Being stationed overseas as a military service members can be a unique and rewarding experience, but it’s not without its challenges. On one hand, it offers the opportunity to serve your country, see the world, and expand your horizons. On the other hand, it can bring homesickness, culture shock, and professional difficulties. Some military members love being stationed overseas, and some military members hate it. Obviously, there are pros and cons to being stationed overseas.
In this article, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of military life overseas and provide my personal tips for balancing them.
Pros of Military Life Overseas
As a member of the military, serving overseas can be a unique and valuable experience that offers a range of benefits. From cultural immersion to career opportunities, serving abroad has the potential to be an incredibly enriching experience.
Now, let’s dive into the various advantages of military life overseas.
One of the biggest benefits of serving overseas is the opportunity to immerse yourself in new and exciting cultures. Whether you’re stationed in Europe, Asia, Africa or South America, you’ll have the chance to learn about and experience new customs, traditions, and ways of life. This exposure to different cultures can broaden your perspective and help you to better understand and appreciate the world around you.
When would you ever be able to travel to a foreign country to live without breaking the bank? You probably know of someone who spent a summer or a semester of college traveling through Europe or Japan. That likely cost them a pretty penny. Being in the military, you will be able to submerge yourself in a foreign local culture completely on the government’s dime and have experiences that you’ll never have in the continental United States. The only downside is that you’ll be expected to do your job first. Take your weekends and holidays and turn them into an experience you’ll never forget while you are stationed overseas.
Furthermore, being stationed overseas can also help to improve your language skills. Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced speaker, immersing yourself in a new language environment will help to strengthen your communication skills and you’ll possibly become fluent in another language. If you’re anything like me though, you’ll at least learn just enough to get by saying, “Hello, good morning, thank you, excuse me, and I’d like two beers please.”
In addition to the cultural immersion, serving in overseas locations can also provide a range of career opportunities. Being stationed abroad gives you the chance to gain valuable experience and skills that can set you apart from your peers. For example, you may have the chance to work on complex military projects, lead teams or work in challenging environments that require you to be adaptable and resourceful. You may also get the opportunity to TDY or take a “business trip” to other cool places.
While I was in Okinawa, Japan, I TDY’d to the mainland of Japan, Guam, Alaska, and Australia. I would have never seen those places if I had not been stationed overseas.
Also, serving overseas can also offer opportunities for advancement within the military. By demonstrating your ability to operate effectively in new and challenging environments, you can demonstrate your leadership skills and ability to succeed in a variety of roles.
A friend of mine who had passed a DLAB test was tasked with translating Japanese in Tokyo for the American Embassy. Those opportunities are first offered to those stationed overseas.
It does make you more likely to make rank if you have spent time overseas. Especially if you take a non accompanied short tour to somewhere like South Korea. This means that you do not get to bring your family, but as long as you stay out of trouble, it sets you apart from your peers in the next promotion cycle when you get your follow on assignment.
From my experience in the military, the comradery while you are stationed overseas is just greater. You’ll make friends that you share unique experiences with. Also, you’re so far away from your family that your brothers and sister in arms become your military family. My wife and I have hosted many Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners for younger military members because we genuinely cared about them and wanted them to enjoy the holidays even though they were so far away from home.
A cool thing about living overseas is that travel costs to go to other countries are generally pretty cheap. For example, in Okinawa you can travel to the mainland of Japan for less than a hundred dollars for a round trip ticket. Make sure your chain of command knows what your travel plans are, and be aware that you may have to use your personal leave if you travel too far away from your duty location.
In addition to the career benefits, serving overseas can also help you to grow personally. Being stationed abroad can help you to become more independent and self-reliant, as you navigate the challenges of life in a new environment. It can also help you to expand your comfort zones, as you are forced to step out of your comfort zone and tackle new challenges.
For example, you may have the opportunity to learn new hobbies or sports, explore new cities, or meet new people. These experiences can help you to broaden your horizons and develop new interests, leading to a more well-rounded and fulfilling life.
You may build a network of friends all around the world if you are outgoing and enjoy meeting new people. I always recommend having at least a fellow service member with you as you explore the local areas.
Perfect If You’re Single
My time spent overseas was all while I was married, but my friends who were single had a great time. Many of my friends found their future wives in the foreign country that they were stationed in. Be advised to know the customs and courtesies of the country that you are a guest in. Also, make sure that you do not shine a negative light on the uniform that we put on every day. If you are single, there is a lot of fun to be had being stationed overseas.
Serving overseas also offers financial benefits. As members of the military we benefit from some tax free entitlements like Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS), overseas housing allowance (OHA), and other perks like cost of living allowance (COLA) that can help to offset the cost of living abroad and be a significant benefit. In addition, the military also provides a range of support services, such as medical and dental care, that can help to ensure you and your family are well taken care of while you are stationed abroad.
The medical benefits abroad are not the best from my experience, and I’ll discuss that in the cons section.
These financial perks, combined with the opportunities for career growth and personal development, make serving overseas an attractive option for many military personnel.
Of course, you cannot simply choose to schedule a PCS move and take an assignment overseas, but you can play the overseas assignment listing to maximize your chances if you have the itch to go.
Overall, serving overseas as a member of the military can be an incredibly enriching and fulfilling experience. Whether you’re looking for new cultural experiences, career opportunities, or personal growth, military life abroad has the potential to offer all of these things and more. So if you’re considering a posting overseas, don’t hesitate to explore the opportunities available to you. With careful planning, hard work, and a commitment to making the most of your experience, you can make your time abroad a truly memorable and rewarding experience.
Cons of Military Life Overseas
While serving overseas as a member of the military can offer a range of benefits, there are also a number of challenges that come with life abroad. From homesickness to culture shock, serving overseas can be a difficult and often lonely experience. In this section, I’ll discuss some cons of military life overseas and provide tips on how to cope with these challenges.
One of the biggest challenges of serving overseas is the difficulty of being away from loved ones. Whether you’re missing family, friends, or even pets, homesickness can be a major issue for many military personnel. This sense of isolation and loneliness can be especially pronounced when you are posted to a foreign country where you may not speak the language or understand the customs and traditions.
To help cope with homesickness, it’s important to stay in touch with your loved ones as much as possible. Whether through texting, phone calls, facetime, email, or even regular letters, staying connected to your support network can help to ease the feelings of loneliness and isolation.
If you are close to your family, you may feel disconnected from them being on the other side of the world. The time difference will make it difficult to communicate with them. Is it worth it to you to only see your family once or twice a year? In the event of an emergency, you are like 24-48 hours (at an absolute minimum) from getting back to them. This personally happened to me and I had to take emergency leave after my Dad had a heart attack. Luckily he survived and I arrived in 36 hours to be by his side.
Additionally, traveling home on leave will be very expensive. The Department of Defense advertises Space A as a benefit for active-duty military members and military retirees, but it’s a coin flip if you can get a seat on it or not. Our airline tickets back and forth from the east coast of the US to Japan have ranged from 1400 to 1800 for a single round trip ticket and prices are only going up. That’s $5500+ for a family size of four to visit the US.
Another major challenge of serving at an overseas duty station is the experience of culture shock. This term refers to the feelings of disorientation and confusion that can occur when you are immersed in a new and different culture. Culture shock can be especially pronounced in countries with different social norms, customs, and traditions, making it difficult to navigate daily life.
I experienced culture shock with Japanese culture. Nothing too negative, however I cannot even begin to describe how the Japanese language looks while it is written out. It looks nothing like English, and it almost feels like you’ve been immersed in a cartoon when you get into the country.
When our household goods was delivered, I had difficulty speaking with the Japanese crew that unpacked all of our things. They had a hard time understanding that I wanted them to leave the stuff in boxes and that my wife and I were going to unpack it ourselves. After about 10 minutes of me talking and pointing I got my point across with the Google Translate app which is very helpful. You get used to it after a while.
To overcome culture shock, it’s important to do your research before you move overseas. Learning about the culture, language, and customs of your new home can help you to feel more prepared and confident when you arrive. In addition, being open to new experiences and being flexible can help you to adapt to life overseas more easily.
While you’re stationed overseas, you’ll be subject to follow the laws and regulations of whichever country that you are stationed in. For example, in Japan the limit for getting a DUI is 0.03 compared to 0.08 in the United States. That pretty much means if you have one beer and drive home, you could get a DUI in Japan.
I’ve had many friends end up losing stripes and getting in trouble because they did not understand that law. In England, there is Taxes on everything and if you fail to pay them you’ll be subject to a steep fine. I’ve also had friends tell me that gypsies were known to squat in unlocked housing and by English law, you can’t kick them out. Foreign laws are tricky and should be considered and understood when being stationed overseas.
Professional and Career Challenges
Another challenge of military life overseas is the professional and career challenges that come with working in a foreign environment. Navigating foreign business practices, dealing with language barriers, and communicating with colleagues from different cultures can all be difficult and time-consuming.
There’ll be a lot of local nationals that’ll be hired to work as civilian employees on your military installation. It’s a coin flip if they speak English or not. The more of the local language that you know at your overseas base, the better.
To overcome these challenges, it’s important to seek out support from your colleagues and superiors. Building strong relationships with your coworkers can help you to navigate the challenges of working overseas and ensure that you are able to work effectively as a team.
Lack of Medical Care
Medical care while stationed overseas is somewhat minimal. There is always a backlog of appointments with your PCM. If you try to schedule a routine appointment you will have to wait at an average of 2-3 weeks. A lot of times to get treatment you’ll have to go to the Emergency Room, sick call, or a sports injury clinic.
It’s even worse when it comes to your spouse because active duty military gets complete priority. Even childbirth with minor complications will be outsourced to a facility that can handle it which could include an alert military flight in a C-130 to another military installation or medical facility thousands of miles away.
Take care of yourself while you are stationed overseas. Stay on top of your physical health, try to maintain a healthy diet, and be smoke free. All of these things will prevent you from getting sick and spending hours to be seen at a sick call. Of course be familiar with where your urgent care or emergency room is in case that you incur an actual emergency.
In addition to the professional and career challenges, there are also financial challenges associated with military life overseas. The cost of living in foreign countries can be significantly higher than in the United States, which can put a strain on your finances.
Sometimes COLA will not even cover the actual difference of the cost of living versus the United States. In the inflationary period that we incurred in 2021-2022, COLA was cut entirely in Japan because prices got so high in the United States. Take the COLA survey every year and be honest to keep it regulated.
To help mitigate these financial challenges, it’s important to budget carefully and make the most of the financial benefits available to military personnel. Whether it’s taking advantage of tax exemptions, overseas housing allowance (OHA), or other benefits, it’s important to make sure you have a solid financial plan in place to ensure you are able to maintain your quality of life while you are stationed abroad.
Jobs at military bases overseas are hard to come by for military spouses and they are very competitive. I know of spouses with graduate degrees that can’t get a job at our base besides fast food and retail. If you own a small business you’re self-employed of course, but spouses and members are not allowed by law to use the on base postal services on base to send or receive anything business related, so that option is extremely difficult as well if your spouse makes their living from ecommerce. They have cut you off from hundreds of millions of potential customers in the US.
Real World Threats
Every overseas military installation is strategic in nature and many of them are close to real world threats. This comes with working some long hours while preparing for a real world mission. Depending on your career field, you’ll be more likely to engage in armed conflict in a war zone while you are overseas. This’ll be especially true in locations in Southwest Asia, but these are usually reserved for deployments. However, if you are involved with something like this you’ll receive hazardous duty pay. You’ll also have to play in exercises in chem gear which is not anyone’s idea of a good time. Get involved with your base and sit in on classified briefings to get a better understanding of what’s going on with your base and how you contribute to the real world mission.
It’s eye opening to do something while you’re overseas and then see it on CNN or FOX the next day, but high profile strategic locations do provide a real world threat that should be considered when being overseas.
Balancing the Pros and Cons of Military Life Overseas
Being stationed overseas as a military member comes with a unique set of challenges and benefits. While the cultural immersion, career opportunities, and personal growth that come with a posting abroad can be incredibly rewarding, they are often balanced by the difficulties of being away from home, adjusting to new cultures, and navigating unfamiliar business practices. Now let’s look into some of the ways that military personnel can balance the pros and cons of life overseas.
Coping with Homesickness
One of the biggest cons of military life overseas is the homesickness that often comes with being far away from family and friends. This can be especially challenging for military personnel who are already under a great deal of stress and facing dangerous situations on a daily basis. However, there are ways to cope with homesickness and maintain a connection with loved ones back home.
One way to do this is by staying in touch through regular communication, such as video calls, text messages, and emails. Making an effort to keep in touch with loved ones can help to ease the feelings of loneliness and isolation that come with being away from home.
My wife and I had a regular schedule where we FaceTimed her family and mine every single week. This regular routine helped us stay connected to our family members even though we were on the other side of the world. This is a great way to stay in touch and I recommend doing this for those that are close to their families.
Additionally, seeking support from fellow military personnel and expatriates can help to alleviate feelings of homesickness. Joining clubs and organizations, attending events and gatherings, and connecting with other military families overseas can help you feel less isolated and more connected to your new community.
I joined a running club to make some friends with common interests. We all were passionate about exercising and helping others get into good shape. It’s common interests like this that bring people together.
Overcoming Culture Shock
Another challenge that comes with being stationed overseas is the culture shock that often arises when transitioning to a new environment. Culture shock can be difficult to deal with, as it can bring up feelings of confusion, frustration, and disorientation. However, there are ways to overcome culture shock and make the most of your time abroad.
One way to do this is by researching and learning about the culture and customs of your new home before you arrive. Reading books, watching documentaries, and speaking with people who have lived in the area can help you get a better understanding of what to expect and how to navigate your new surroundings.
Additionally, being open to new experiences and trying new things can help you overcome culture shock and adapt to your new environment. Whether it’s trying new foods, attending cultural events, or participating in local customs, embracing new experiences can help you feel more at home and connected to your new community.
Finding the Right Work-Life Balance
Balancing work and life can be challenging in any situation, but it can be especially difficult when stationed overseas. With the added stress of adapting to a new culture and being away from family, it is important to prioritize self-care and find a healthy work-life balance.
One way to do this is by taking time to explore your new community and engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation. Whether it’s hiking in the local mountains, exploring local markets, or trying new sports and hobbies, finding ways to relax and enjoy your time abroad can help you maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Prioritizing self-care and taking time to rest and recharge can help you stay focused and productive in your work. Whether it’s practicing yoga, meditating, or taking a hot bath, taking time for yourself can help you manage the stress and demands of military life overseas. Do whatever it takes to stay motivated.
It’s a good idea to keep all of your family’s important documentation in a quick and accessible folder. Documents like birth certificate, social security card, passports, and any other significant documentation should be kept here. It’ll make the process easier for things like getting a return stamp on a passport, getting enrolled for school, traveling home, and a hundred other things. It’ll save a lot of heartache and grief.
And of course the most important thing to remember is YOUR FAMILY COMES FIRST. Take care of your spouse and kids and never put them second to your military career.
The Enlisted Experience
Most military members are not going to have much of a say in where they get stationed, but when building your dream sheet you can read the pros and cons and decide on what overseas duty locations that you’d like to try out. Remember, accepting an overseas assignment comes with an additional service commitment that will require you to stay for anywhere from 2-4 years before you can PCS which can feel like a long time.
Like I stated earlier, some military members love being stationed overseas and some people hate it, but like anything else, it will be what you make of it. Have a good attitude and an open mind and make your overseas assignment an enjoyable one.