Category Archives: OCONUS

Survive and Thrive: Belgium!

“It sure is going to be hot this week,” I remarked to my children as I looked at the 10 day forecast.

“It’s going to be in the 70’s all week long.”

Mind you, it was July. That’s when it hit me: I had fully acclimated to life in Belgium. What did it take to get me there? Lots of patience and a willingness to explore.

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An assignment to Belgium is not like most other OCONUS tours. My spouse is assigned to the NATO base here, and while there is an American flag proudly waving near the front gate, it is part of a semi-circle of NATO flags – it doesn’t stand alone. We use Euros, rather than dollars, on the installation. Our children attend the Department of Defense Dependents School (DoDDS) alongside children from all over NATO. Our coffee shop is full of folks chattering away in many languages (although, it now proudly serves Starbucks coffee!). There is no mistaking that you are living outside of the US.

So what can make the transition to Belgium easier? Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Bring an umbrella and some good rain gear. It rains nearly every other day here so I keep an umbrella in my purse, in my car, and one at home by the front door.
  2. Prepare to enjoy some amazing food. Our first stop with visitors from home is nearly always lunch at a cafe along the Brussels Grand Place followed by a stroll to check out the Mannequin Pis while enjoying a warm Belgian waffle loaded with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Delicious.
  3. Learn some French. While there are three official languages in Belgium, the NATO base is in the French speaking part of the country. English is not as widely spoken here as it is near other overseas US bases. And your hopeful, “Parlez-vous anglais?” may be met with a very firm, “Non!”
  4. Bring your spirit of adventure. Not only have we been able to explore many wonderful sites in Belgium, we have also been able to travel to France, the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. Belgium is a great jumping off point for travel anywhere in Europe.
  5. Bring your patience. Most stores are closed on Sundays (some on Mondays, too). Restaurant meals are leisurely affairs; your waiter is not going to be working hard to turn the table, but you may be working hard to get the bill so you can leave after two or three hours. Travel along country roads requires a much more sedated speed than zipping along an American highway. You don’t want to speed over cobblestones!

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Our tour in Belgium is rapidly coming to a close, and while we are eager to return to the US where we can be near family and friends, we will miss living in Europe. Our college student is already planning a semester abroad and exploring career options that will allow her to live overseas. If that comes to pass, she can be sure that we will be visiting – often!

Have you ever been stationed in Belgium? What are your tips?

kelly-hPosted by Kelly Henry, National Military Family Association Volunteer

Survive and Thrive: Our OCONUS Adventure to Okinawa!

The-Young-Retiree-in-OkiI’ll never forget how I felt when my husband mentioned we might be moving to Okinawa, Japan for three years. “Verbal orders,” he told me. This meant the move was not set in stone, but he should know for sure any day, and we should start preparing! I felt sick to my stomach and tears burned the back of my eyes. But I couldn’t let him see me upset over something that was going to be beneficial for his career.

Then the orders fell through and I released the biggest sigh of relief!

We began talking about all of the reasons why it was awesome that we didn’t have to go. Not long after, he told me again, “Verbal orders…to a different command in Okinawa.” Talk about an ironic twist of fate. I was stressed. I was heartbroken. I was scared!

Once again, I kept the emotions hidden from him, but openly sobbed on the phone with my grandma the next day. When I married him, I made a commitment to myself, and to him, that wherever the Navy sent him, I would not only follow, but I would bloom where we were planted.

I opened up to him about my fears; there’s no sense in keeping it all in. And if you are, I would encourage you to talk to your spouse – if they’re anything like mine, they’ll know exactly how you feel, but could be putting on a strong front for you. This is a great time to encourage each other through the move!

We hit Pinterest together and I created two boards: “Travel: Okinawa” and “Travel: Asia” to get us inspired about the move. We started researching all of the amazing things we would get the chance to experience once we arrived. We started looking at the MWR and MCCS websites, and dreaming of the trips we would save our money to go on.

The-Young-Retiree-in-Oki2The minute I landed in Tokyo, I was smitten with the country and knew Okinawa was going to be an amazing adventure! When we got settled, we created a bucket list: “101 Okinawa Things in 1,001 Days.” With silly things like eat at 50 new restaurants, and stay at 6 (as yet undiscovered) resorts on the island! We’re also doing free things like collecting a jar of sea glass, and visiting various castle ruins. We even included some lofty ideas like visit Kathmandu or Bali, hike Mt. Fuji, and walk on the Great Wall of China!

We’ve crossed seven things off our list and are working on five others! I never, in a million years, thought I would be vacationing overseas, let alone living there! I carry my bucket list in my purse, and on the weekends we look at it to see what we can cross off. Whether we book a tour through ITT to go to the world’s biggest tug of war, see battle sites around the island, or if we hop in the car and pull over when we see beautiful beaches… we get out there and enjoy our new home!

If you’re looking at overseas orders (or even orders on the other side of the country), and find it a little overwhelming and paralyzing: take a deep breath, cry it out, then hop on the internet and research all of the fun, once-in-a-lifetime things you’ll be able to do. You’ll get so much more out of your time at your new home if you live positively, make an adventure list, and get busy crossing things off!

Have you ever moved out of the United States? How did you bloom where you were planted?

elizabeth-osbornPosted by Elizabeth Osborn, a Navy Spouse, living in Okinawa with her husband, enjoys a life of leisure during their time abroad by being active in several spouse groups both through the military and in the local community. She blogs about their adventures and her experiences at The Young Retiree.

Survive and Thrive: Embassy Duty!

After almost 24 years of moving around with my husband, I didn’t think any new assignment would faze me. Then the Air Force sent us to Quito, Ecuador, an assignment without a military base. And we’re not alone—many military families live in cities around the world without the kind of support we’re used to seeing. No commissary, no base exchange, no military hospital, or community center.

Assignments like these are most common in the Army, where junior officers start off as Foreign Area Officers (FAO) and eventually end up as attachés at many US Embassies around the world. But more senior officers in other services are offered opportunities as well. And where would any good Defense Attaché Office be without support staff? Jobs for both junior and senior enlisted exist in all services in just about every location.

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If you’ve only been to large bases where there are strict rules about socializing between officers and enlisted, an Embassy assignment might come as a bit of a shock. The military is only a small portion of the Embassy whole, and part of our job is to blend with the State Department culture.

Survival tip #1. Be prepared to leave your military etiquette at the door (but don’t throw it away completely).

State Department employees and their families don’t have strict delineations between staff, so everyone socializes with everyone else. In fact, on many Friday nights, the Marine House is the go-to spot to meet everyone. And because many spouses end up employed at the Embassy, the combinations of who works in which office, and who works for whom can be rather overwhelming. But it’s also how everyone knows how to support everyone else. It may seem a little incestuous at first, but if you aren’t in the loop, support can seem lacking.

Survival tip #2: Find a way to belong to the Embassy community, whether it’s as a valued employee, volunteer, or an often seen participant in community functions.

With these two tips, you’re going to survive. But we want more than that. We want you to thrive! That sometimes means stepping outside of your comfort zone. Living overseas most often means dealing with a new language. It always means dealing with a new culture. It is possible to make a life that revolves simply around the Embassy community. In fact, I would highly recommend taking advantage of the trips offered by the Community Liaison Office (CLO), and joining the group language classes offered by the Embassy community, especially when you first arrive.

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But to thrive, you’re going to need a comfort level with the local language so you can leave that safe place and enter the world around you. You’ll want to purchase food at the local markets, speak to your neighbors in their native tongue, and have the mechanic fix your car. Waving hands and smiling can only get you so far, and after a year in country, it will be downright depressing not to be able to ask for a ripe avocado instead of the unripe ones offered.

My tips for immersing in the local culture include getting to know other foreign spouses. If the United States has an Embassy at your location, so do many other nations. Here in South America, the majority comes from Latin American countries, and the common language is Spanish. That doesn’t mean I won’t find English speakers. But in order to thrive, I’ve forced myself to speak Spanish beyond my comfort level. I make mistakes and laugh at myself when others point them out. And by doing so, I’ve learned that Spanish-speakers make mistakes, too. A common word in most of Latin America is a swear word in Argentina. It’s funny to watch the face of an Argentine when someone from Venezuela is saying the equivalent of the “F word” in the middle of a pretty mundane conversation. Moments like that happen all the time, but unless you understand what is going on, you miss out. And when you miss out, you feel like you don’t belong.

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My final tip for thriving is to make friends with the locals. Many already work at the US Embassy, so they’re easy to find, and are often very willing to share their favorite restaurant recommendations, or the best place to spend a weekend away. Your spouse will know more than a few local military because of his or her job. Getting to know those folks can be very rewarding. We found an acting coach for my son through a retired Ecuadorian officer’s wife, who also happens to be an actress. That simple introduction has made my son’s Ecuadorian experience much richer.

My example of thriving comes from friending the wife of a local military officer on Facebook. She noticed my love of photography and my love-affair with her country. This opened a new door for me – she and her husband have introduced me to people and places I would never find in a guide book. They’ve opened their hearts and minds and in return, I offer them friendship. At the end of the day, and at the end of any military tour, it’s the friendships that help us thrive.

angie-drakePosted by Angie Drake, Air Force spouse, and blogger at Not Your Average American, Quito, Ecuador

Survive and Thrive in Ansbach, Germany!

Our Army life is relatively simple: it’s just my husband—a pilot, and me—an artist. Our first duty station since his graduation from flight school at Ft. Rucker, Alabama landed us smack dab in the middle of Europe. Moving here to Ansbach, Germany was a huge challenge, but I think it would be for anyone at any stage in their life! We’ve been here for two and a half years, and in five short months, we’ll be on our way to the next PCS stop.

Reflecting on my time here, I don’t think I could have spent it any better. It was important for me to be active in the Army community, but I wanted to dive into the local culture, too. Traveling and experiencing Europe was a must-do, but my primary goal was learning and devoting time to my artistic endeavors, something that would be dramatically different had we been living in the States.

So, how did I survive and thrive in Ansbach, Germany? Here are some tips:

Embrace the local culture.
The first few weeks of living in a new country feel like you’re on the best vacation ever. After the honeymoon wears off, it’s easy to find yourself lamenting life as you once knew it. The language barrier grows to the size of a beast, it’s frustrating that you have to plug your favorite appliances into a transformer, you can’t understand your phone bill and customer service is basically non-existent. Plus, you are really far away from your family. It took me quite some time to fight the urge to stay home, rather than venturing out, but eventually, after many mistakes and embarrassing moments, I became accustomed to using the German grocery store and post office. I got a German mechanic, joined an Art club in town, and even got pretty decent at reading the local newspaper, and finding fun events to attend. Small victories led to larger victories. I plugged away at learning the language as best as I could. And even though I still don’t always understand what strangers say to me; it’s amazing to realize how much I do know considering I started with zero prior knowledge of the language.

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Embrace your branch’s community.
Even though there are thousands of people at one location, the Army community can feel pretty small. For numerous reasons, Soldiers and families have a tendency to isolate themselves, doing themselves a severe disservice, especially at an OCONUS duty station. Having friends, or at least acquaintances, can help you not feel so alone. I think the easiest way to get comfortable in a new community is to join something: FRG, Spouse’s Club, Red Cross, ACS, or classes at the gym. You’re bound to eventually meet many people that are friendly and have great advice. Like it or Hate it, some of my best travel tips have been picked up at Spouse’s Club luncheons. And when you’re having a bad day (like the time I broke a bag of rice at the grocery store, spilled it all over myself, and didn’t know how to ask for help cleaning it up) it’s great to be able to go to the gym, see your friends, and tell them all about it so you can laugh together.

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Don’t let the need to travel overwhelm you.
My husband and I have seen a lot of what Europe has to offer, but we haven’t seen it all. We designed a travel budget to avoid spending our life savings we worked hard to create. We also made a priority list and a general outline of how much travel we could accomplish. Activities like snowboarding and surfing are a priority for us, so many awesome cities didn’t make the cut. Instead of focusing on all the places you haven’t been, recount the good memories from where you have been.

Set new goals and stick to them. Achievements are empowering.
I think the hardest part of being a military spouse is continuing your personal growth. Moving frequently and landing in random destinations come with a set of difficulties, and many times, new duty stations prevent us from being the achievers we used to be. Living in Germany proves very difficult for spouses who would like a career. Luckily, as an artist, I can do my job anywhere. It’s harder for the lawyers, nurses, hairdressers, and public health specialists. But I’ve met them all, and they make it work. If you’re on a base that doesn’t allow spouses to work, take the opportunity to start a new hobby, train for a 5k, or enjoy time with your kids – just don’t get down on yourself. Your job doesn’t define your self-worth! Challenge yourself with a goal and stick with it, even on the crappy days. It isn’t easy, but once you accomplish the goal, you feel stronger… like a superhero! In the time I’ve been here, my husband’s spent quite a bit of time away working. Instead of feeling lonely, I got comfortable with being solo. I learned German, but I also embraced reading, tried many new recipes, improved my cooking, and attempted things that intimidated me like learning how to meditate or do a handstand. Your goals can be any size or significance. You don’t have to move mountains to empower yourself!

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In less than six months, I’ll find myself in a whole new world: Ft. Bliss, Texas. It’ll be a far cry from this land of forests, fields, and medieval charm. But I know there are many delightful secrets and surprises to be found in the next chapter of my life. I plan to use the positivity and confidence that I built here, to give me the strength to embrace my new life there.

Posted by Sarah Geraci, Army spouse and owner of Florida Scarf, USAG Ansbach, Germany

Give Us Your Tips to Survive and Thrive at Your Duty Station!

Calling all military family members! spouses-sit-outsideWe’re looking for guest bloggers to share their tips, tricks, stories, and encouragement with other readers, and we’d love to feature you!

We’re working on a series dedicated to sharing awesome tips for Surviving and Thriving at different duty stations around the world. Have you been stationed in Okinawa, Japan for so long, you’re pretty sure you’re fluent in the language? What in the world is there to do near good ‘ol Camp Lejeune, North Carolina? Are the spouse clubs in San Diego as rad as they sound? Tell us!

We want to hear from you…yes, you…in Weisbaden, Germany, and you in Whidbey Island, Washington!

Tell us how you survive and thrive in your town! Join a great couponing class? Or a running club? Have you gone camping at a breathtaking location? And why not let the kids join in? What are their favorite things to do and see around your town?

If you have some advice or tips to share, send your original work to us at Blog@MilitaryFamily.org. Make sure you include your name, a clear headshot of yourself, along with your current duty station and the town it’s in. And, of course, share 4-5 tips (or more!) with other military families so they can survive and thrive if they ever find themselves in the same place.

If you’re interested in contributing, but are not quite sure you’re the best writer, leave a comment and we’d be happy to get in touch with you to help find your inner writing voice!

Military life is crazy…but with a little help from those who have gone before us, we’ll be able to survive and thrive!

shannonPosted by Shannon Prentice, Content Development Manager