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Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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Elizabeth Lee was six months pregnant with her second child during her most recent PCS, or permanent change of station. Still, she said it was the smoothest yet. But smooth doesn’t always equal easy.

Her husband, Army Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Lee, received orders sending him from Fort MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, to Fort Meade, Maryland, and setting familiar wheels in motion.

“What it means for my family is packing up all our household goods and possessions and saying goodbye to our neighbors and friends for the past few years,” Elizabeth said. “My husband said goodbye to his job. My daughter said goodbye to her school and we all said goodbye to the home we had enjoyed for three years.

Sophia Lee, 2, helps her mom, Elizabeth, pack for a recent move. Her father, Stephen, is an Army lieutenant colonel who recently received orders for a permanent change of station from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, to Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo courtesy of the Lee family.Sophia Lee, 2, helps her mom, Elizabeth, pack for a recent move. Her father, Stephen, is an Army lieutenant colonel who recently received orders for a permanent change of station from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, to Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo courtesy of the Lee family.“It’s on to a new location, new house, new schools and a new job experience for my husband,” she added. “It also means a new group of friends for me, gained through the family readiness group attached to my husband’s job. This is actually something I look forward to with each move.”

While Lee’s description can seem bittersweet, it’s not an unexpected occurrence for any military family. A permanent change of stations happens, on average, every three years for service members and their families. And, like most things in life, what you get out of it mostly relies on what you put into it.

Lee and her family try to keep a positive outlook since they know it’s going to happen.

“For us, a PCS is a good excuse to re-examine everything in our lives and declutter accordingly to prepare for the move,” she said. “It’s a bunch of trips to donate old clothes and gear to Goodwill. It’s several trips to the local dump to throw away those old, broken kitchen chairs that we haven’t used in a decade.”

She said they enjoy the purging aspect of a PCS and the process actually starts several months before the movers arrive. The real upside is knowing that when her husband retires and they settle one last time, they won’t have more than 20 years’ worth of accumulated junk to contend with.

That doesn’t mean that everything is sunshine with a PCS. Routines change, old friends, though only a phone call or an email away, get left behind and it can take time to find all the resources that you’d already sorted out at the old location—all of which can be a bit trying.

“The most frustrating thing is having to start from scratch with your daily lives,” Lee said. “Whether it’s medical care or day care, you have to start from scratch.

 “I was six months pregnant during our most recent PCS. When we left Florida, I knew I needed to find a new doctor in Maryland ASAP. Unfortunately, I had to re-establish all of my doctors and enter a new system to wait for an appointment. So, it wasn’t a smooth or quick transition.”

She said it was the same with day care for her 2-year-old daughter.

“It broke my heart to have to say goodbye to the teachers my daughter had grown to love so much in Florida. Now that we’re here in Maryland, she’s on several waiting lists to get into a new day care,” she said. “It’s frustrating taking her out of her routine and trying to maintain a learning environment while she’s at home with me.”

The best part of a PCS?

“It’s a fresh start!

“We always look forward to setting up our new house,” Lee said. “And, of course, having someone else to do all the packing and heavy lifting is priceless!”

That’s right. You don’t pack your own belongings. But beware. If you are running short on time before the movers arrive, it can bite you. Maybe you didn’t have a chance to empty that trash can or didn’t get to the dishes the night before? No worries, everything will be there when the truck pulls up at the new place—including the contents of the trash can and the dried cornflakes.

Whether your last PCS was pretty tame or it was a comedy of errors, there always seem to be stories to share, like the Lee’s first PCS as newlyweds.

Packers keep track of military household goods by tagging and keeping a log of personal belongings. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Desiree N. PalaciosPackers keep track of military household goods by tagging and keeping a log of personal belongings. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Desiree N. Palacios“In 2009, just a few weeks after we got married, my husband and I PCSed to Okinawa. Upon arriving, we had to live in a hotel until finding an apartment,” Lee said. “One day, about two weeks into our stay, my husband and I returned to our hotel room after each working a full day in the office, visiting several potential apartments with housing agents and going to dinner.

“We had been gone at least 12 hours,” she said. “When we opened the door to our hotel room, we discovered someone had turned on the faucet in the bathroom, plugged the sink and left the room.”

The entire room was under about three inches of water, including suitcases, food, computers and anything else on the floor.

“The front desk insisted we must have made the mistake, but reluctantly agreed to move us to a new room,” Lee remembered. “Needless to say, our apartment search was expedited and we couldn’t have been happier to get out of temporary housing and into a permanent house.”

At the time, she said it was the worst thing that could’ve happened. “In hindsight, it was somewhat amusing and just a minor bump in the road.”

Regardless, it was a lesson learned and one Lee has taken to heart, encouraging anyone facing a PCS to do their housing homework in advance of arriving at their new duty station. This is especially important if the moving party is not a party of just two.

“Living out of a hotel when you have kids and pets is not fun and the sooner you get established in a new house, the more comfortable you’ll be and the sooner you can begin exploring your new surroundings and establishing yourselves,” Lee offers those looking at a PCS in the near future.

Her personal approach to a PCS? A positive outlook.

“I wish people would go into the move with an adventurous and positive attitude,” she said, adding change is never easy. “Too often in the past, I’ve heard people compare Asia with Europe, or North Carolina with Florida, or (complain) how nothing is ever as good as what they just left. Almost every single family in that situation could board themselves up in their new house and complain about their surroundings for the next few years … But once they get out and explore and make themselves a part of the local community, they end up loving and appreciating where they live.

“I’m a firm believer that every duty station can be the best yet for you and your family, and if you look past the discomfort of new surroundings and actually open yourself up to exploring the unique place your family has landed, you will come to appreciate where you live every time,” she added. 

Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.