What should you expect from an overseas duty assignment? There are many concerns, but some are more crucial than others. The first thing you should know is that your new host country has laws and requirements that will apply to you even though you are an American and not a citizen of that country.
That sounds like a no-brainer, but having this concept top-of-mind will help you be mindful of issues you might not otherwise be aware of. A great example–did you know that there was once a legal chewing gum ban in Singapore?
American visitors there might have no knowledge of Singapore laws such as Singapore Statute Chapter 57, the Control of Manufacture Act, which banned gum.
That is just one example of the things you will need to remember when preparing for an overseas duty assignment.
What To Expect From Military Duty Overseas
Military members, spouses, and dependent children all have to deal with some of the same issues when preparing for an overseas assignment. Specific military duty requirements vary depending on the location of the base, but in general the issues that are relevant to the whole family are fairly common.
The first thing you will need to consider is whether you are living on-base or off. Many assignments permit military families to live in the local community just like stateside assignments. Others do not permit living “on the economy,” so you will need to determine what scenario you are dealing with. Why?
Because those who live off-post in foreign countries are required to use local service providers for rental units, electricity, water, gas, and other services.
Living On Or Off Base
You will need to become familiar with the local currency, exchange rates, and the fluctuations of those rates. It is true that military families may be eligible for overseas Cost Of Living Allowances, but these are not necessarily adjusted for every single exchange rate fluctuation experienced in a given month.
These rates can affect your monthly budget and you will want to anticipate this.
One of the big learning curves for those new to a certain country? Social mores. Some countries have societies that pride themselves on being more socially reserved, not imposing oneself on others, showing respect for elders, etc. Americans have an international reputation for being a bit loud, brash, and rough around the edges.
These stereotypes exist to this day and (from the author’s own personal experience) those who attempt to learn the local customs and politeness rituals are accepted far more readily than those who choose to simply be “American”.
The stereotypical rude American is something military communities work hard to erase by encouraging involvement in the community, learning the language, etc.
You will be living and working in an environment where you need the people around you, including local nationals. It may be tricky to communicate depending on where you are assigned, but those who make the effort to learn about local customs and courtesies generally have a much better time in the country.
When you PCS overseas, you are assigned a military mailbox where you will receive all mail and can send mail and packages back home.
These mailboxes are located on military bases so for all postal intents and purposes, this mail is going to a United States mail destination and no overseas postage is required. But there are caveats–you may not be permitted to operate a business using these military mailboxes.
If you or your dependents or spouse run a business and need to use the mail for order fulfilment or other issues, you may be required to use an off-base post office, which does count as an international mail destination.
Unlike the United States, military families may or may not be able to operate a motor vehicle in the host country. Some laws in certain host countries are very strict.
At one time, military members stationed in Japan were briefed that owning a driver’s license in that country meant the driver was viewed as a professional and must operate accordingly. Whether or not that is still true is unclear, but it calls attention to the need to fully understand the nature of host nation laws in this area.
Some countries may not allow underage drivers or student drivers to use the roadway. Most host nations have strict DUI/DWI laws and Americans who run afoul of them get into trouble twice–once with the host nation, and once with the chain of command.
At this point, some are naturally a bit defensive–if you are not in the military, how can the chain of command possibly hassle you?
The size of the military base will play a big role in your access to Commissary, BX/PX, base uniform sales, etc. Smaller bases have smaller commissaries and in some instances families may find a combination of on-base grocery shopping and in-the-community shopping.
Some local services may be supplemented by on-base resources. The base housing office, for example, will help you find off-base housing where applicable and you will get plenty of information about how, where, and when to pay your utilities, etc.
Those who live off-base will find that local furniture and appliances may be designed smaller than we are used to in America.
The size of your off-post home is an important issue to remember even before you have made the move–you’ll want to consider not shipping large bulky furniture items, for example, and be ready to downsize a bit in order to properly fit into an off base house or apartment.
Do Local Laws Matter?
That is a very good question. The answer is basically that military members who have spouses and dependents accompany them to the overseas assignment are there at the pleasure of the chain of command.
Dependents and spouses can and have been shipped back to the United States when they cannot comply with host nation rules and the rules of engagement for living in the host country.
Why? In part, due to something called the Status Of Forces Agreement.
What You Need To Know About The Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA)
The United States government has a Status Of Forces Agreement for every country where it has a military base.
These agreements include the rules of engagement for bringing military families into the country, how military members and dependents are expected to live, behave, and fit into that society. What does all this mean?
In general it means the U.S. and the host nation agree that those who come into the country will obey its laws. But there is also an agreement over who will have the authority to prosecute in the event that those laws are broken by military members, spouses, or dependents.
Who does the prosecution if a soldier is suspected of driving while intoxicated after a traffic incident? Who has jurisdiction in cases of fraud, murder, drugs, or other issues? These are the things a Status of Forces Agreement is designed to hammer out.
And it’s not always in favor of the United States. Drunk driving incidents in Japan have seen Americans brought into Japanese courtrooms and due to the agreements made in that country, you may be subject to prosecution in the host nation.
SOFA laws are often negotiated in such a way that the U.S. gets jurisdiction but you should never assume this to be the case–SOFA laws are subject to re-negotiation and change, and what you assumed was the process last year may not be the same today.
There are many other things to anticipate regarding an overseas military assignment. One of the best things a military member can do is to get an overseas PCS briefing that can include the spouse and/or dependents.
Your Family Support Center, Soldier Support Center, or unit orderly room may have resources designed to help families get ready for PCS moves overseas–take full advantage of these resources and be sure to include your family as much as possible in the flow of information regarding what to expect, what to bring, what not to bring, etc.