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What Are a Military Family’s Obligations?

News in Japan has dropped from the front pages and the averted government shutdown consumed the attention of military families for a week or so — so it may be news to some that DoD ended the voluntary departure of family members from Japan as of April 15 and is preparing to start returning dependents to bases in the Tokyo region. They’re also restarting the PCS of service members and families into Japan — I’ve already heard sighs of relief from friends who spent a stressful, uncertain month caught in stop-movement limbo.

I’ve watched the process from a base elsewhere in Japan. I’ve had a lot of thoughts, some sympathetic and others more harsh, for the people who demanded that the government relocate them out of Japan when there wasn’t any clear, immediate danger to life or property.  Throughout the saga, I’ve found myself wondering — as military families living OCONUS, what are our responsibilities and obligations to our host country, if any?

Clearly, we take on additional legal obligations – our household goods, where we can live, what we can wear and our employment are all subject to the scrutiny of military authorities to a degree we’d never accept stateside.

We are often told that military families are overseas for reasons other than just morale. Stationing families overseas is a sign of long-term strategic commitments in a region. Families are told from the moment we choose to PCS that we are ambassadors and representatives of the United States to our host country. It’s our home, for some length of time; and the Japanese people, through their government, are making allowances for us to live here and making special accommodations for us.

So how does it make us look when there’s such a clamor to leave the country at the first sign of problems that may or may not affect us directly? Military families pride ourselves on our resilience and flexibility – I dare say we hold ourselves to a higher standard than civilians.

Shouldn’t we be prepared to take on some additional risk beyond what we would expect while living stateside, and when leadership says, “Things will be fine, tough it out,” be prepared to do so?

Or is this all my own bias towards exploration and immersion talking? We all know people who find it an unbearable hardship to be PCS’d from the place they consider “home” to stateside locations where people spend lots of money on vacations. I have it on good authority that even here at our little base, there’s people who never leave the housing areas.

Having decided to live and shop off-base, send our son to a local preschool and take every possible opportunity to experience Japan, I won’t claim that I know any of them or understand that mindset, but it exists. Maybe I’m just trying to make my own preferences seem universal.

For the record, I don’t think dependents are obligated to stay in another country until the bitter end. Our safety, in the event of foreign invasion or natural disaster is the government’s obligation. This was an unprecedented situation; radiation is a phenomenon that even educated people don’t understand completely. I also think in this situation, there were failures in communication and leadership that contributed to  reasonable people reaching conclusions that looked unreasonable in retrospect. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m observing at a distance, with 20/20 hindsight.

Now that the immediate situation has passed, I would love to know what other spouses think about this question more generally. As military families, do we have obligations to our host country beyond the government fine print? Or, as I’ve said to friends more than once about my own status in Japan, are we just “semi-permanent tourists?”

About John

John is married to an active duty Navy officer. He has been a Navy spouse for 13 years and a Navy boyfriend for an unknown number of years before that. He has been "That Guy" in multiple spouse clubs and is accustomed to being addressed as "ladies...oh, and John." He has been an off-again-on-again blogger since 2002 and is very pleased that most of his past writing is no longer on active sites.