The Life of a Military Expat

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“Are you in the military?” is a common question I get when telling people that I am an American living in Germany. Nope, I am not, but there certainly are plenty that get their first taste of expat life as guests of the military abroad.

This week’s guest post in the life in Germany series is one of these. She writes at Life Lessons of a Military Wife about everything relating to being abroad with the military. The military is a big support for those moving abroad, but can also be a crutch and a way to ignore the local culture if you let it. Read on as she shares what it is like to be moved overseas by the military.

I was recently asked by an expat what life was like in Germany as the spouse of a military servicemember stationed in Europe.  I had to blink for a minute as I tried to determine whether to be honest with him or to gloss it over a bit.  I decided to be honest.

We are not true expats.  A true expat will move kit and kaboodle over to a foreign country with NO support network or very little of one.  Yeah, they may have friends or possibly a relative or two in country, but for the most part, they have to figure out all the ins and outs of this foreign place and how they are supposed to somewhat fit into society.

I, for the most part, don’t have to do this.  You see, us American military folks overseas have a safety net, pure and simple.  It’s called the US Army post or Navy/Air Force Base or in my case a NATO base.  At any given time I can go do any of the things below that I do back home in the US, and no, this is not an all exhaustive list:

  • I have an American post office box where I can order from American companies and pay American shipping prices.  Yes, I have to fill out a customs form and yes, there are still some companies stateside that won’t ship to me for whatever reason or the thing I want to buy exceeds the USPS limits.  But for the most part, it works great.
  • Our military has a cash cage where I can cash personal checks, change money into Euros and investigate my husband’s pay if there is an issue.  And if I want to investigate it rather than my DH in person who is the military member, I do need a special POA.  We spouses need a Power of Attorney for alot of things, which is why we have one or two special ones if your DH deploys a lot.
  • All military communities have a commissary where many, many American goods are available…not only dry goods and sealed drinks in all their sugary glory but also frozen items and items that aren’t usually frozen but were frozen to get them over here to us before the expiration date (yes, our Wonder Bread comes frozen).  Our beef gets shipped in from the US and then gets vacuum packed.  Some of the other meats are already flash frozen and some will be local (mostly from the Netherlands) like our chicken.
  • Our military provides us with access to various agencies who can help us, such as an American legal office, a housing office that will help us find a home and help negotiate our housing contract that has a military clause (easier to get out of in only 30 days if the military relocates us), and a personnel office that will handle any military paperwork for DH.  There is also a wonderful organization called Army Community Service (ACS) and Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) that will hold our hand in many ways and some posts even have USOs!  Here is an example of an ACS in Stuttgart, Germany.
  • We have a library with American books and access to inter-library loan as well as free electronic/Kindle books, also movies on DVD, Wii games, Xbox games, free internet, magazines…programs for all ages…you name it and most are free and of course ALL in American English.  Of course our NATO base has foreign language sections as well.
  • A youth center and child support center.  At low-cost our kids can play not only soccer, swim, play piano but also American football and other American-style sports and programs.  Our child support center provides fairly low-cost childcare on post, and if your servicemember deploys, you are eligible for free childcare and don’t forget Parents Night Out.
  • A movie theater that is fairly inexpensive when comparing with off-post, and yeah, we do have to wait about 2 weeks to a month for first run movies, but they eventually come our way.
  • A PX or post exchange where we can buy American products and clothing.  They have dual voltage and dual system TVs for us there, as well as some of the products we miss from home.  Two of our PXes in Germany actually have Apple retailers inside and one has a Victoria Secret’s.  We also have a large American-style mall on one of our air bases with enough stores that if you squint really hard, you will feel like you are back stateside.  Can you say Macaroni Grill, Johnny Rockets and Cinnabon to name a few of the eateries there?
  • A stateside bank that has a contract with Department of Defense with American-style customer service, products and the ability to pay our European bills.  With names like Andrews Federal Credit Union, Bank of America and Navy Federal, we are already intimately familiar with what they can do for us and get the same service we get from them stateside.

And that’s just scraping the surface.  There are a few military communities in Europe where the American servicemembers and their families will outnumber the locals.  I think the Kaiserslautern area is pretty close or used to be in the 1980s.  As a kid, I called it “Little America”, and I still call it K-town rather than its true name every once in awhile.  We even have an honest-to-goodness Armed Forces Recreation Center in Garmisch called the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort.  It also feels like “Little America” with a touch of Bavaria inside.

I say inside because all of these facilities are surrounded with serious security and if I wanted to bring a friend, I would have to sign them in and be responsible for them.  I’m also limited to how many people I can sign in at one time.  Even American citizens cannot sign themselves in…only those with a valid military ID card.  If you want to shop on post you must have an active military ID.  Even retirees vacationing in Europe cannot shop there.  I’ve had Germans ask to use my post office box.  I can’t do that either…it’s illegal, and I could get my privileges suspended for that or even for buying you goods in the PX or commissary…gifts are okay of course.  Please don’t ask me to buy you an iMac or the latest great release of some new American junk food.

With all that being said, being in the US military overseas offers you a taste of what Europe has to offer with the safety of knowing you have a fall back position, for lack of a better term!  The negative of that….I have known people..mostly single soldiers….who live in the barracks, who rarely left post and rarely interacted with their host country and people.

It’s easy to sit back and not experience your new home, and it’s even easier not to learn the language.  Don’t fall into that faux pax…you honestly have to force yourself to get out there and make the effort yourself to rub shoulders with the locals, see some of the beauty and wonder around you and to be able to look back on your European tour as something really special and extraordinary rather than just ordinary.

There you have it.  I’m not an expat but really look up to those who have the guts to leave it all behind and to experience something new and exciting.  Maybe one day I’ll be that brave, but until then, we’ll continue to be “stationed overseas” and will take advantage of not only our host country but what the military is offering us as well.

Veteran Military Wife has been blogging about military life and everything that goes with it since 2007. Currently sent back to Germany after some time in Belgium. Read her blog at Life Lessons of a Military Wife or connect through Facebook or Twitter.

8 thoughts on “The Life of a Military Expat

  1. Pingback: Military Expat Essentials: What you need to bring to South Korea - These Temporary Tents by Aadel Bussinger

  2. When I was stationed in Germany over 20 years ago – I was single and lived in the barracks and traveled A LOT – while I never considered myself an ex-pat I think I did experience the culture and what the community had to offer. I believe many people today rely on technology to get them thru an oversea’s deployment – we had no internet, no skype, no email, no Ipod’s or Ipads – we had each other and our community… many of us didn’t have a car – so we used local transportation and local bars to have our entertainment. So in a sense we learned our way around culture and environment by blindly striking out and seeing what was around the corner.. something I hope still continues today (even with the assistance of GPS!)

    • That is good that you traveled. I certainly remember traveling pre wide-spread internet. It was a different experience. Though I now like the surety of having a hotel where I am going and not wandering around so much.
      That “blindly striking out” is slowly losing steam in the modern mind I fear. The overwhelm of information makes the lack all that more noticeable and frightening.

  3. Well that is a pretty good summary! We live about 25 minutes west of “Little America” and we really like it that way. I do like to hit up the K-town area some times, mostly for the Dino park and Globus! LOL It is very sad how many Military families just don’t take advantage of living in Europe. I have meet people who have been stationed here for years, and hate it. When you ask them why, haven’t they gone any where, they say its too expensive to travel. I call the BS flag on that one. There is so much to see and do just within an hour of our home. This is part of the reason I started my blog, maybe if people knew more about how to travel here and there, they might? We love having good German neighbors that are now friends, and I’m trying really hard to learn the language. I do think when the husbands are gone, that’s a good reason not to travel far with your kids alone. Anyways, I’m babbling now. I could chat up this topic all night. Great post!

    • Excellent reason to start a blog. Germany is definitely manageable and not so expensive if you plan ahead.

  4. I never thought of whether I should consider myself an ‘expat’ until people back home started referring to me as one. Technically, anyone living temporarily or permanently in a country other than the one they were brought up in qualifies as an expat, so I would say that those over here with the military (especially those who live off post) could call themselves expats if they like. But it is certainly a different type of experience than that of traditional expats who move over without all the support systems we have in place.

    It baffles me when people rely on being here with the military to the point that they never even go off post (and I guess those would be the only people I would say shouldn’t call themselves expats since they’re never out experiencing the country or culture). I would hate to come back from Germany and have people ask what we did and only be able to talk about what’s on post.

    • Agreed on all points. Use all chances to experience new things. Especially from a military point of view, know who you are working with and experience other cultures. Use that when you do go back to explain how wonderful the rest of the world is.

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