even more. The silver lining? You’re about to have an experience that can enrich your family’s life for the better. Let’s dive in.
OCONUS PCS – The Good
Military families the opportunity to do something every few years that most people only do a few times in their lives – and some, never. We get up and go.
In fact, my family has PCS’d at about the same rate we buy new sheets for our bed – just about every two years or so. The fact that we not only move, but generally relocate to a whole different region of the country, has allowed us to expand our view of the world in ways that would never have been possible had we been boxed into one town for a decade. It’s not for everyone, but for those who enjoy the frequent change of scenery, it’s a great benefit.
Calculating the Kid Factor
Calculating the kid-factor can complicate matters a bit when it comes to logistics, but kids, especially younger ones, resilient. They’re not set in their ways like we are as adults, and they adapt quickly and easily. Because of the fluid nature of our lives and their innate resiliency, kids often thrive. Plus, the chance to live overseas is a great opportunity for kids to broaden their outlook on the world, gain knowledge about different culture, and meet new people who may very well become lifelong friends.
My family’s OCONUS experience took us to Hawaii. During our time in the aloha state we developed some of the most meaningful and lasting friendships we’ll ever have. In fact, to this day, my son remains close with his pen pal back in Hawaii. We made amazing civilian friends who have become family, and some of our best military friends have followed us on to the D.C. area. We didn’t expect to gain such a strong appreciation of the richness of the native culture, but to say that we have anything but, would be an understatement. Our kids returned to the mainland with respect for world diversity and for that, I’m truly grateful.
None of this would have been possible without our OCONUS move. The hardships were there, of course, but our good memories and experiences definitely outweighed the difficult ones.
OCONUS PCS – The Bad and the Ugly
The title of this post was the good, bad, and the ugly. So, I’m just gonna call it like it is. Our hardships were definitely front, and back, loaded. Our arrival, transition, and prep to move back to the CONUS was stressful, but the majority of our OCONUS PCS was wonderful and I if given the opportunity, I’d move back to Hawaii in a second (my kids agree!).
PCSing with kids, especially if they’re little like mine were, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – hands down. It was life-sucking. I know, I know – but did you die?No, we survived. We survived our 10-hour direct flight from Washington, D.C. to Honolulu, HI. Ugh.
Pro Tip:Make sure you communicate with your spouse and agree on how you want to organize your travel. In some cases, it may be of benefit to you and your family to break up the travel. Others may prefer to fly direct and “get it over with”. Depending on your circumstances, you may have a preference towards one or the other. Do your research and make a plan that suits your family.
My husband assumed (and you know what they say about assuming) being trapped in a plane for 10 hours with two toddlers was the best way to go – and so he booked the trip without consulting me. I think it goes without saying, but I heartily disagree (yes, still to this day). If given the choice, there is zero chance I would have agreed to that madness.
Your Household Goods
There’s a lot that goes into orchestrating a seamless OCONUS PCS. Depending on the location of your receiving duty station, you may be limited to what items of yours can be shipped abroad, including your vehicle.
Pro Tip:Make sure to learn the ins-and-outs of what you can and cannot take, and what you should and should not take.
As a family, we chose to take almost everything we owned. Since the two duty stations prior to Hawaii enabled us to have only one vehicle, we didn’t have to deal with the hassle of deciding which car to take or which car to sell or put into storage. When it comes to household goods, be sure to do your research about what your new living arrangements will be like – especially if you’re moving out of the country. Find out if your electrical appliances will work there, if you’ll be provided with furnishings for the duration of your stay, and how large your home will be (can it accommodate all of your personal items?).
Pro Tip:Before deciding what to ship and what to take on your person, make sure you know how long it’s going to take for your household goods (HHG) to arrive at your new destination.
It took 6 weeks for our HHG to arrive on island and we were left with essentially nothing to entertain our little ones.
We were fortunate – we had access to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world to keep us busy while we were waiting for out household goods. You may not have the same luxury, so be sure to separate your unaccompanied baggage from your HHG in advance. Unaccompanied baggage (UB) is a limited amount of goods that will be mailed directly to your initial place of stay. Our UB showed up just a few days after we landed and it was able to sustain us until the rest of our belongings arrived.
Getting Acclimated OCONUS
Learning to live in a new place and adjusting to the customs of your OCONUS station can be an exciting new challenge for you and your family, but it doesn’t come without some difficulties. From getting established in a school system that runs entirely differently than what you’re used to back home, to understanding the general attitudes and behaviors of your new neighbors can have you in a state of culture shock. You’ll need to expect this and allow yourself time to acclimate.
For example, as Americans we value our personal space. When we meet new people, we generally shake hands or give each other a polite, “hello.” When in a busy space, we stay aware of the people around us. In contrast, if stationed in a country in Europe, you may find that people are more likely to hug or kiss a new acquaintance; when in Asia, you become a non-entity in a large crowd and find that people will brush by you without a single, “excuse me”. These little things add up and can become sources of frustration, especially when you’re juggling family priorities and kids.
Your children may receive unwanted attention because they now stand out in a crowd or because they don’t speak the native language. Most people take being unremarkable for granted and getting the attention we’re not used to can become exhausting for some.
For us, protecting our kids from the stress my husband and I were experiencing and teaching them about culturally different attitudes and behaviors was hard, but it enriched our lives equally as much.
The Hardest Part of Our OCONUS OCS
Honestly, leaving Oahu was the most difficult part for the entire experience for us. MCBH Kaneohe Bay was my husband’s last tour of duty before he retired. As a 23-year Marine veteran, he’s taken us all over the US but never have we fallen so hard for a location. After all the trouble of moving thousands of miles away and learning to live and love a new life, moving back home was terribly sad. We came to love the island life, our friends, our neighborhood. We made it a point to get out and explore and the kids loved (almost) every moment of it. We adventured together and saw things we could never see on CONUS.
Whether we are departing or returning, uprooting our lives doesn’t become easier; it just becomes more routine. So, while we got used to the nomadic lifestyle, the process remained the same. The adults get new, the kids are enrolled into a new school, and we’re all left to find our place again. It’s stressful, downright exhausting, and emotions run high as we all struggle to find that sense of home again.
I know that not every family will feel the way we did about our OCONUS experience, but I believe my family was lucky to have had the opportunity to live outside of our comfort zone. Our OCONUS duty station was less challenging than many others, because we were still on American soil, but I’ve spoken to many families that endured an OCONUS PCS to foreign lands and were just as sad as we were to leave. We left MCBH a year-and-a-half ago and the kids still ask to go back. It’s not uncommon for them to make grand declarations like, “We should have NEVER left!”
Despite the bad and the ugly, there was so much good to our OCONUS experience that we wouldn’t trade it for the world.