Here is the dirty little secret about OCONUS relocation: It’s the most stressful, most time-consuming, and most memorable PCS your family will ever encounter.
The rare Armed Forces gift of an OCONUS (Outside the Continental United States) duty assignment morphs the standard moving day jitters into a process of antacid-popping anxiety. But once you conquer it, you can move anywhere.
Here is a list of the top 5 secrets every OCONUS virgin needs to know.
Paperwork & Passports
Spouses, double-check your service member’s orders to ensure that your name is spelled correctly for this command-sponsored and accompanied relocation. A misspelling hiccup will quickly become a huge headache if you don’t correct it.
Next, apply for a no-fee, government passport for all family members. Your civilian or personal passport will not work for government travel. Research if your intended destination requires a visa for U.S. military. If the answer is yes, then guess what? Grab your favorite black ballpoint and fill out that form.
Lastly, schedule your overseas medical screening. When we moved to Japan in 2008, I was shocked by the length of this 10-page questionnaire. I needed to track down a copy of my immunization records from my hometown pediatrician before scheduling my medical screening. And without a medical screening, you won’t get your travel orders.
Every step in the paperwork and passport process takes time. Plan to diligently work through these forms to avoid missing any deadlines.
Decide to Downsize
Moving overseas requires a lot of preparation about which household items will ship to your new location and which will stay in storage in the United States. Each overseas duty station has its own weight allowances for household items (which may take as long 8 weeks for delivery) and unaccompanied baggage (which is a small express shipment of essential household goods). The unaccompanied baggage should arrive within 3 weeks. We selected a TV, microwave, pots and pans, silverware, towels, toilet paper, shower curtain, air mattress, sheets, and extra clothes and shoes for our express shipment. We also included our beach gear so we could immediately explore the island. If you have a baby, a crib may be part of this shipment.
The military pays for the storage so we stored our large appliances (washer, dryer, and refrigerator) and large dining room table and 8 chairs. We sold our sofa and held a garage sale before moving. We used the loan furniture from the Air Force while we lived overseas.
If you can’t ship your vehicle, you will need to decide to sell or store it. Each choice has consequences that must be carefully considered and there is plenty of paperwork in each decision.
Make separate inventory lists for storage, unaccompanied baggage, and household goods. I used different colored Post-Its to label items. For example yellow for storage and red for express. When the day came to pack the express items, we moved those items into the living room, so the movers didn’t need to look all over the house and risk forgetting an essential item. Make a video showing your household items in case the boat sinks. It’s one of many OCONUS horror stories you’ll hear. I wish I was joking.
Finally, on moving day, watch the movers seal your crates. This is unique to an OCONUS relocation. Don’t sign any paperwork until every crate is sealed shut. Otherwise, you may find your DVD collection was stolen before it even left the States.
Lean on Your Sponsor
I can’t emphasize enough to use your sponsor. This person is assigned from his superior to assist in your relocation. At a minimum, a sponsor should arrange your arrival transportation from the airport to the military installation (a great one will pick you up) and assist in temporary lodging reservations. Most will set up a PO Box at the military installation, so you can mail any last-minute items to yourself and begin forwarding your mail.
A sponsor is your eyes and ears in this new country. He and his spouse know the specific details for a move to Italy compared with relocation to Korea. But a sponsor isn’t a mind reader. You need to ask questions to get answers.
My husband and I made a list of 50 questions that we emailed our sponsor. This list included everything from “What did you bring that you wish you would have left in the States?” to “What kind of recreation items (camping, hiking, snorkeling, surfing) should we bring?” I asked very detailed questions about the need for lamps, rugs, dehumidifiers, and dressers. My wonderful sponsor and his wife told me there was no reason to bring lamps, fans are in short supply, carpet is unheard of in Okinawa, a dehumidifier is a necessity and most homes have built-in closets.
Alongside with your sponsor, take advantage of the online military spouse network. You are not the first person to move to Germany and you won’t be the last. I guarantee that one question posted on a Facebook group will generate at least 20 responses.
Soak up the Red, White, and Blue
The best advice we got before moving to Japan was stock up on our favorite non-perishable items that aren’t available at the commissary. For me, it was Trader Joe’s pumpkin pancake mix. How do you know if it’s available in Spain? Ask your sponsor.
Buy renter’s insurance before you leave the country and update your mailing address with your financial institution. Check the expiration date on your driver’s license. You need a valid stateside driver’s license in order to take the test for the international driver’s license. Consider memorizing a few key phrases in your host country’s language such as “where is your restroom?” Install Skype on your computer and reassure your family and friends that you are only an email away. We set one clock in my mom’s house on Okinawa time so she always knew the time difference.
Heels on the Ground
Starting with the moment that you first walk through customs and see your host country, you are living a dream so take advantage of every opportunity. Learn the language. Eat the food. Participate in cultural events.
Okinawa wasn’t my first choice for overseas. In fact, it was my second to last choice. But when I saw those orders, I mentally told myself to make the best of this situation. I ran into many unhappy families there, who were counting down the days until their departure. Unfortunately, their negative focus was a constant distraction from fun.
Consider writing a blog or at a minimum posting photos and first impressions on Facebook or Instagram for your stateside friends. The time will go fast. Enjoy every minute.
Part-time freelance writer, full-time Navy spouse Michelle Volkmann is currently stationed near Monterey, California. She had the privilege to live on the island of Okinawa for three years. She is hoping for a European PCS in her future.
For many more PCS resources, please see MilSpouseFest’s Moving Page.