AFF’s regional manager overseas, Esther Thomas, has seen an increase in the number of enquiries from families assigned to America. And as she’s discovered, no two postings to the States are the same…
ESTHER has been learning case-by-case, which has meant frequent referrals to the British Defence Staff (BDS) based in Washington. “We’re working in partnership with BDS (US) to help improve two-way communication with families and we’re pleased to see that a new information portal (bdsus.info) has been created,” she said.
The States has a lot to offer, not least the opportunity to travel, but as Maj Martin Graham, head of in-country support BDS (US) explained, it’s not as straightforward as you might think: “With lots of families and service personnel keen to volunteer for a US posting, it’s critical to manage expectations.
“Service life in the US isn’t always simple and can on occasion place great stress on families.”
So, it’s best to do your homework prior to arrival. As part of AFF’s research, we’ve asked army families to share their experiences and help identify common differences you need to be aware of:
Cost of living
Everyday life is expensive, from groceries and phone contracts to days out. Local Overseas Allowance is standard across the US despite huge variations in costs from state-to-state.
You need to factor in tips and local sales taxes. In New York City, standard tips are 20 per cent on everything. Instead of VAT there’s sales tax which is state/city specific. In some states anyone over 12 is considered an adult so entrance fees, haircuts etc are all charged at adult rates.
Banking and admin
Banking isn’t free and surprisingly, not as advanced as the UK. If you’re employed, you’re required to file a tax return every year and pay all taxes due. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is complex and can cause issues for non-US residents.
Jobs are limited and employment conditions are skewed in favour of employers with a lack of paid holiday and sick leave. Most spouses try to find work at their consulate under a local contract as there’s no US tax liability and therefore no interaction with the IRS.
Car insurance can be as much as five times what you’d pay elsewhere, and must be paid upfront. Once you’ve built up a credit history fees start to decrease. Petrol (gas) is much cheaper than the UK, however.
Be prepared to buy electrical items – voltage is different. As prices are higher, it’s a good idea to look for second-hand goods once you’re there.
For some, healthcare is provided via insurance and not through the US military. Whilst it may cover regular GP visits, A&E and other pre-approved treatments, there may be no provision for well woman check-ups. Lots of things are excluded or regarded as pre-existing, so it’s vital to provide a full disclosure on your health forms. When it comes to finding a doctor/dentist/optician, you can shop around using an app to see who is contracted with your insurer, what services they provide and how they are rated.
Welfare and culture
Despite being in an English-speaking country, many families feel like the locals speak a different language. Other British service families and familiar infrastructure may not be close at hand.
Posted to: The Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania
“Having the opportunity to live abroad as a family and spend some much-needed time together following a busy period and some unaccompanied time is a blessing. This opportunity came at exactly the right time for us as a family.”
Moving to a small town from London was a challenge, but it has been amazing. There was a huge amount of paperwork and we were charged £2,500 for excess storage in the UK, but we challenged and resolved this.
Both Annabelle and Nicholas attend local schools as we wanted them to have the full American experience. We requested that they were put into the grade above. Class sizes are smaller, the teachers seem excellent and the children are happy.
Finding a home
The main factor was school catchment areas. We found the army housing website very useful.
As a reservist, I’ve been fortunate to secure work through the British Embassy. Many other spouses take the opportunity of a sabbatical or to study. Through a local college spouses can access free courses. The community seems to be very active and there’s a great youth service on camp. For spouses there’s lots on offer – hiking, tennis, biking to name but a few.
It’s provided on camp and is very efficient. Annabelle needed physical therapy and was seen within a week.
As part of our welcome, all the international families were invited to travel with the students to Philadelphia and to Washington DC. We were taken to a baseball game and to Hershey Park (think Alton Towers in chocolate) – it was an excellent introduction to the USA.
Posted to: New York
“Life in New York is both familiar and totally foreign. With Romilly at boarding school for half of the year, it’s proving slower to adjust. I feel at a bit of a loose end without a job, but being part of the UN and UKMIS community has enabled us to have some amazing experiences and meet wonderful people.”
Doing the homework
Being experienced in overseas assignments, we did a lot of research on what the different neighbourhoods offer, from housing to grocery shopping, commuting times to airport runs. Due to the nature of Andrew’s role, I was able to attend some spouse training courses.
It can take longer than usual to adjust – even Americans posted here make similar observations.
New York is a fascinating, vibrant place, but complicated. It can be alienating and overwhelming. It can be difficult to really connect with people. US culture is as foreign as that of anywhere I’ve been posted.
During term time our social life revolves around Andrew’s work, and I volunteer on a community committee. During school holidays it’s about family time and enjoying a more low-key life in the suburbs. We tend not to eat out often as it’s very expensive.
It’s a pretty cut-throat place, with little time for anyone over the age of thirty, let alone a military spouse with an erratic CV. Opportunities are few and far between.
We haven’t travelled much yet as we’ve had lots of visitors and have found things to do in and around New York, but we did taken advantage of being close to the Caribbean and enjoyed an unforgettable holiday in Jamaica.
Posted to: Fort Carson, Colorado. Now back in the UK
“The most frustrating thing was being such a ‘dependant’; it took so long applying for my social security that it still hadn’t come through by the time we left. The memories make up for it, so on balance I would recommend a posting to the USA if you enjoy adventure and exploring.”
A last-minute change in the posting from frosty New York state to sunny Colorado and little pre-deployment advice meant it was hard knowing what to take. Co-ordinating three children, three car seats, and ten large suitcases via taxi to Heathrow then, Washington, Denver and finally arriving in Colorado, was a challenge.
I found it frustrating that I didn’t have the authority to apply for anything, including nursery places. I felt I lost my identity as it was all about living through my husband’s rank and his job. He had to fly back to Europe 15 times in the first year. To preserve my sanity, I joined a running group outside of the military community.
The girls attended a school on camp, which was incredibly accommodating, but they had to repeat an academic year and they’re still catching up.
We were shocked to find that recycling isn’t a thing in the USA and, despite living less than a mile from the school, everyone drove to drop off and pick up.
Loudspeakers on camp played the taps (bugle call) four times a day. Watching an entire camp stop and salute at 5pm every day was quite something.
Getting out and about
There are few places you can go with dogs. After bringing them over at huge expense, we often had to find people to look after them.