Preparing for Launch

Spring can be a particularly angst-filled time for Foreign Service Officers on the summer bid cycle as they prepare to depart their posts for home leave, perhaps more training, and eventually, onward assignments. We call it a PCS move, or Permanent Change of Station. The details of PCS to-dos seem endless. From the complicated logistics of an overseas-to-overseas move, to meeting requirements for your new position, to completing a staggering list of duties designed to wrap up a life you’ve spent two years building – all while fully employed in your real job, saying goodbye to colleagues and friends in droves, and bucket-listing like crazy – it’s a lot to manage. Whether you can’t wait to finish your tour or the thought of departing makes you tearful, your launch will happen. Don’t get scorched on the launch pad.

Our departure from Tashkent started to feel real when we hit 100 days left at Post. But now that I’m under two months away from my departure, I have started to read my lists with a sharper eye. The amount of details that have to come together to get us out of here is astounding. Over the next several weeks, I will undergo a variety of tasks and endeavors designed to launch us, and our stuff, to multiple different destinations across the world with (hopefully) minimal hiccups.

In spring 2015, just two years ago, I finished my Russian language training and began consular tradecraft at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, Virginia. During that period, I was not only working full-time, but learning how to orchestrate our PCS from the U.S. to an overseas post.

I was asking my social sponsor about what I needed to bring to Uzbekistan that wasn’t available here, deciding what things I wanted to bring vs. leave for my husband vs. put in storage, and discovering what mechanisms existed within the giant State Department bureaucracy to ship my car, household effects (HHE), and unaccompanied air baggage (UAB) from Virginia to Uzbekistan. I also had to plan a three day stop in New York City for consultations with what I’ll call other parts of the interagency. All of this was going on while my husband and I were working so much and preparing to live apart for an indeterminate period due to family reasons. Ultimately, it all went off with no major hitches.

This time my PCS will be from Tashkent to Canberra, with FSI-based tradecraft training in Virginia, consultations in DC, and home leave in California in between.

What does a diplomat have to do to actually leave an overseas post? There is not a single day that I don’t give some consideration to this. People who know me well would likely describe me as a highly organized person, so it probably isn’t surprising that I have every single week of the next five months written out in my Moleskine planner. That doesn’t mean that I am going to get it all correct, or that I haven’t forgotten something, or that I won’t be flexible when changes inevitably happen. However, failing to at least develop a Plan A, B, and C is borderline incomprehensible to me, mostly because I’ve learned over the years that my failure to plan generally results in outcomes that bum me out. Also, this isn’t my hobby; it’s my job, and if I forget to oh, say, get my Australian visa, that is a problem that will end up squarely back in my lap. Not an OK reason to delay your arrival to Post.

The other night I was talking through some of the details of our PCS with my mom, and she asked, “Don’t you have somebody to take care of all that?” I started laughing because before I got into the Foreign Service, I would have thought that too. “No, it’s me,” I replied. Not that a lot of support staff won’t work hard to play their own specific roles – contracted movers, embassy management staff, travel agents, and so on – but the main role of organizing the plan falls to the officer. Luckily we are an enterprising, resourceful, and capable bunch of folks, no?

An officer finds out roughly a year beforehand where he or she is going next, and responds to the assignment notification (TMONE) and welcome to post cable (TMTHREE) by drafting their own notification cable (TMTWO) outlining a plan to make it happen. My August 2017 assignment to Canberra came down in the summer of 2016. My TMTWO and PCS memo trundled across many desks in the embassy and Washington and were accepted at the end of December.

So how does it look when the wheels are well in motion and you’re getting ready to leave a post – while still being up to your eyeballs in your day job? Major disclaimer: I’m no expert as I feel my way along, but here is what I have learned so far and what I still expect.

Three to four months in advance

  • Make sure your diplomatic and tourist passports and those of your family members aren’t close to expiring, and that they won’t expire during the totality of your onward tour.  If necessary, renew them.
  • Make sure you have temporary housing assigned for your onward training at FSI, if necessary. If you’re going into long-term language training and own property in the area, you may wish to consider having your tenants vacate.
  • If your spouse intends to work at the onward post, start looking for jobs. If the government freezes spouse hiring due to a continuing budgetary resolution (CR), vacillate between prayer and frustration.
  • Make sure your medical clearance and that of each member of your family is up to date. If you arrive at your onward post without a valid medical clearance, you will have no access to the embassy health unit and you are risking self-pay for a medical evacuation.

Three months in advance

  • Obtain permission from the embassy to sell any items you imported duty-free into the country, including vehicles and household items. Rules and procedures vary from country to country.
  • Mentally inventory your household effects, and decide what you need to use up or sell, what you want to put in storage, what you need with you during your time in the U.S., and what you want to send to your onward post either by air or sea. You probably already outlined all of this correctly in your TMTWO, but if you left off an entitlement that you later need, you’ll have to go through a cumbersome amendment.
  • Identify your needs during home leave. (That’s right – Foreign Service Officers have Congressionally-mandated paid home leave, twenty business days. Since home leave is often the only time the majority of officers spend stateside during their careers, other than long-term training, the goal is to reacquaint us with the motherland. However, a lot of officers refer to it as “homeless leave” because you can’t opt out, but the choice between couch-surfing or hoteling from coast to coast for a month in a relative visit tug-of-war can suck.) Will you need to rent a place? Renew a driver’s license? Schedule special time with family and friends, medical appointments, leisure trip logistics, and so on, well in advance to take advantage of your precious few stateside weeks. I have accrued about one day for each month I’ve been overseas, but on this trip I’ll use the minimum twenty days and bank the rest for a future, more leisurely home leave. Summer 2019, anyone?

Two months in advance

  • Receive your travel orders (TMFOUR) and check your entitlements and logistical details very carefully. It’s your responsibility, so if you don’t understand your orders or something looks wrong, ask for help. Of course, the government is on a CR right now, so I don’t have my orders yet…but that won’t stop me from at least…
  • …Making a flight itinerary and reservations via the embassy travel agency. Are all members of your family traveling together? Will you take a rest stop?
  • Receive contact information for your social sponsor at your onward assignment. Start to ask questions and figure things out in the new place – Banking? Shopping? Home internet set up? What does your sponsor wish he/she would have known before arriving there?
  • Are you going to sell your car? Send it to storage?  My car is going into storage in Antwerp, Belgium, because diplomats unfortunately cannot import a vehicle with a left-side steering wheel into Australia. I’ve already got a lead on an Australian spec four-wheel drive that I intend to buy sight unseen and have parked at my house when I arrive. I will need to drive myself to the embassy the morning after I land! (Stay on the left, stay left, stay left, my American friend and navigator prompted me steadily as I drove us around the island state of Tasmania in 2005.)
  • Plan your HHE and UAB shipments with your embassy’s shipping and customs unit – this is a huge task and will require more than one conversation. You will need to schedule a pre-packout survey, and carefully check what items can and cannot be imported into the country of your onward assignment. Australia prohibits, for example, lots of wooden and plant items. This means that my pinecone Christmas ornaments, Panamanian wicker crocodile, and South African painted giraffe will also be going to Antwerp instead of to Canberra with us. Sad! But better that than us being charged to destroy them.
  • Arrange for embassy staff to inspect the furniture and appliances in your residence and assess for any damage.

One month in advance

  • Figure out your new address – will you use the diplomatic pouch, or APO/DPO at your onward assignment? Fill out a change-of-address form with USPS and let your embassy mail room know. Also contact relevant institutions like banks and alumni associations to update your contact information. I keep a checklist of these because it’s hard to do all them all in one sitting.
  • Do you need to update your agency badge? Make an appointment 3-4 weeks in advance for the time you’ll be in DC.
  • Apply for visas for your onward assignment for you and your eligible family members (EFMs). Refer back to your TMTHREE for post-specific instructions.
  • Make sure your plane tickets are confirmed and if necessary, pay for any seating upgrades.
  • Make sure performance evaluations for your direct reports are completed. Work on a transition plan for your successor.
  • Take a payroll advance if you think you need to.
  • Plan a yard sale…and a house party!
  • Start sorting your stuff for packing.

Three weeks in advance

  • Pick up your paper medical records from the embassy health unit. You’re going to have to hand-carry these until you get to your next post, along with your jewelry, camera, electronics, packout inventory, personal and financial records, employment documents, and other things that make PCS travel a pain.
  • Make sure you don’t have outstanding medical bills in-country.
  • Get a tuberculosis skin test. Well, OK – only if you’re lucky enough to be in a TB-endemic country like we are.
  • Make sure any open travel vouchers are closed and that you don’t have outstanding phone bills.
  • Return anything you’ve borrowed from the embassy or from your colleagues.
  • Write references for household staff, if applicable. We never had household staff here, but I think we’re about the only ones. Story for another day.
  • Pause Netflix DVD subscription. (OK, this is a personal thing. Don’t laugh.)

Two weeks in advance

  • Arrange courtesy calls to the ambassador and deputy chief of mission.
  • Prepare for transfer of emails and files.
  • Designate a Power of Attorney to sell a vehicle you’re leaving behind, if necessary.
  • Identify a departure sponsor and write them a blank check for any expenses that arise after your departure.
  • Check that your vehicle and property insurance policies are updated to include transit and storage, if needed, and…
  • …Update your household inventory prior to packing out. Take photos or video. By the time I get to Canberra, I’ll have items on ships, trucks, planes, and in storage in both Antwerp and Hagerstown, MD. You think you’ll remember what you put in storage before your first tour, but trust me, you won’t. Document everything, and keep both hard and (backed-up) digital copies.
  • Confirm temporary housing address for training.

One week in advance

  • Request airport expedite.
  • Pack out your home – Reserve 2-3 days of administrative leave. A final inventory and inspection will take place afterwards.
  • Attend any hail/farewell parties, especially if you are a guest of honor.

Last day(s) in the office

  • Return all house keys but one set.
  • Return agency cell phones, radios, and other equipment.
  • Cancel home internet and make sure Commissary phone bill is settled.
  • Visit HR and turn in check-out sheet and diplomatic accreditation card.
  • Set auto-away message on official email account.
  • Try not to panic.

Last day in country

  • Turn off the lights and lock the door to your residence, proceed to the airport, give your house key to the expediter, and LAUNCH!

As with all things, your mileage may vary. If you have school-aged children or will be transporting pets, there are a host of other major considerations and tasks that I haven’t outlined here because they don’t really pertain to me. But if they pertain to you, you will be in good company because most people seem to have both kids and pets!

If everything goes well, two months from now I will be wrapping up week one of Pol/Econ tradecraft, the CR will have ended and my husband will have landed a job in Canberra, and I will have more than an inkling of where my personal possessions are, spread across the world literally from California to Maryland, from Belgium to Canberra. Whether or not I have time this go-around to make a color-coordinated packout guide for the movers, I’ll be on that rocket.

  3 comments for “Preparing for Launch

  1. fan-cy
    April 9, 2017 at 23:03

    A move for you is a bit more complicated than simply moving from one state to another. How incredible that somehow it will all get done! Looking forward to news from Canberra 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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Sarah W Gaer

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