CONTRIBUTED BY HEATHER GELORMINE
A decade ago I was a brand new Army wife. My husband and I married two weeks before I began my senior year of college; I returned to live in my school’s dorm which was located two hundred miles away from the nearest military installation, and he shipped off to attend his first (of many) Army schools five states away. We spent only thirty non-consecutive days together in the nine months that followed. During those precious few moments together I got myself a military ID, enrolled in DEERS and Tricare, got put on his orders, went to an EFMP screening, and applied for my government no-fee passport.
After being handed my diploma I returned to my parents’ home and watched as TMO packed up our furniture, which consisted of a full-sized bed, a single dresser, a hand-me-down dining room table (but no chairs) and all the still unopened wedding gifts we’d received the previous summer; a week later I found myself on a military flight to Germany. (And yes, that passport DID finally arrive an hour before we left for the airport. At least I had my civilian passport to fall back on had it not shown up in time.) For a young twenty-one-year-old whom, at that time, still had no experience with anything to do with the military other than being told, “You don’t need to know your social security number anymore, just his”, the term ‘shell-shocked’ does not even begin to cover how I felt.
We’d been given little guidance about what to expect or how the process worked; we were told we had “a sponsor who would meet us”… but that was it. Between finding all our luggage, calming down our (brand new) dog who’d flown over with us, and looking around for that sponsor we missed the bus that would have taken us to our new duty station. We were at fault, for sure; if we’d paid attention to the command’s directions we would have spent Memorial weekend in TLA at our duty station, instead of residing at the Rhein-Main Air Base transient lodging for the next three (long) days. Our sponsor didn’t want to make the trip to get us, so we took lots of walks, played some board games, wandered the small aisles of the tiny BX and Commissary, and tossed a ball for our dog; being brand new to the country in those post 9/11 months we weren’t yet allowed off base.
Once we arrived at our duty station our sponsor turned out to be a single Soldier with a car too small to accommodate our luggage and an attitude that clearly conveyed his opinion about being assigned to help us. Shortly after, a married Soldier and his wife from our unit took over guiding us around, and from there we began to enjoy our first days as a married couple who *actually* had the chance to live together.
My story – dramatic as it felt at the time – is not uncommon, I suspect. Moving to a foreign country is scary; there’s no other way to describe it. Having a sponsor to help guide an OCONUS neophyte through the process might seem like a trivial, even annoying, thing to the one who’s been ‘volun-told’ to cart around a jet-lagged stranger from appointment to appointment, but to that newbie this level of support is essential.
Depending on what branch of the military you serve in, the exact duties required of a sponsor may differ. From what I could find in my online research, the Marine Corps and Navy have sponsor training classes, as does the Air Force; these are mandatory for all first-time sponsors. (Sorry Army folk – your guidance is unit-based.) As with everything we tell you here at Okinawa Hai, please check with your command for the official and final say in all things military-related.
A Facebook reader pointed out this helpful Okinawa Sponsorship Checklist, which is a great starting point. It includes things like:
Contact inbound newcomer to get important family/pet info and copies of orders
Answer questions and/or direct to the appropriate online resources
Secure a Post Office Box and notify of this new mailing address
Make a housing appointment
Reserve appropriate temporary lodging
Register newcomer (and spouse) for Newcomer’s Briefing
Meet newcomer and family at airport and transport to TLA
Bring to Commissary and/or Shoppette for essentials
Introduce newcomer to unit
Bring to various housing and newcomers appointments
Assist newcomer (and/or spouse) in obtaining SOFA license
Assist with housing/car hunt
There are more items on this list (please reference above link) but my husband, who worked as a personnel officer for seven years, assures me these are the most basic requirements. Unfortunately, for many newcomers this is where the assistance ends, if they’re lucky to have been given all this. When we were preparing to move to Okinawa in 2008 my main question was “What are the preschools like in Okinawa?” and the answer I received from our sponsor – who’d never had a child in preschool on Okinawa – was simply, “There are preschools here“. Our experience once we arrived on-island was much better, though.
Answer Their Questions. We all want to know what to expect when we PCS to a new duty station. Diving headfirst into the unknown is fun for some people, and terrifying for others. If they have questions for you before you arrive, answer them. If you don’t have the answers, direct them to the right online resources. We hope you’ll send them here, of course (the Island Newbies page is a terrific resource for all those initial questions), but also direct them to branch-specific Relocation Assistance webpages (MCCS, Kadena AFB, Torii Station), and the Okinawa Military Family Housing page; all these resources can help them help themselves.
If you have kids around the same ages of the kids of the incoming family, set them up as pen pals. Children often have very different questions than their parents, and peer-to-peer interaction is invaluable. What an adult thinks is great is not necessarily seen as such by a ten-year-old, and vice versa.
Set Them Up For Success. Check the family into TLF before picking them up at the airport. Buy them a calling card to phone home to their worried families. Fill their fridge with bottled water, a loaf of bread and PB&J, a box of Cheerios, and a half gallon of milk. (And coffee. Don’t forget the coffee!) Remember how you woke up at 5am that first morning, hungry and convinced it was really dinnertime, but nothing was open yet? Providing just a few basic groceries can help newbies feel welcome, with minimal effort. One of our readers told us her sponsor bought a package of diapers and wipes for the baby; another reader mentioned she buys the families she sponsors a small laundry basket and a package of laundry detergent, some dish soap, and snacks to have on hand.
Don’t go all out – there’s no need to spend your own grocery money fully stocking their pantry. But giving them an edge to get through that first morning can mean the world to a tired family.
Show Them Around. Bring them to get cell phones and groceries. Give them maps of the bases and for around the island. If you have a spouse with the ability to assist you, enlist their help. While you bring the servicemember to all those appointments have him/her show the spouse where the Commissary is, how to get to the library (for the free Internet!) and the medical clinic, and help them enroll the kids at the CDC and/or schools. Take them off-base for their first Japanese meal (and teach them how to use Yen) or invite them to a backyard BBQ at your place to meet some other seasoned island dwellers. Introduce them to other spouses from the unit. Assure them that learning to drive on the other side of the road will not be as frightening as it is to be a front seat passenger on the wrong side of the car that first day.
You don’t have to be their new best friends. In fact, once they’ve gotten settled into their housing and have SOFA licenses and cars to get themselves around, you may never see them again. But be the first friendly face they encounter; this will help set the tone for the weeks and months to come as they’re settling in and trying to decide whether or not they like it here.
Help Out With The Little Dependents. If the family is arriving with children, offer to watch the kids for a couple of hours while they attend their newcomer’s brief or while they’re scoping out the lemon lot or as they do a little grocery shopping. If you’re not a kid person, ask one of your friends who is comfortable with this to help out. Bring them to an on-base playground or to Araha Beach; that pirate ship is a hit with kids of all ages.
The fastest way to a parent’s heart is to show an interest in their children; if you’re friendly to the rugrats the family will appreciate it more than you know.
Help Them Get Typhoon-Ready. It’s rather inconvenient that PCS season and typhoon season run concurrently, isn’t it? For a family that is brand new to the island and doesn’t yet have their bearings, remember that they’re not yet prepared to weather the storm. Buy them some basic supplies to use in TLF or in their new housing: a flashlight and batteries, a couple gallons of water, a deck of playing cards, and some non-perishable foods if they haven’t had the chance to run to the Commissary themselves. Tell them the meanings of the TCCOR levels and how to interpret them, along with the associated rules.
You don’t need to bring them home with you, but check in on them during the storm. They’ll appreciate knowing they’re not alone.
For those of you who are being sponsored, I’ve got some tips for you, too:
Be Proactive. Sponsorship is a two-way street; your sponsor has his role but you also have yours. Fill out the MilitaryHOMEFRONT’s eSponsorship Application form to request a sponsor, and contact your future command for information about their Relocation Assistance Program. Don’t assume everything’s being taken care of on that end, because we all know that sometimes, unfortunately, people fall through the cracks and details get overlooked. If you’re a month away from PCSing here and haven’t heard anything from your new unit, contact them.
Ask, Ask, Ask. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or request help. If your family needs something specific when you first arrive, make sure your sponsor is aware. While some people may think ahead, don’t assume anyone is a mind reader. Your sponsor might not know the answer or have access to the resource himself, but he can help you find it.
Be Appreciative. If you’re lucky to have a sponsor that has gone out of his or her way to help you get adjusted, thank them. If they’ve bought you groceries, offer to repay them; they might say no, but if they’ve spent their own money to make sure you have something to eat they’ll appreciate the gesture. If your sponsor loans you his car for an afternoon so that you can explore the island a bit while still looking for a vehicle to purchase, return it with a full tank of gas. Offer to pay for your sponsor’s lunch after she’s brought you to get your license, and helped you look for a car, and find the insurance office, and look at those three houses you were offered, and for answering your endless queries about how it all works, and for taking the time away from work that’ll still be there when she returns as well as time away from her own family to help you settle in with your own.
Pay It Forward. Maybe you had a fantastic sponsor who thought of everything and made sure your transition here was seamless. Maybe you were left hanging. Most likely your experience with being sponsored during your PCS to Okinawa falls somewhere in between. No matter what your experience was, if you’re assigned to be a sponsor yourself, remember what it was that your sponsor did or didn’t do for you, and what you wished had been done. Then do it. Make a difference for someone else.