A German friend recently asked me, “What kind of training did you receive from the military before you moved to Germany?” The short answer to this question is…. None. While the military does offer classes, we were at a stateside location where they were not available. Most OCONUS (outside the continental United States) locations offer a newcomer’s orientation and introductory language classes, but because we were in a remote location, we weren’t able to fully participate in these. Once we arrived in Germany and in-processed through Stuttgart, we were on our way to the heart of Baden Württemberg. Our training was hands on, we learned as we went.
While I may not have had any specific training for moving to Germany, 15 years of marriage to a service member (along with 10 years in the Guard and Reserves, as well as a year-long mobilization on Active Duty) has taught me a thing or two that made my overseas move a bit easier. Here eight ways being a military spouse prepares you for living overseas:
As a military spouse, you learn to handle things on your own. You’ll move, and before you unpack your household goods, your spouse is already deployed or in the field for a month. You don’t know your way around your new town or base, and you don’t know anyone. You learn to do it because you have to, and you learn that because you have to, you can.
You’re leaving today. I mean tomorrow. That is next week. Well, we don’t really know when. There’s a reason military people often engage the phrase “Semper Gumby”. Situations change, and that means plans are going to change. Orders can and will change at the last-minute. You get used to preparing for every contingency. Just in case.
- Dealing with Bureaucracy
The military loves paperwork. It can be frustrating, and mind numbing, but you’ll soon get used to having documentation for every single aspect of your life. In triplicate. You’ll learn that it doesn’t pay to get frustrated, because you’re still going to have to go back to point A (for the third time) before office C will even look at your paperwork. Which then needs to go to department E.
- Intercultural Communications
If you think you need to travel overseas to experience intercultural communications, think again. The US is comprised of a multitude of subcultures, from regional, to ethnic, to generational, and interaction among all of these subsets requires a certain level of intercultural communication skills. Not only is the military a wonderfully diverse organization, but the vast array of locations means that each move puts you in contact with a new subculture. Don’t believe me? Try moving from New York to Georgia and tell me life isn’t different.
There are also different cultures within the military itself. Living and working alongside the Army, is different from living and working alongside the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, or Air Force. Even within the Army, the culture differs based on whether it’s Infantry, or Special Forces, Combat Arms or Combat Service Support. These differences are based on the missions and the people who have created the organizational cultures. You need to develop strong intercultural skills to navigate these realms successfully.
- Functioning in a (nearly) Foreign Language
Service members have their own jargon for most equipment and situations. The military uses acronyms for nearly everything. The forms are a vocabulary of their own. It’s not just the acronyms and forms, it’s the context and common usage of language that’s different. On more than one occasion I have found myself translating what my military spouse said in “military speak” into plain English for a befuddled civilian.
From window sizes to room sizes to number of rooms, each time you move your house is going to be different. You learn to adjust your belongings to accommodate your space. You will move from North to South and back again, where you’ll learn to live with blizzards, tornadoes and hurricanes. You’ll get used to doing things one way, but when you move to another state you find it’s completely different. I’ve been warned to put mothballs in the attic to ward off scorpions in one state, and keep garbage secure to keep bears away in another.
Living overseas means you are going to need to adapt your thinking, your habits, your schedules, and your way of doing things. As a military spouse, you can say with absolute certainty that you’ve done that. You’ve transitioned successfully from the civilian world to the military world. You understand that there are different expectations of you depending on where you are, as well as who you are, and you adapt accordingly.
- Dealing with the Unexpected
From uncertain hours, to unexpected extensions, to last-minute changes in order, the military forces you to experience the unexpected. No matter how prepared you are, something is going to change. As a military spouse, you are intimately acquainted with Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong will. You also know it’s probably going to happen while your spouse is deployed. You learn that just when you think you’re prepared for whatever it is you’re facing, things change. Automatically, you adjust your course, you carry on.
- Creating a Community
As a military spouse, you grow accustomed to the PCS (permanent change of station) season. Every year, you welcome new people to the community and say goodbye to the friends you’ve made. You are accustomed to finding or creating your tribe where ever you go. You have found ways to engage with the community that work for you and give you a sense of being home – no matter where you currently find yourself.
So is moving within your home country the same as moving to another country? No. No matter how different everything seems on the surface, there is a shared language, a shared culture and a shared national identity. There were still several obstacles to face when I moved to Germany, but I think just being aware that I’d already overcome these differences on some scale made it easier to do when I lost that base level of linguistic and cultural understanding.
What experiences prepared you for relocation?