Retreat: Home Leave 2022

This period of home leave between my third and fourth diplomatic tours has been a time to rest, recuperate, and set up life in the United States again after spending most of the last seven years abroad. At 35 business days, it has intentionally been my longest home leave since joining the Foreign Service. Counting from the day after our PCS travel to Virginia ended, to the day before my next assignment starts (holidays and weekends don’t count), I have taken exactly seven weeks. Uniquely, for the first time, I’ve spent it all on the east coast.

My ‘long’ home leave of 2022 feels significant because between my first and second tours (2017) and my second and third tours (2019), I’d quite intentionally taken the shortest home leaves allowed. Home leave somewhere in the U.S. or its territories is mandatory between overseas assignments and intended to reacclimatize you and your family to life in your home country. It’s also Congressionally-mandated at a minimum of 20 days. I think in some ways this is supposed to protect us from so much pressure to arrive at our next posts that we’d never spend any time in the U.S. at all.

There is no required or minimum home leave on an overseas to domestic transfer, but you can generally take 0-25 days with the permission of your onward (domestic) supervisor. Your mileage may vary; you can always request annual or sick leave if more appropriate. Home leave days are not entitlements like annual leave or sick leave are. I’m not sure of the legalese other than that they’re in a different category. They also cannot be cashed out when you retire or resign. so you either use them or forfeit them. From what I’ve heard, most officers when they retire still have a slew of unused home leave.

There were different reasons for my previously taking the minimum number of days, and my perceptions about the financial interest of my family was a key factor. There was also an element of being on the Department’s tight, impersonal regimen of moving personnel from one destination to another, known as a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move that influenced my decision-making.

Home leave between overseas assignments, round I

On our first home leave summer 2017, I’d made some rookie mistakes. First, I’d sought and received permission from Washington to extend a month at my first post to cover a staffing gap. I don’t really regret this because it was the right thing to do. It helped not only my section’s workload but also allowed V to work for another month before losing his job. On the flip side my extension prolonged my own toxic work situation and further delayed medical care I’d already shamefully neglected for over a year.

Second, I hadn’t really made logistical home leave plans other than to hang out at my parents’ homes. So although we spent less money on accommodations, we also didn’t have much of our own routine or space. This wasn’t a huge deal, but I did vow to be more organized the following home leave because the whole experience of a PCS, losing your home and friends, and living out of bags for weeks or months on end is disruptive and anxiety-provoking enough without also not having your own private place for downtime.

And third, I’d caved to pressure to arrive at my second post earlier than expected to try and overlap with my predecessor. The timing constraints of my Tashkent departure and Canberra arrival, plus needing to jam in a few weeks of tradecraft at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington on the front end of my time in the U.S. before continuing west, meant I’d really needed to shorten my home leave in California to the minimum.

Mt. Vernon Trail, February 2022

It was what my onward post wanted, and in a way, it was what I wanted too. I was excited to return to Australia for the first time since finishing my masters there in 2006. I needed medical treatment for the bone infection in my foot that had already progressed beyond what oral antibiotics could do. I suspected if I began liquid antibiotic treatment in the U.S., I’d be stuck for weeks or even months in a DC-area hotel – or worse, an infectious disease hospital, which would suddenly ruin long-planned home leave logistics with my family.

Sorry, doctor, I don’t have time for a peripherally-inserted chest catheter and care every 24 hours. I need to fly back to California next week and help take my seven-year old niece to the happiest place on earth. I’ve only seen her once in the past three years, and on that visit I was stuck unexpectedly in the hospital with a back injury on her birthday! And I may not see her for another couple years after this. I might need to amputate my toe? Well, but… she’s my only blood niece, and I don’t have my own kids, and we don’t have anywhere to live here, and I have first-class tickets to Seattle that I got with points and I’ll forfeit them, and my husband needs to find a job in Australia where we’re going, and this training I’m in right now for my work is mandatory – I can’t even miss an hour of it or I’ll have to repeat the whole segment, and I’m sure I won’t have to actually amputate the toe! and-and-and…

There were a million reasons why we just needed to drop down into the U.S. for home leave and then get back out again. Keep moving, keep going, stick to the PCS schedule of a post-to-post move. I didn’t want to talk to MED and then change my flights and worry about what was going to happen with our finances and we’d already bought a car in Australia, and my brain just went down the rabbit hole of details particular to our situation. Maybe someone else could have taken it all in better stride. But at that time and in those circumstances, injured and coming out of a hard tour, I could not.

And being between posts already meant my spouse V was between jobs, something we wanted to minimize. Foreign Service Officers get home leave and continue being salaried – but their eligible family members (EFMs) who worked at a post see their jobs disappear once they leave. So when V left Tashkent, he ceased to become a federal employee for the first time since the early 1990s. It was a shock. I’d immediately added V and my stepdaughters onto my health insurance.

I was now the sole breadwinner, and we knew the sooner we wrapped home leave and proceeded to Australia, the sooner we would have somewhere to live and a chance of V finding employment. V wasn’t required to take home leave. He was cut loose, thank you very much. But I had to, and he couldn’t advance to Australia without me, because he was a dependent on my orders and derived his diplomatic status from me. Without my arrival, there would be no visa, no housing, no nothing. Extending our home leave to travel around and be ‘homeless’ in the U.S. seemed financially unnecessary, so we took the 20 days and the nice visit with my family including a big trip to Disneyland with my niece, and side trips to see my dad and to visit friends in Seattle. Then – mutually beneficially – off to the land of Oz.

Walking the Mt. Vernon Trail northbound in VA along the Potomac River towards DC, February 2022

Ironically, as a sign of gratitude for getting to Post quickly, the bureaucracy slapped me. My offense? Accidentally taking 19 business days of home leave – one day less than the minimum. I’d evidently double-counted a home leave day with a PCS travel day; since we flew to Australia on a flight that departed San Francisco a few minutes before midnight, I’d assumed our “travel day” would start the next day. No. No it did not: it started that day, even though for 23 hours and 45 minutes of the day I had been with my family doing what I considered home leave stuff. In the end I was silly and not acting in my own best interest for trying to double-count and rush through my family time instead of assuming the technicality. (This becomes a familiar refrain.)

I also received a minor slap for not updating my medical clearance between posts, but there were no real administrative consequences to that either. Everyone was too freaked out by my arriving in Canberra with a red line running up my leg. Although I had intentionally delayed medical treatment, I was taking the oral antibiotics and assumed it would all work out. It didn’t. But it had no more occurred to me to tattle on myself to MED in DC or to update my clearance than it would have to complicate my life in any other unnecessary way at that point. Again, rookie mistake.

On top of all that, my predecessor changed his mind about the overlap plan and did what worked for his schedule as far as home leave, onward training, and enrolling his kids in Virginia schools, and thus departed Post the day before I arrived. Despite my rush to get to Canberra – for which I’d cut all of my Washington consultation days, which in turn delayed me building relationships with Washington offices in the portfolio I covered in a bunch of different ways during the beginning of my tour – our planes crossed over the Pacific. We spoke by phone many times and he was (and is) an excellent colleague, but we never did meet in person or overlap. This was 100% not his fault, but more caused by the leadership of the section – who could’ve given me a heads-up – and my own failure to prioritize what was best for me.

I filed the whole experience under “Things No One Tells You During Your First Tour.” In Juárez I told every first and second tour (FAST) officer I worked with a version of this story when they came to me for advice about arranging their PCSs, and encouraged them NOT to cut consultation days or screw themselves out of home leave.

Maybe it works for you at some point to take a short home leave. Fair enough. Home leave is expensive and a lot of officers don’t like it and feel it’s a burden. You get to make that call. But it will never work for you to not be the driver of your own schedule. You just end up doing what everyone else wants you to do and not looking out for yourself at all. And the more the Department doesn’t look out for you either, the more you question why you keep putting yourself in that position.

Home leave between overseas assignments, round II

After we finished our Australia tour in summer 2019, we again took the minimum 20 days of home leave before I started Spanish class in preparation to serve in Ciudad Juárez. And again I could point to me justifying a short home leave as my idea (to stay in Australia for as long as possible) when that’s only partly true. There was also a subtext of being overworked and understaffed after three officers curtailed from my section in one year. I didn’t want to leave the rest of my colleagues in the lurch with my own inevitable departure.

V’s birthday brunch with DC friends, February 2022 ~ the cockie on their porch is a hint we served in Canberra together! ♥️ 🇦🇺

In fact, I counted backwards from the first day classes would start at FSI to calculate precisely 20 business days of home leave and factor in travel days. I wanted to determine the last possible day I could leave Australia without being late for class. I even remembered to account for holidays and crossing the international date line. It was a logistical masterpiece and there were no grounds for slapping. And we got to relish every remaining moment in Australia with our bird friends!

Not only that, but the leadership in the section leaned on me to wait for my successor to arrive before I departed. But because the incoming officer who would replace me had recently been evacuated from Caracas, miracle of miracles, he was spinning his wheels in Washington and ready to come ASAP. When I’d reached out to check with him, expecting a gap at my position because of his new bridge assignment, I found him instead ready to pack and head down immediately. We overlapped by a handful of business days and it worked out.

V and I then had an amazing time on our second home leave. I had planned it to the nth degree, taking advantage of a rest stop (triggered whenever you fly 14 hours or more) to visit Hawaii for the first time, and then continuing to Sacramento and taking a road trip through Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. I didn’t feel like it was short.

V was once again unemployed between posts through no fault of his own, so we were back down to one income. I had the sense our home leave was just long enough and by the time Labor Day weekend rolled around we would be ready to move on. I played the game successfully. The smartest thing I did in addition to the layover in Honolulu was cost construct to have us fly on to Dulles out of Portland instead of having to drive back down to Sacramento, which would have been arbitrary and insane.

But in retrospect, I do feel I was still on the Department’s program more than my own. I remember feeling angry when we got to Virginia on the final day of our PCS travel (that mentally for me felt like the last day of home leave too) that there was no time to do anything related to settling in or accepting our UAB shipment before starting full-time mandatory training with no breaks: the first time we’d dealt with such a thing in the U.S. The Department in its wisdom relies on officers to either subsidize these work-related tasks with their own home or annual leave, or via a 1950s paradigm in which an independently wealthy or stay-at-home spouse is available to manage everything that would require a single or widowed officer to be in two places at once, physically impossible even if it were permitted. And it does this while making the simplest things so ridiculously and unnecessarily hard.

For example, the Department didn’t authorize us to arrive in our PCS Lodging apartment until the day before Spanish class started… even though that fell on a federal holiday. Other officers presumably arrived in the area on home leave and paid for hotels or AirBnBs to settle in their kids and beat jet lag; I refused. Even though I was paying for accommodation on the west coast anyway, there would have been no point in arriving to Arlington early and trying to accept hundreds of pounds of air freight in a hotel. We would then have to move it – with no car, as ours was floating on the Atlantic somewhere, and little did I know then said car would arrive totaled thanks to infuriating neglect on the part of the government storage program – to our lodging during the workday once I was working. It didn’t even make sense! The purpose of that home leave was to be on the west coast with my family and that was what we were going to do.

Similarly, we’d needed to fill out paperwork way in advance to participate in the PCS Lodging program, but no one could get us an address to start rerouting our mail until the day we arrived in Virginia. Do you know how hard it is to move internationally, on a move that lasts for almost two months, with no forwarding address? And how many times that comes up? We literally did not know what our apartment number was until the night we got there and set our bags down. How could this possibly be so difficult to confirm?

This was probably luck-of-the-draw with the building management more than anything else, since housing is contracted out, but it’s all part of the experience that requires you to always demonstrate patience and flexibility far beyond what is extended to you as a professional. It might sound dumb, but lost mail, damaged credit, and identity theft in in the Foreign Service are a HUGE pain in the ass.

I digress. My original point was that my feelings of being lost in the onerous bureaucracy and that somewhere I’d missed the boat in standing up for myself continued.

Home leave before a domestic assignment

Although 20 days of home leave between overseas assignments is the minimum, somewhere around a month seems standard. Officers accrue about a day for each month served overseas, or maybe a day and a quarter. I’m not sure exactly. Even if you have none before you go, by the end of your tour you should have enough to at least take the minimum. But before a domestic assignment, as I mentioned, you might not take any home leave at all, particularly if your new job needs you right away. After all, you will be spending at least the next year in the U.S., so you don’t really need that “pause” to reacclimate before heading out of the country again. Or so says the Department.

Walking the Mt. Vernon Trail southbound in VA, February 2022

When we returned to northern Virginia from Ciudad Juárez, I had 65 days in my home leave bank. I planned to take the maximum allowable before a domestic assignment of 25 business days, or five weeks.

Even though I had curtailed from my assignment, I had spent 18 months “overseas” and put home leave in my TMTWO (request for orders). Even though I didn’t technically make it to the exact day cutoff for 18 months by a margin of around two weeks, which the policy does spell out specifically, the Department put home leave in my orders anyway. I was pleasantly surprised. Sometimes just give it a whirl and see what happens.

HHE was delivered less than three weeks after our UAB and seven weeks after packout

However, as the time to return to work drew closer and there were some changes to my bridge assignment – the work I would be doing before starting my fourth tour in the summer – I realized I needed additional time to recuperate from my experiences in Juárez and manage health issues. I requested and received permission to extend my home leave from 25 to 35 days. A colleague gave me a sample memo in which she asked for and received two extra days for an issue having to do with a family member’s cancer. It wasn’t a sure thing my request would get the thumbs-up. But I was again pleasantly surprised to see the approval. I suppose the justification I wrote was compelling. I then wondered why my colleague only asked for two extra days.

At home, February 2022

Establishing that I needed more time and actually getting it has also been a reminder to me that I cannot always be on the schedule of the Foreign Service. Rushing to the next post, the next job, the next assignment, the next task, the next moment, while my neglected personal to-do list gets longer and longer and eventually disintegrates or ignites, is not normal. We need time to resolve medical problems, we need family and personal time, and we need time to recover from things that happen in the environments where there are always more cables to write, more visits to handle, passport and visa backlogs, and we’re perpetually short-staffed. Burning ourselves out is the wrong way to recruit and retain good officers, not to mention generally the wrong way to treat each other and ourselves as human beings.

That schedule without even one day of breathing room to spare before you’re obligated to wear the next hat can be an endless hamster wheel that – while beneficial for your career advancement – can also drive you to make decisions the timing of which is not in your best interest.

Of course we know things like this on an intellectual level. But putting boundaries into place or disappointing anyone can be so uncomfortable, some of us would rather assume the burden of whatever is asked of us rather than assert ourselves and come face to face with someone giving us that look. Of course we can handle it all. But should we?

I was already leaning towards requesting additional home leave days when I found out the Department had changed the remote bridge assignment I arranged before I formalized my curtailment. They wanted to now slot me into an in-person, high-stress assignment that may or may not have lasted only four months. I was speechless. Here it was again, needs of the service.

People who care about you will always say, “Someone else will do it,” as they encourage you to opt out. I wince, feeling sorry for the “someone else” which nine times out of 10 has been me. But not this time.

Going back to work sooner, and in a position I didn’t expect that was a great job but also not the right thing for an immunocompromised person to be doing at this point in time… Of all the people in the workforce, we should pick someone in the top five percent most vulnerable, whose higher risk we have made invisible in policy and whose needs would be most ill-understood in our recently unmasked workplace? I could write for hours about this, but suffice it say that none of that needed to be my focus right now. So I took a few days to agonize over it, because I really did want to do the work, and I thought deeply about the last several months and the way I felt treated as an immunocompromised employee… and I said unfortunately the timing is wrong. Maybe in the future. But right now, I cannot.

And you know what? It was fine. I was instead given a bridge in my own office, so basically I will have the opportunity to start my fourth tour three months early. And coincidentally, long before my new predecessor will jet off to the Middle East for his next assignment. So we will get to work together a lot, which will be great.

Two months ago today was my last work day in Juárez and the following day we crossed the border to Texas. If I look at my Fitbit HR graphs between then and now in the app, I can see my resting heart fall off a cliff the day I left. The jagged drop is visually startling. And despite a cross-country drive over the days that followed and the physical difficulty, chaos, and instability of a PCS move, my resting heart rate consistently decreased every day afterwards for eight days in a row and thereafter remained at a lower plateau. My toxic stress levels have never returned to where they were in January and prior.

I never, ever want to work anywhere again where I am not fundamentally valued, listened to, considered credible, and treated as equally deserving of safety as anyone else. The amount of cognitive dissonance I had to engage in just to make it through each day in an environment where no one has the courage to just acknowledge you are treated as acceptable loss was exhausting and so obviously wrong, and meanwhile every cell in my body was screaming at me about moral injury. I deserved better. And I proved I understood this by taking the difficult and inconvenient decision to curtail, by taking a longer home leave, and by sticking to my guns about needing a low-exposure, low-stress bridge assignment.

And so on my home leave I didn’t do all the projects. I didn’t finish unpacking. I made long lists of to-dos and tried to do some of the things, but forgave myself when I was unable. I watched movies. I bought clothes in my new size. I walked in the woods and listened to music I liked. I started medical care with a new functional medicine doctor and a new endocrinologist and after nine months of hair loss, seem to have slowed it down. I took a road trip through five states and saw people I care about and ate whatever I wanted, just for a few days. I will write about it soon. It was awesome and impermanent and freeing. And there was no schedule other than whatever I felt like doing. I retreated into my own thoughts and needs and I started to look around and feel happy and hopeful again.

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