Maybe your spouse is on recruiting duty; maybe you’re moving home while she deploys. Or maybe he’s been assigned to duty far from any military base. Whatever the reason, many military families find themselves located far from the familiar tan buildings of military bases at some point, and living in a civilian community that is unfamiliar with the unique military life in “off base housing” has its own challenges. If on-base housing isn’t for you, here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you in this new adventure.
Challenge 1: Housing
For those who’ve never lived off base, navigating the civilian housing world can be confusing, frustrating or downright expensive.
- Do ask for opinions. Military spouses are a great source of information, and they come from all over the country and world. Chances are, someone has lived in Fayetteville, Ark., or Mason City, Iowa, and they can give you first-hand knowledge of your new home, like where the good schools are and which grocery stores have great sales.
- Do read the fine print. Making sure that your new lease agreement has a military clause is very important. Generally, a military clause allows you to break the lease without financial penalty if the military member receives permanent change of station (PCS) orders, or separation orders, according to information from the Ft. Detrick Office of the Staff Judge Advocate. Be aware that state rental laws may not require landlords to terminate a lease without penalty for military PCS orders or termination of service orders. Currently, only eight states require landlords to terminate leases without penalty for PCSing families, so having the military clause in your rental contract ensures you won’t have unpleasant surprises when PCS orders arrive.
- Don’t sign until you read it. Some landlords rush the rental agreement signing process; don’t let yourself be rushed and make sure that contract says exactly what you expect it to say. The same rule applies for selling or buying a house. Don’t understand something? Didn’t see that military clause in the rental agreement? Ask before you put pen to paper. If in doubt, contact the nearest housing or JAG office for further advice.
- Do ask for military discounts. No, don’t be shy – many businesses, landlords, utilities, and others have military discounts as a way to say “thank you” to the military. Some provide discounts only for active duty or only for the military member, but many extend the discounts to the National Guard and Reserve and to spouses and families. So ask, especially when setting up utilities, including Internet, cable, and cell phone service, as they will sometimes waive set-up fees or provide monthly discounts.
- Do expect sticker shock. If you’ve lived in military housing for a long time and you’ve paid little to none of your monthly utilities, you might be in for a nasty surprise at how much these can cost without military housing picking up most or all of the tab. Find local averages for your home size in each utility (the companies usually have this information available), plan for the worst-case scenario, and be careful with your usage. Turn off lights, keep your heat low, be reasonable with your air conditioning, use insulating curtains and doorstoppers, and avoid wasting water.
Challenge #2: Medical
The military medical system can be quirky, but many spouses are pros at navigating its idiosyncrasies. However, after years of the healthcare military-style, transitioning to civilian providers and civilian healthcare brings its own challenges.
- Do expect change. If you’ve been with Tricare Prime but now have switched to one of the other Tricare plans, expect some changes in how you receive healthcare. Some changes may be more convenient (no referrals!), and some may be less so (deductibles, anyone?).
- Do become the expert, or know where to find the expert answers. Your new civilian provider will probably be familiar with Tricare, but you should know what’s covered, what’s not, and what you’re expected to pay for your treatment or care. Being your own advocate is key when dealing with any insurance, and Tricare isn’t an exception. If you have questions or need more information on what’s covered, visit tricare.mil or contact your Tricare regional contractor.
- Don’t forget the mail-order pharmacy. Yes, you can get your medications from many brick-and-mortar stores, but you can also opt for the home delivery option from Express Scripts. You’ll save money by reducing or eliminating your out-of-pocket costs for your prescriptions, and they’re delivered right to your door. For more information, check out express-scripts.com/TRICARE/.
Challenge #3: Kids
Military kids are a resilient group, and they’re often used to the military culture. However, being away from a base presents special challenges for them.
- Do be prepared. Have copies of their school and medical records, and research possible schools. Being ready to register them in school is helpful for encouraging kids to become involved in their new home. Is your child involved in sports or other activities like martial arts or dance? Bring records of their achievements, if possible, to help them transition smoothly.
- Do be honest. If your child is one of few military children in the school district, the school officials may not be used to dealing with the challenges that military children face. Be honest with the administration and teachers, especially concerning deployments or other significant changes in your child’s life. Many children exhibit stress during these changes, and that stress can show in many ways, from dropping grade point averages to becoming withdrawn or angry. If educators want more information, the Military Child Education Coalition (militarychild.org) is a good place to start.
- Don’t forget their culture. The military is a culture itself, and military kids are a part of it, even when they’re far from a base. Don’t let them lose touch with their culture; for many kids, being a military kid is their identity, and it anchors their past, present, and future. Get involved with National Guard or Reserve families, take treats to patients at a VA hospital, or keep them in touch with old friends from previous assignments.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Military OneSource (www.militaryonesource.mil) is a clearinghouse for topics related to all aspects of military life – and living away from a military base is among them. There are many resources for military families. You’re not alone; ask for help, if you need it.