PCS Mind Games

west of home, south of sanity in New York City by Carey Anne Photography

“Where will we be this time next year?” I tease my husband as we relax in our backyard surrounded by lush greenery, loud children splashing in the pool and three canines resting near our feet. Relax might by a strong descriptor for behavior that merely involves sitting in a chair. It is, after all, PCS time, which for the non-military readers means permanent-change-of-station-you-might-move-or-not-but-we-will-not-tell-you-for-months twisted torture.

“Maybe here. Maybe New York. I don’t know today.”

We play this mental head game during transfer season not because we are fortune teller wanna-bes, but as a way to expend nervous anticipation that builds up every day as we wait for news. For months.

Transfer season is a stressful wait and see process for active duty military members and in Coast Guard typically cycles every two to four years depending on rate and rank. When the military member has one year remaining at their current unit (kind of like a job), they submit a list of interested billets, or jobs, (called a dream sheet) chosen from a list of all available billets that will be open the next summer (called a shopping list) ranked in preference order. Once the list is submitted to the detailer (person assigning official orders to the open billets), the waiting begins to see which billet is assigned and isn’t considered confirmed until orders are in hand.

Sometimes you get lucky and are told where you’re transferring to early in the torture, or waiting period, verbally (called penciled-in) and sometimes you’re not special and instead find notification of orders in your email Inbox one day. Personally, I believe news of an impending major life change should be delivered via Fed Ex to your front door with an Edibles Arrangement basket and a short, but sweet, note that reads: Congratulations! You have won an almost all-expenses paid four year vacation in Anchorage, Alaska! Have a great trip!

Or at least that’s what I’d like our note to say. A neurotic girl can dream.

Then while I’m munching on pineapple stars and chocolate covered berries, I can research our next home base. You know, just the easy stuff at first like schools, dentist, pediatrician, neurologist, audiologist, physical and occupational therapist, orthodontist, ENT, psychologist, that sort of thing. Oh, yes, and a house, because a roof over our heads is important. Or so I was reminded by attendees at my ten year high school reunion in 2002 while we were in the middle of transferring from Mississippi to Kodiak, Alaska. People would ask for updates on my life and my truthful stock answer became, “Well, I’m currently unemployed and homeless, but we’re leaving for a 3 week drive to Alaska on Monday!”

My husband has been active in the Coast Guard for almost twenty years, so one might think we should be familiar with the PCS process and not find it stressful, but it’s the opposite. Our first experience with official orders was in 1997, before cell phones and fast loading computers. My husband had been in the Coast Guard Reserves for six years and we knew about the organization, but not every unit’s location. It’s kind of like how you know where your nearest grocery store is and which aisle has your favorite products, but you don’t know what is available on every aisle or how many types of cereal are actually on store shelves. We knew there was cereal, but we didn’t know how many types of cereal.

“Where do you think they’ll send us? What’s the farthest unit from us?” I quizzed my husband in June of 1997 as we waited to see what we’d be offered as he transitioned from reserves to active duty.

“I think there’s Coast Guard in Ketchikan, Alaska.” I laughed, not even able to geographically picture where this “K” place could be, and not believing for a minute the Coast Guard would pay to move a family from Louisiana to Alaska. That would be a waste of money when there were obviously units much closer!

Imagine my shock when my husband called a week later to say we had been given three choices: Kodiak, Alaska; Kodiak, Alaska; GEO bachelor tour. A GEO tour is only one year, but it is without your family, and since we knew I was pregnant with our second child, one year apart was not an option. So, we agreed to Kodiak. Our wait and see time was practically nothing.

Sometimes the detailer calls to say you aren’t getting anything on your dream sheet or, like in 2007, to see if you’re willing to take a hard-to-fill billet. I was a full-time college student commuting one hour each way and my husband was stationed in Mississippi. He called my cell phone one morning as I was pulling into the college parking lot with news that we couldn’t have the number one pick on our dream sheet, but that Kodiak was open. Open would also describe my mouth at that moment, because we had left what I deemed “Coast Guard Hell” just two years before and I’d vowed never to return. I struggled to find words of protest as I walked/ran to my first class, but did manage to blurt out, “Can we talk about this later? I’m late and can’t think right now.” I heard my husband mention needing to call the detailer back before my cell phone died. So much for modern freaking technology.

By the time I finished class and ran to my car to charge my phone and call my husband back, he said, with a little too much enthusiasm, “We got Kodiak! We’re going back!” Our wait and see time was mere weeks.

Sometimes the detailer emails with not-so-exciting news, like the year we were given a billet that was at the very bottom of our dream sheet making the old saying, “If you put it down, they will give it to you.” reality. That was a tough horse pill to swallow, even with a wait and see period of two months. Thankfully it was a one year GEO tour, so we didn’t plan a family move.

Planning moves when we started this Coast Guard adventure was limited to books, magazines, actual paper maps and not much contact with other transferring Coasties other than the ones at your unit. You couldn’t jump on the net and do a quick search for all units and their locations and be shocked to learn there was an actual place called Kodiak, Alaska that you being sent to. You didn’t have a way of knowing who was getting orders when and where in real time like you do now with FaceBook, emails, text, etc. The wait and see wasn’t flooded with news of others waiting less than you. Finding schools, doctors and a home was usually left until you arrived at the new location instead of the ability to compile stacks of information months in advance or even purchase a home before you arrived. Accessibility to data can be useful, but it can also be crippling with minute-to-minute reminders that you’re waist deep in the wait and see and no lifejacket is in sight.

In comparison to today’s resources, we were in the dark when we began this Coast Guard adventure, and maybe that was better.

Now excuse me while I resume my FaceBook stalking/data analysis to determine when we are getting orders and where our next billet might be.