...a year of being away from your husband. A year of your kids being away from their father. Your husband works a minimum of 12 hours a day (more likely 16-18) EVERY DAY in a war zone. (His last official "day off" was January 4.) He comes home three times during that year (and you are constantly told how lucky you are) and in the end, when you are slated to move overseas, you are told, "Oops, sorry, you have no place to stay while you move."
Why? Well, according to the State Department my husband is already overseas and thus does not need to worry about packing out a house or moving his family. Never mind that he never really packed out (really, 132 lbs of UAB, unaccompanied air freight, including packing materials, is a packout?).
You see, normally, with the State Department, when one moves overseas from a domestic assignment, there is what is known as a predeparture subsisitence allowance. You are given a set amount of per diem (per person), so that your family can establish a command center of sorts at a local hotel. This is not pampering or extravagant, this is so you can have a room that allows for all of your luggage (which may have to get you through 6 months at your new post), your pets (which will cost you more on your bill), your kids, passports & other documents that can't be lost (or packed) and anything else you need for travel that absolutely cannot be touched by a mover.
You are also given an allotment for food, because even if you do get a room with a small kitchen, you can't do that much cooking since you will be departing soon. More importantly, you are in the middle of a move and are likely spending 12 plus hour days at your house ensuring they don't pack out the full Diaper Genie (it's been attempted) or any items staying with the house. If it sounds easy, then I'm betting you've never tried it.
This allowance is one of the few things that carries a person through a move. It is one of the few benefits we get when we move. A few moments of sanity during a crazed time. And if you've read this blog in the past, you know we are moving soon. To Nicaragua. After ONE YEAR without Peter. Guess what our reward for that is? Yep: our predeparture allowance has been axed..or rather, never even existed. Mind you Peter did NOT receive this allowance when he went to Kabul.
We are expected to cough up about $4000 to find a place to stay, to eat out (since our time to cook will be limited at best), and for taxes on the hotel room. We get no help from the State Department because Peter PCSed to Afghanistan (Permanent Change of Station). Basically, in their eyes, he moved from here, to there and once his tour is over, he will go directly to his next post.
Let's never mind that he could NOT pack out his house and take it to Kabul. Impossible! He lives in a tiny remodeled shipping container that barely holds a desk, a bed, and a dorm-like armoire. He would have no room (or desire) to take anything other than clothes and the most basic necessities.
I learned of some of this by accident when a friend mentioned something similar happening to her. A bit of a different scenario (she was voluntarily separated from her husband), but I kept worrying that they seemed too similar. I called Peter, researched on my own and kept finding this nasty bit of news.
Note that nowhere does it explain how one is supposed to satisfy home leave requirements nor how one is expected to find lodging on $77/day in the DC metro area.
Not only are we not entitled to the predeparture allowance, IF we wanted any help with staying in "commercial quarters," we would have to move PRIOR to Peter finishing up his tour. Never mind that he would not actually be here to help (after a YEAR over there), we are supposed to pack out the house before he comes back. The better part? He needs to complete roughly six weeks of home leave to reacclimate to the U.S. before we depart for Nicaragua. How is he supposed to do that with no place to stay? Even more frustrating, one document we received states we receive TSMA "upon departure from Iraq." That statement, however, directly conflicts when one clarifies with the online regulations above.
So, the ONLY way to get a TINY amount of assistance (the lodging portion is $77/day PER FAMILY, not per person), which would not even get half a room at the nearest motel, is for me to pack out in mid-May, without Peter's help and without having a place to stay until we leave for post in July. Yes, that is exactly what the regs state.
Apparently, this is due to the fact that Peter PCS-ed. Why did he PCS? Well, he never wanted to stress that anyone would come back and say, "Well, you *only* TDY-ed (Temporary Duty) to Kabul." Yes, many people choose that option, but he had that niggling fear and decided PCS was the safest option.
Now, I know if you have any knowledge of State and UTs (Unaccompanied Tours) you are sitting there smugly thinking, "Oh, but you have been raking it in with ISMA (Involuntary Separate Maintenance Allowance)! You can use that to stay in a hotel!" As if.
ISMA is the per pay period allowance we are given to maintain two separate households. It is NOT for the purpose of moving. In fact, if Peter had to take certain training courses for his next post, it would be a non-issue. He would come back here, take his courses (which would be considered a new tour) and would be given the moving allowance, no questions asked. He would not be required to be separated from us during packout or home leave and we would have no worries (about this matter) right now.
Even more importantly, we would need several months of ISMA in order to cover hotel expenses during packout. ISMA is meant to augment, not completely cover the expenses of two different households and I assure you, it barely does that. For a year that was meant to help us get back on our feet after the blip in 2010, it has done nothing of the sort. Remaining here instead of going overseas as a family has been far more expensive and now, despite yet another year of sacrifice, we are facing even more expenses just to get our next post.
Clearly, we are working on this issue to figure out what we can do. However, am I expected to believe that after an entire YEAR of Peter being gone, we are supposed to also be separated for home leave (his mandatory U.S. based leave) AND foot the hotel bill for the move? Never mind that he did not take the allowance last year when he moved to Kabul. He couldn't, as he already had a house here.
Our house. Our house that will need three days (at best) to be properly packed out. We then need to clean and prep for our renters. Peter needs time to deal with paperwork issues and it would be nice to be rested for our travels.
Oh, you are wondering why we didn't know this ahead of time? Easy. There are no required classes that explain this scenario. You are simply given a chart basically detailing PCS vs. TDY and told to choose, and rather quickly. The chart itself is good in detailing benefits regarding money, but is the same chart that gives conflicting information regarding TSMA. In fact, I am learning now that we are far from the only ones who did not get predeparture or TSMA when they left the States. I have heard from three other families who have been affected and more that will be. If nothing else, this is a forewarning to others who have not chosen yet, that TDY may be the only reasonable option (even though it carries negatives, such as no differential payment for the first 42 days of the tour!).
I suppose we could have done even more research than we did. We could have crunched more numbers and spent even more time debating this issue, because we really did not think that we would not get *any* assistance with predeparture (even TSMA, as the chart states we should the way I read it, but the regs then negate). In the end, I can only say that if we had really, REALLY prepared for this, we would not have considered doing a UT in the States as a PCS. We simply would have waited until we could go overseas and then tacked the UT onto the end of another tour. Between the additional expenses of running a household, the lack of predeparture, having young children (and needing to pay for extra care), it simply has not been what we thought it would be.
So, in the end, take from this what you will...and learn from our mistakes. And, maybe, just maybe the regs at some point will be changed so that the choice between PCS and TDY does not have to hinge on whether or not you will be stressed out over an unnecessary hotel bill at the end of your tour. Instead it will be determined by what is right for your (or your spouse's) career at the time...the way it should be.