Service families really do mirror the variety of diverse families seen in modern society. Yet it’s clear that some of the current MOD policies don’t fully support ‘nontraditional’ families, particularly overseas. Esther Thomas, AFF overseas manager, explores what the issues are and how you’ve tried to overcome them…
It’s not surprising that we regularly get enquiries from those in long-term relationships (LTR). As the army doesn’t recognise LTR partners in overseas locations in terms of entitlement to housing, it can create obstacles.
One LTR family in Cyprus reported that: “We had to get special dispensation locally for us to share a quarter although I was entitled to a three-bedroom house [depending on availability] whether accompanied or not.
“Furthermore, we had to apply for Limited Dependency Status so that my partner would be recognised as a resident.”
Whilst Limited Dependency Status is an option in some overseas locations, it does come with some boundaries such as not being entitled to work.
The situation was eventually resolved, but the couple felt frustrated, adding: “The army really penalises people that prefer not to do the married thing… people have to get married to be entitled to the full range of benefits.”
As a global employer, it’s inevitable that some serving personnel marry different nationalities. Simon Warnes met Esther, a Kenyan national, whilst on a temporary duty assignment to British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) in 2014.
Recently married after a five-year relationship, their plans to start a family are on hold as even though Esther is living in her country of origin, she has to abide by the British Army non-confinement policy. It means she is unable to stay in Kenya past 24 weeks of pregnancy. “The chain of command has been very supportive,” says Simon, “but there are others who are also married to Kenyan nationals and in my opinion this policy needs to change”.
The biggest challenge for the couple is to secure a UK visa for Esther. As she hasn’t travelled to the UK before, this will have to be personally administered and financed, costing around £4,000. Simon adds: “I guess we will be doing a lot of penny pinching before my expected end of tour date.”
When two families come together after previous relationships it can take some managing, but when you have a large family dispersed across three countries it’s almost a full-time job to handle the logistics.
Sarah Fraser and her serving husband have been assigned overseas for five years and are currently in Poland. Between them they have eight children – three from her husband’s previous marriage who live with their mother; four from Sarah’s first marriage, one of whom has left home and lives in Germany. The other three live with them in Poland but spend most of their time away at boarding school and university. Then together they have a seven-year-old son, Otto, who lives with them and attends an international school.
I asked Sarah how she makes it work: “WhatsApp and the like are godsends to maintain family cohesion. A particular problem is keeping former partners on board. It can be difficult agreeing contact even if you’re just down the road, let alone overseas. You really have to be committed to making visits from non-resident children happen; if not, then an overseas posting can become significantly obstructive to a meaningful parental relationship.”
Under current policy, non-resident children are not entitled to publicly funded children’s visits and you’re not allowed to reverse Get You Home Overseas entitlements. Sarah adds: “In a large family like ours the cost of flights has been particularly onerous and has impacted the amount of time we see our non-resident children. However, when they’re here we’re able to have overseas adventures as a family and often visit places that we’d never normally go to.”
As there’s no increase in SFA entitlement to accommodate non-resident children, many families rely on contact or welfare houses, which aren’t always available. “In our experience the houses are normally larger on overseas postings, so when the extended family does visit there’s more space for everyone,” says Sarah.
“In the UK, weekend contact with nonresident children often deteriorated into scrapping about who got a bed and who got the floor. We often pitched a tent in the garden to accommodate the extra bodies!” Sarah admits that she’s relied on a lot of help from others: “You have to accept that the normal ‘every other weekend and half the holidays’ contact with your children won’t happen. Remaining a hands-on parent becomes exceedingly difficult. Without the support of friends and family, on a practical and emotional level, the situation is impossible. I’m not convinced that the MOD has fully registered the struggles faced by service personnel with a split family, overseas or otherwise.”
Even when married, an accompanied assignment overseas isn’t always the best option for some families. Mark Lightowlers and his wife chose to build their family base in their native Yorkshire, so he’s now serving married unaccompanied in Cyprus.
He explains: “The stability of my wife’s employment and children’s education were two major factors in our decision. As our daughters, aged ten and six, grow older the benefits are ever more apparent, particularly for our elder daughter who has a good group of friends.”
Originally, the family had planned to trade off this separation with regular visits to Cyprus throughout Mark’s tour but due to COVID-19 restrictions, it’s not worked out as planned. Even when the family managed to reunite at Christmas, it was testing: “I had to isolate when I arrived, and then isolate back here on my return, turning a two-week holiday into a significant planning challenge,” says Mark.
We’re here for you
Army families may have different structures, but in the end, it’s all about family life and AFF is here to support you, whatever your circumstances. If you have any concerns about being assigned overseas as a ‘non-traditional family’, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org