Moving overseas with your military spouse is exciting yet daunting. When my newlywed husband was approached with the prospect of moving OCONUS, I was such a newbie to military spousehood that I had to question, “What does OCONUS mean?”
I have now been overseas ... err, OCONUS ... in Rota, Spain for almost four months. During this time I have collected immeasurable experiences ranging from a road trip in Portugal to losing the undercarriage of our beater while driving over a speed bump to being electrocuted by the transformer in our laundry room. Through many of these experiences I have wondered why nobody warned us ahead of time, or during our early days here, of several challenges and differences that we would experience. Don’t other spouses want to help a sister out? I know I do! Hence, I started keeping tabs on helpful information I wish we’d known before arriving at our OCONUS duty station and I’d feel guilty not to share this information with my fellow military spouses.
1. You will need multiple IDs and, when in doubt (and even when you think there’s no possible need), bring them with you.
Did you think it could take two forms of identification to shop at the commissary? Well, it does. Do you need your passport and a power of attorney signed just to cash a check at the cash cage? Well, you do. So whenever you need to do anything remotely administrative or really any errand on base, have all forms of identification with you to avoid those feelings of frustration of waiting half an hour in line to get a base car pass only to find out their choice of identification is the only one you forgot to bring in your overflowing PCS folder.
2. Learn to drive manual before getting to your OCONUS duty station.
Nothing beats learning the traffic rules and driving nuances of a foreign country while also learning how to drive a stick shift. Automatic cars are virtually nonexistent outside of the US and if you get your orders five days before having to report to your duty station like we did, your Toyota Corolla surely won’t be waiting for you across the Atlantic after your seven hour flight. That means you’ll be renting and in some cases buying a local car and you guessed it, that car will be a manual.
3. Brush up on new acronyms.
Are you a newbie like me just starting to feel comfortable using terms such as BAH (Base Allowance for Housing)? Did you know these terms change when you’re overseas? BAH is now OHA (Overseas Housing Allowance) and it is used differently. DEROS stands for the date you’re expected to return from overseas. TLA stands for Temporary Living Allowance, but beware that if you stay in temporary housing rather than the Navy Lodge, you’ll miss out on this.
4. Don’t expect to have time to rest after landing in your new home.
You will be jetlagged, your clothes crumpled and your eyes heavy, especially if you’re a nervous flyer like me and can’t sleep a wink on the flight (or flights). But don’t expect for your sponsor to pick you up and deposit you in a place with access to a cozy bed. You will spend each minute of that arrival day getting your foreign IDs, temporary drivers’ licenses, working with Tricare, hitting the commissary, and trying to rent a car. Be ready to hit the ground running!
5. The extreme lack of jobs available to spouses is a tough pill to swallow.
I have always worked and have loved my work. I left my job as a speech-language pathologist to be with my husband during three moves in our ten months of marriage. Due to the agreements between the US and the foreign host countries, military spouses have few work opportunities and this can be stifling for women used to the routine and personal satisfaction of working. I haven’t found a great solution to this problem yet but I want to be up front that this is a real challenge. I try to engage in continuing education online so when I am able to work again, I can keep up with the pace of my profession. I continue to search for work but am also exploring other productive avenues such as travel and writing.
6. Be friendly and introduce yourself.
A few people will initiate introducing themselves to you and exchanging contact information, but don’t hold your breath for this. I was surprised by how few people seemed open to initiating getting to know me. After a few weeks of questioning myself, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I was a friendly person in the US, I could continue being friendly even in uncomfortable social situations. Maybe the other spouses already had their group of friends but I needed to forge my own way. So strike up a conversation with the other spouse in the laundromat, or introduce yourself to people you regularly see at the gym. A smile and kind word can help you meet people you otherwise wouldn’t.
7. If a certain group doesn’t make you feel good, move on.
This has been a difficult lesson for me to learn. I felt so desperate to make friends, get connected, and have someone to do things with during the day while my husband was at work, that I accepted every invitation posted by every formal and informal group. And what I have found from this is that there are people that bring positivity to your life, with whom you truly enjoy spending time, and there are people who make you feel bad and cause you to question yourself.
By moving OCONUS, you haven’t entered a new dimension of solely smiling, friendly, like-minded people. The reality is this is still the real world, and you are going to encounter both good and bad apples. Back in the States, I typically made friends through work, going to dog parks, and engaging in hobbies like doing Zumba. The incidental opportunities for making friends OCONUS is much narrower than they are CONUS.
One night after hanging out with a group that I just couldn’t connect with for the umpteenth time, I found myself being on edge and grumpy with my husband. He grabbed my hand and squeezed it, saying, “Have you noticed you come back upset, sad, or angry every time you hang out with those women?” This was an epiphany for me. Sure, I knew I usually felt stressed and awkward the entire time I spent with those ladies, but I didn’t realize how I was carrying that stress with me for the rest of the day, spoiling the hours I had with people who make me feel good.
So learn from me and let those less-than-great apples go. I have a few good apples in my bag now and am hopeful to collect more during my time here. Don’t force friendships that don’t come easily. It’ll be worth the wait ... I tell myself!
8. Listen to the experienced wives, and let them take you under their wing.
I have gained comfort and had some fun times with the spouses who’ve been around the block and know this military life. They are good people to connect with when you’re feeling homesick, bored, and have cabin fever. These women help to get you out of the house and into a cool local store or day trip.
The list could go on but this is a good start. Being a military spouse is challenging, especially with the added layer of living in a new culture. I have experienced happy and miserable and painfully uncomfortable times so far but I stay hopeful I will come out the other side stronger, more adaptable, and more conscientious of how to make these inevitable transitions easier for myself and my fellow spouses. Not to mention the hope that I’ll also come away making a killer paella.
Valerie is a licensed speech-language pathologist originally from Virginia who enjoys dancing, running, and writing in her spare time. She has a passion for working with kids and a bleeding heart for animals. She is a newlywed Navy wife and after two Navy moves in the US, is now living in Rota, Spain with her husband and dog Stringy. Her little family is enjoying exploring Europe and is looking forward to hosting friends and family.