Welcome to the Wandering Drays!

Not all who wander are lost...

Welcome to my blog dedicated to my family and our crazy foreign service life. Never content with staying in one place, we are excited to share our journeys. We've survived an unaccompanied tour (Baghdad), multiple TDYs, and enjoyed a two-year family assignment in Cairo, Egypt. Currently serving in the Washington, DC area, I write about what I know. Which is mainly toddlers, school-aged children, their gross pets, dealing with lots of government info, our moving adventures, being a nurse, running, living on too-little sleep, and an addiction to Starbucks lattes. I hope you'll enjoy this glimpse into our lives.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Confessions of an EFM: No Regrets

As I finish what may be my last Army Reserves Annual Training (this is my sixth year of a six year contract), I can't help but get a bit nostalgic about things that coulda/shoulda/woulda been.  You know.  When you start thinking about all the things you *might* have done if you'd done things differently.  Or how things *might* have turned out if you'd chosen a different path.

Tonight, like any other time when arriving at a military base, I pulled my car up to the gate, and handed my military ID card to the very young MP (Military Police) officer on duty.  He scanned it, passed it back to me and proudly saluted me.  As I looked up and saluted in return, I suddenly remembered that once upon a time, I actually was him.  He was easily fifteen to twenty years younger than me.  Had it really been so long ago?

In 1997, I was a junior in college and that winter, I enlisted in the Ohio Army National Guard as a Military Police Officer.  I attended my basic training and completed nearly two years with my assigned unit.  But the summer I was supposed to return for my advanced training, I left the Army -- for very personal reasons, of which I won't write about.  But I will say this.  My decision to leave was one of the worst decisions I ever made in my entire life.  And it became a sort of demon that would follow me around for years.

Regret.  We all know the feeling.  Should have done this.  Why didn't I choose that?  "Hindsight is 20/20."  "What will be, will be."  Truly, we all have different ways to deal with it.  Many of us have ways to avoid it.  Some of us will blame the situation or others.  But it catches up with you after awhile.  It eats at you; it gnaws at the very center of your being.  At least that's how regret followed me.  For years, it seemed no matter what I accomplished, it would still bubble up in the back of my mind.  Why wasn't I stronger?  Why did I make such a rash decision?  Why did I choose to fail?

I'd say I actually became pretty successful at life, despite my Army failure.  I graduated second in my college class (my first degree) in 1998.  I married my soulmate in 1999.  I worked a successful political and non-profit fundraising career for five years before choosing to return to school for nursing.  I excelled in college again when I returned, graduating summa cum laude with a BSN and became a registered nurse.  And during this time, we started a family.  Owen was born in 2003 and Abby in 2005.  In winter 2007, I started my first nursing job at a Level One Trauma Center -- my dream job.  And just out of college.

But still.  My failure.  No, that's really not the right way to describe it.  My decision to quit, my decision to choose failure --- it haunted me.  The fab hubby knew this about me.  He's known this about me for as long as he's known me.  It was while I was in the Army that we had met, nearly ten years before in 1997, in that very Army National Guard unit.  He was there when I chose to leave the Army.  And he knew how much I hated this about myself.  He told me regret was a terrible burden to live with and that it would never stop unless I chose to do something about it.  It was a harsh reality, but he was obviously right.

Life, as usual, was pretty crazy at the time.  He himself had recently left a job and was a stay-at-home dad. We were in the middle of my new career in the ER, with two young children, and he was trying to decide what he wanted to do.  He and I had discussed a job he read about online with the State Department.  It was so different from what we knew.  Sure, he had travelled abroad as a teen and young adult, but I had never been outside of the U.S., except for a day trip to Mexico when I was very young and I lived in Arizona with my parents.  It frankly made me nervous.  Anyway, we'd been living in Ohio in a house we had purchased just after getting married.  We'd already established a life together, with friends, near our families.  Owen, our oldest, was nearing kindergarten.  But what we had wasn't exactly what we wanted.  It was time for a change, for all of us.  We read a bit about living overseas and wondered if maybe it was the fit we were looking for -- for our family.

And still, in the midst of all these possible changes, the regret from my chosen failure in the Army followed me.  It was pretty obvious what I needed to do to overcome this regret.  I had to rejoin the Army.  By this point, it had been nearly ten years since I'd left the Army National Guard.  Ten years of regret.  And as one can imagine, it's not particularly easy getting back into the Army when you've left it before your enlistment period is over.  To put it mildly, I hadn't left under the best of circumstances, either.  There were papers to sign and appointments to go to and people to talk to.  And through it all, the fab hubby encouraged me.

In September 2007, I took my Oath of Office and received my commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserves Nurse Corps.  I'll never forget how it felt that day, when I took that Oath.  Because that was the day that regret no longer owned me.  That I was able to respect myself again, despite the poor choice I'd made ten years before.  The Oath I took that day in September 2007 was one of the best decisions I'd ever made in my life.  This September will mark the end of my contract with the Army, and I'm proud to say that I made it to my personal career goal when I was promoted to Captain in October 2012.

But, getting back to the past.  In summer 2008, Jason started his training for the State Department job we'd discussed.  We were making the leap into a whole different lifestyle and an entirely new career for him!  In March 2009, after he completed nearly nine months of training in D.C. (during which the kids and I had stayed in Ohio), we moved to his first assignment - at the Los Angeles field office.  As nursing is a relatively mobile career, I found a job at a nearby ER working afternoons.  But my work schedule and the fab hubby's work schedule didn't always meld well together.  I worked 12-hour days with alternating weekends.  He worked 10-hour days and could be sent traveling for a few weeks at anytime.  It took work.  It took commitment.  It took an au pair living with us to help with our two young children!  But those were all the best choices for our family.

Bidding season rolled around quickly, and after many discussions, the fab hubby bid on a hardship assignment.  He was paneled and after just one year in Los Angeles, we moved back to Ohio while he went on to D.C. for training and then to Baghdad for his assigned one-year UT (Unaccompanied Tour).  Honestly, this was hard for me.  I never wanted to return to Ohio -- it's hard enough leaving 'home' the first time, and returning just a year later brought on questions by all those people we'd just left.  Plus, I was pregnant with our third child, who was due just two months after the fab hubby left for Baghdad.  Thing is, that as hard of a decision as it was, it was the right decision for our growing family.  And although that year was terribly difficult,  I regret none of those decisions we made.

For as much as the fab hubby supports me and my career choices, I support him and his.  We've spent many long nights discussing how our careers would shape our and our children's lives.  How would moving affect them in the long run?  How would I be able to perform the requirements of my Army Reserves contract when we were assigned overseas?  How would I be able to work during a UT?  What would we do for childcare?  Additionally, my career -- sure, it's mobile, but what about an advancing career? Because we move frequently, I will never be at one facility long enough to be promoted to charge nurse, to nurse manger, to administration.  This has truly been a hard one for me to let go, because at one point, I had visualized myself doing all those things in a hospital setting.

But these are choices WE made, and we made them together.  When my husband accepted the job, I knew it would affect not only our family's lifestyle, but my career.  I didn't blindly jump into the Foreign Service with him and assume that my career path would remain the same as it had been in the U.S. These were discussions we'd had many, many times before he accepted the job offer and many, many times since.  The State Department didn't ruin my career.  We chose this lifestyle and understood what it would mean to my career when we moved overseas or to another state in the U.S.

In the past seven years, we've moved four times.  And I'm not counting the six months I spent solo in California, or the hubby's packout and travel to/from Baghdad.  I'm talking just the number of times we've packed up the kids and moved! And every move, every bid, every job choice (whether his or mine) -- we have to discuss.  We have to make the hard choices.  We have to make the right choices.  It's a give, it's a take, it's a compromise.  And if it turns out not the be the best choice, we return to the conversation and keep with it until we can find the right choice.  No regrets.

Occasionally, I'll hear a fellow EFM (Eligible Family Member) talk about how the State Department ruined their career.  And honestly, that's not a fair statement.  No one should come into this lifestyle as an EFM and expect what they had in their former U.S. lives, especially their careers, to be the same.  And I'm always shocked when I hear the harsh accusations.  But when I think about it, I realize that often those statements aren't really about the State Department -- those statements are really about regret.  Regret of giving up a career?  Regret of pulling children out of school?  Regret of getting to a post and not enjoying it?  I don't know exactly WHAT kind of regret, but it's regret.

It's often pointed out to me that nursing is an "easy" career to keep as an EFM in the State Department, and that I will "always" be able to find a job.  And frankly, this is one of those statements that makes me flaming mad.  It is NOT an easy career to keep up with.  In fact, I left Egypt six months ahead of my family, so that I could renew some specialty ER RN certifications that were expiring and to keep my ER work experience recent.  Because after you've been out of the game for a long period of time, you're no longer considered an ER nurse.  Trust me.  I've spoken to other EFM nurses who couldn't find jobs back in the U.S. after living overseas because they didn't have their licenses or certifications up-to-date, much less any experience for the years they were overseas.  But that's where I get back to regret.  To maintain my career, I have to work diligently to keep up with it in this nomadic lifestyle.  It's a choice I make and I reevaluate it all the time -- and not just on my own, but with my husband.

Of course, these personal choices are often harshly judged by others.  For instance, last year when I left post ahead of my family.  There were those who said "Well, I could never leave my family for six months."  Well, ok.  That's a decision you make.  And it's different from the one I was willing (AND the fab hubby was willing) to make to maintain my career.  Additionally, it was a decision we made for my renewed military career, too -- because at the end of that solo six-month Los Angeles ER contract assignment, I traveled to Colorado for annual training to fulfill my requirements with the Army Reserves.  ALL of this was a hardship for my husband and our kids; heck, it was a hardship for me.  But ALL of this was a decision we made together, and despite the difficulty of it, it was the best decision for us.  No regrets.

Now I'm not saying that every EFM who wants to work at a post is going to find a job.  I get that.  And I have plenty of friends who have had a difficult time finding a position at their spouse's post, or have had a difficult time getting background checks completed, etc.

I've also had many friends who took positions they were either overqualified for, or positions that they didn't find particularly exciting -- but who really wanted to work, and they were comfortable with the jobs available.  And likewise, I've had friends who decided they'd prefer to be a stay-at-home parent or spouse than take a position that didn't really excite them.  Or who really wanted to be a stay-at-home parent or spouse, no matter where they were posted.  All of those choices are hard to make, but those are all personal choices.  And any of those choices can be right or wrong -- it just depends on the individuals involved.  But I stand by every one of my friends' decisions to do any of the above, so long as they really feel it is the best choice for them and their families.  And like me, many of them are constantly reevaluating these decisions with their families and spouses, especially if it turns out to not be what was expected or hoped for.

 But I am always very weary when I hear "the State Department ruined my career."  If you are truly unhappy and find you regret what you left behind, or if you are just generally unhappy with the FS lifestyle, then sit down and reevaluate the choices you've made with your spouse.  There are other solutions.  They may be hard choices -- I can actually promise you that they likely will be -- but regret is by far worse.

As an EFM, I know that the choices my husband and I have made strongly impact my career (and his as well!).  I know that my career will never be the career I thought I'd have if we'd lived in the same place long-term in the U.S.  And honestly, I've come to terms with it.  Because if I didn't accept this, then I wouldn't have agreed with the fab hubby in the first place to jump into this lifestyle!  But the compromises we've made, the choices we make --- we're comfortable with them. What we wanted was to see the U.S. and the world, for our children to experience different cultures, to take a grand adventure.  THAT is the biggest, all-encompassing choice we made.  All the rest have been details and compromises and changes based on that choice.  But I can honestly say, no regrets.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Geeze It's Been a Couple of Months of SUCCESSES! Spring Break, TDY's, a New Job, and Running!

Because after a hard afternoon of tromping through a museum,
everyone deserves ice cream on the national mall!
This poor blog has been left alone and abused!  How can two more *expletive* months have gone by without a single entry!?

But honestly, it's been a successful, and of course busy!, couple of months.

Spring Break success!  The kiddos' friends arrived from California  (we'd know them in Egypt!) and hung out with us for a week.  Hard to believe that this was my last update.  We were so excited that Spring was finally here!  And now it's summer already?!  ALL FIVE KIDS (that's our three and the two who flew out to us!) had a blast.

I was still in the middle of a RN contract assignment and had somehow been scheduled 48 hours that week, so the fab hubby took off some time to hang out with the kids and keep them out of trouble.  He took them bowling and to the movies and also to Great Falls!  If you live in the DC area, you must go there.  It's absolutely fantastic!

All five kids at Great Fall.  The fab hubby was super fabulous
and took the kids to great places like this!

Gorgeous.


After some schedule finagling, I managed to pull a fab mommy moment and take all the kids to the Smithsonian National Natural History Museum.  The dinosaur exhibit was about to be closed for FIVE LONG YEARS, so we had to get in and see it!  Unfortunately, it was the last day of spring break and it was PACKED.  I'd never seen so many people crammed into a museum at once.  But we'd navigated crowds in Egypt, so we knew how to handle ourselves.  The only scary moment was when The Toddler decided he could navigate faster by crouching below knee level and crawling between legs.  That kid completely owns me.  I bellowed  out "KELLEN" so loud that the crowd of people surrounding us hushed and parted so that I was able to scoop up my wandering toddler.  Thankfully, I hadn't resorted to tears.  And yeah, I'm that kind of mom sometimes.

Orange Line, baby!  Riding the metro.

Quite possibly the greatest metro rider. Ever.


Chaos in the museum!  (Abby took this photo!)

Tourist time!

I had a hard time getting the boys to not do something crazy whenever I
took their pic.  This is the best way to get them - when they're not looking!

How can I not forgive him for running off in the museum?  Such a sweetie.


Anyway, just as we sent our visitors back on a plane to California, and things were getting back to 'normal', the fab hubby headed out into the world on a 2-week TDY.  Thankfully, my mom flew in from Ohio to help out with the munchkins.  The kids were happy to see her and I took her to see some of my fav NoVA spots.  You know.  Starbucks.  Old Town Alexandria.  More Starbucks.

Teaching my mom the fine art of the sippy face.
Old Town Alexandria.  One of my favorite places.

Because when you help out with your crazy grandchildren for nearly
two weeks, you totally deserve a beer at lunch at least once!

And then, in all this craziness, my contract at NIH concluded.  I'd been a travel/contract RN since arriving in NoVA, but I was starting to feel like a vagabond.  As much as I loved contract nursing, I was kinda tired of moving from job to job every few months.  And I really, REALLY love working Pediatrics at NIH.  So, I took the plunge.  And accepted a full-time position at NIH.  I honestly couldn't be happier.  This is a great direction for my career, and I'm up for the challenge.

And speaking of challenges.  I'm officially in Marathon training mode.  It's about four months until the Marine Corps Marathon and I'm convinced I can do it in under 5 hours. I ran The Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco in 5 hours 38 minutes.  Honestly, I WAS pleased with my time, but at the same time, it was sorta frustrating -- I was tracking for under 5 hours at the 20-mile mark.  The last 6 miles killed me!  Anyway, I'm on the trail again and have increased my distance while decreasing my time.  And of course, I love it.  I have sadly been having some arthritis flair ups - especially on cold/wet/humid days.  But I've been able to work through it, and that's really all that matters to me.  Power through it or quit running.  I chose to power through it.

My favorite compression shirt for those days when my hands really hurt.
Arthritis sucks.

A pain-free and awesome running day; hitting a local trail!
Right now?  I'm on a TDY!  But mine is for the Army.  I'm at Fort Carson, Colorado (in Colorado Springs) completing my annual Army Reserves training.  Really, it's fantastic.  I work in the ER as a nurse here on Post for two weeks every year.  I love that my military career mimics my civilian career.  Doesn't get better than that!  And despite my work load, I'm still able to get out and run, whether on Base or at my favorite stomping grounds -- Garden of the Gods.  Nothing but successes right now.  And it feels really, really good.

Fabulous TDY.  Pikes Peak in the distance.

Garden of the Gods.  One of my favoritist running places in the world.

Fabulous trails!  Doesn't get better than this!

Of course we all know the dreaded bidding season is upon us, right?  It's all the Foreign Service rage. And we all love it.  <insert eye roll here>  But we've got our theoretical plans for bidding mapped out and we're comfortable with it.  Here's hoping one of those theoretical plans works out in our favor.  We'd love an additional success!

Yup.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Finally. Spring! And a Kids' Cairo Reunion!

Spring!  Kids frolicking.  Love.
The windows are wide open and the fresh air is pouring in.  Abby and her friend Alyssa (flew in from California -- but who was with us in Cairo!) are next door enjoying s'mores at our neighbors' house (also friends from Cairo, you know) and I can hear them singing songs while they enjoy the chocolatey marshmallow treat.

You'd almost never guess that just three weeks ago, it was snowing here.  But Spring has finally, FINALLY!, arrived.
Making NINE official!  (And yes, I feel old.)
Abby turned nine (yes, NINE!) at the end of March with the final winter snow.  We celebrated with an ice skating party, Chuck E. Cheese, and a sleepover with some of her friends.  They were friends who were with us in Cairo, and who live in the area now.  It was pretty close to perfect. Of all of our kids, Abby's the one who connected most with Cairo, still occassionally referring to it as "home."  She's doing well here, but really misses her friends from Cairo.  We're so grateful for FaceTime - most of her closest friends have it, and she's able to keep in touch with them using it.  But actually getting together with them in real life is the best, of course.

And that's exactly what happened for our kids tonight.  

Remember the craziness of last summer?  When the kids evacuated from Cairo, but I was still in California?   The fab hubby had to start his new gig in D.C, but I was still on the West Coast.  The Toddler happily went to the grandparents' houses for the five weeks we had to juggle before I would be finished with my contract and military commitment.  But the big kids?  What to do with the big kids?  The big kiddos flew out to be with me in Los Angeles.  But keep in mind, I was contracted at an ER and working most days of the week.  

This is where it gets really awesome.  My amazing friend, Krista and her fab hubby took in our two oldest kiddos for nearly three weeks.   Despite the fact that they have four kids of their own (who are close friends with our kids) AND despite the fact that they had just left Cairo themselves (and were in the middle of accepting their UAB and HHE),  they allowed Abby and Owen to hang with with them at Camp Pendleton (San Diego area) while I finished up my RN contract in Los Angeles.  

Thus making it the kids' greatest summer ever, as all of the kids (ours and theirs) got to enjoy the rest of summer together, even going to surf camp.  But when it was time to leave?  So many tears, from all the kids.  It was heartbreaking.

BUT.  Fast forward to tonight.  It's now been eight months since the kids have seen each other.  After a lot of planning and a lot of United miles points (maybe I should stop grumbling so much about United??),  Krista's two oldest kids flew out to D.C. to spend our kids' spring break HERE!  

It's been an epic reunion for all. And I really couldn't be happier.  I love listening to their laughter, as they catch up with each other.  S'mores time is now over, and the kids are settling in for the night. Owen and Josh are playing XBox and the girls are playing with their American Girl dolls.  It's a perfect Spring night, as they really, truly, fall back into the friendships they've managed to pick up where they left off at last summer.

That's me and Krista at the Marine Corps Ball in 2012 in Cairo.  I miss her.
The only thing that would make it better?  If only I could have seen my awesome friend Krista, too.  Because the hardest part for me is also leaving my friends every time we move.  Sure, we're good about keeping in touch - phone calls and texts and Facebook and more texts.  But it's not the same as actually getting together.

But I won't dwell on it!  Because I know that just like our kids, the next time we see each other, we'll pick up right where we left our friendship at last summer.  Because we're good at that, too. 


But this Spring Break?!  This Spring Break is ALL about the kids.  And it's going to be the best Spring Break ever.

Owen waiting for his friend to arrive.  Because they are unaccompanied
minors, we got to meet them at the gate.  Such a sweet moment.


Josh and Owen.  Abby and Alyssa.  All together again!


The car ride home.  My head still hurts from all the noise.
(But I loved the ride home anyway.)


Krista and Alyssa worked on these jammies together.  So cute!


Of course, the requisite trip down memory lane for the recent birthday girl.  Abby when she was just four years old.  We were living in Ohio and she was outside playing in the rain.  So cute!



Those.Eyes.