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 journey. We've survived two unaccompanied tour (Baghdad 2010-2011 and Baghdad again in 2015-2016), multiple TDYs, and enjoyed a two-year family assignment in Cairo, Egypt. The fab hubby is currently learning Turkish for our next assignment...Istanbul, Turkey! We leave for Turkey sometime in summer 2017. I write about what I know. Which is mainly kids, tween drama, gross pets, dealing with lots of government info, our moving adventures, being a nurse, yoga, running, living on too-little sleep, and an addiction to coffee 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.


  1. This post hits home Heather. I did something very similar. I was in the Army and left. I was young, not happy, didn't have much support, and made a dumb decision. There was enough regret to send my right back as soon as I could. Since then, I have had people ask me if I would have done it differently if I had a do-over, and the answer is "No.". The regret was harsh, and things I had do deal with weren't easy, but I learned from the experience and I am who I am today because of my past. I wouldn't change that for the world. I am one who chose to give up a good career to be a SAHM. My husband supported that choice, and it was a hard choice, but he supported me! I still miss working, very much, and have some regrets about not staying in and keeping up, but then I look at what my staying home has meant to my family and I know that we made the right decision for us. I suppose that things might have been different if we were part of a stable lifestyle, living full-time in the one place in the US, same neighborhood, same schools, established support network, etc. Maybe I would have been ok with keeping my career, and maybe it would have been different, but this was our choice! I'm happy and proud of the way we are living our lives and would never blame the FS life for the minor things that haven't gone our way. We are always faced with choices in life. We have to choose, compromise, and march on. What a lovely, honest, and inspiring story you have shared here! *salutes*

  2. I have always known that a logical career progression was out for me when we joined FS. And I say "we joined" because this isn't a FSO and his family, this is an FS family. And that, I think, makes all the difference. We are in this together. I have no prospects of ever returning to the career I loved (and the paycheck I loved even more) while we are in the foreign service. It is not State department's fault. It is no one's fault. It is a choice. Besides, now I get to try all sorts of things I never could have while I was working a bazillion hours. It's not all bad, just like it's not all good.

  3. I just wanted to say Amen! and that you are awesome. There are a lot of hard things about this life regardless of whether you are one the employed by the State Department or not. How awesome to own it like you are. It has made such a big difference in our lives.