Last year, my family and I received the assignment orders we had been dreaming of my entire 17-year career. We were finally going to be assigned to a dream location – Schofield Barracks in Oahu, Hawaii. We aren’t strangers to the PCS move. My wife and I have done five together, yet this one was destined to be a little different. This was our first PCS move to a location outside the continental United States (OCONUS). We learned a lot in the process.
Medical screenings, vaccinations and scheduling
When you receive orders to an OCONUS location, there are special instructions attached. These instructions dictate a plethora of responsibilities that need to be completed before travel can successfully occur.
Health screenings were the first items to tackle on our list. As care for certain conditions may be limited on the island of Oahu, health screenings for every member of the family are required. Next, we needed to get vaccinations for our two large dogs. Lastly, and most importantly, we needed to arrange travel for ourselves and schedule our household goods (HHG) shipment.
Upon receipt of my orders, I combed through these instructions meticulously to ensure we didn’t add additional stress to an already stressful move. With roughly two weeks to spare before departure, we were finally done with all the prep and travel planning/coordination. It took a significant amount of time and proper coordination to get the pups cleared for travel and we ended up working this until the last minute.
Pandemic hits and leaves us with questions
With all of the preparation work complete, we waited for the move to paradise. Then came COVID-19 and the stop movement order issued by the Department of Defense. Luckily, we were available for an exception to this policy and did not have to cancel our existing reservations. However, since the paperwork required the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army’s signature, the approval for the actual PCS took significantly longer to return to us.
While the travel and moving arrangements were still in place, we were unsure if we were going to be able to exercise them. We were forced to make tough decisions such as: Should we go ahead and ship our HHG and pray we get the approval to go ourselves shortly thereafter? If we do ship them, where will we stay while we wait? If we do ship them and get disapproved for travel, where will we stay? There was a lot pressure to make sure the right decisions were being made for the family among a lot of uncertainty.
Fortunately, two days before our household goods were to be packed up, we received our approval. We were relieved and ecstatic. Now began a five-day journey across the country, and across the Pacific.
The pack out
The day of the pack out, movers showed up right on time. We have always chosen to do personally procured moves (PPMs), which requires you pack and move your own stuff. As this move was across the Pacific Ocean, and I don’t own a barge, we had to rely on a contracted moving service this time.
I was hesitant to deal with a moving company as we have all heard the horror stories. But the crew was extremely careful with everything and very professional. Only one thing was broken, an item I had forgotten I owned anyway. While it is a weird feeling to watch someone else pack and ship your possessions, we found the process painless. The day went by fairly quickly.
The dogs, the kids and the blur of it all
While the movers were packing, my wife took the dogs to the vet to get health certificates clearing them for air travel. The appointment was challenging to secure because of the pandemic. Our kids spent the entire day at their friends’ house as a sort of impromptu goodbye celebration. Once the house was packed, we drove 45 minutes to the hotel we would be staying in for the next two nights while we waited for our flight out of Tampa.
Everything was flowing so smoothly. The days began to rush by in a surreal fashion. It was like in the movies when they film a person walking in slow motion then super impose sped up footage of people shuffling all around them. That’s what our lives began to feel like.
The day after the moving crew left with our stuff, we scheduled cleaning crews for the house and the car. The house cleaners arrived in the morning. However, the auto detailer never arrived. Delay, delay and he was a no show. So now, as we scrambled to finish the last items, I needed to detail our car that was full of dog hair. Spoiler alert: I didn’t.
In order to turn my car in for shipping, I had to drive two hours from to Orlando. This is another aspect of military life that may be challenging for a civilian to understand. At this point, we only had one car. We sold the other one as only one vehicle is authorized to be shipped OCONUS. I had to arrange a ride back to the hotel in Tampa after the drop off.
Here’s where the benefit of military life comes in. We had only been at this duty station for a little over a year but the friends you make in short amounts of time are tremendous. A friend dropped what she was doing to step in and help. She and I spent seven hours on a grand adventure doing the following:
- Finding the turn in center.
- Being told my gas tank was too full so we had to go drive aimlessly for 30 minutes to bleed the tank.
- Then being told my car was too dirty to ship. I had to use packing tape to pull the dog hair out of the carpet.
- Once we finished with that, we scooted around Orlando searching for a supercharger so my friend could charge her electric car.
Then we headed home. We actually had a fantastic, albeit stressful day. As a military family, the friendships you build in such a short time are so incredible. Helping someone you’ve known for a short period of time becomes second nature.
First leg of flights
We started Thursday morning at the Tampa International Airport. Our flight to California was scheduled for departure at 11 a.m. With the chaos and uncertainty of COVID, we showed up to the airport three and a half hours early.
We checked in effortlessly. Although, my six-year-old daughter, Kaylee, was less than pleased about the mandatory mask requirement. We gave our dogs some doses of calming medication, dropped them off with the cargo specialists who would place them on the planes, and headed to our gates. As we walked away, we could see the dogs were absolutely terrified and it was heartbreaking.
Once we were at the gate, the kids plugged into their iPads and my wife, AJ, and I finally relaxed for a bit. Kaylee started getting nervous again. No tears this time but she was extremely worried about the flight. We assured her that once we were taxiing out for take-off, she would have fun. We were right and she was fascinated with the whole thing. Because of COVID, there was spacing between seats onboard the airplane and we ended up with an entire six-seat row to ourselves, making for a pleasant flight.
Stop in Seattle
Unable to find a non-stop flight to our destination, we had a layover in Seattle. During this time, I collected the dogs from cargo and walked them so they could get some water and bathroom time. We had to then go through the same gut-wrenching process of stuffing them back onto their kennels for the next flight.
By this point, Kaylee had become somewhat of a seasoned traveler. During the pre-flight brief, she exclaimed rather loudly to no one in particular, “We already know this!” My wife and I cracked up.
Related: Embracing the goodbyes in PCSing.
Challenging logistics in California
We arrived in San Jose, California at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, making for a long day as it was 10:30 p.m. according to our body clocks. Exhausted and ready to check in to the hotel, we collected our baggage, which included three duffels, two suitcases, two extra-large dog kennels, and made our way out to the taxi pick up area.
I called the hotel to request the shuttle and they informed me that it had been temporarily suspended. They did send an Uber and we requested an extra-large vehicle. We were surprised when the driver arrived in a far too small Honda Odyssey. After a failed attempt at suitcase Tetris, we broke the trip up in two, with AJ and the kids going to the hotel first as I waited with the dogs and kennels for a second trip.
The confusion continued when the Google address led to an abandoned, boarded up building. The uber driver, thinking this job was a little more than he bargained for, put the van in park exacerbated. Luckily, the right hotel turned out to be just around the corner. He dropped my family off and came back to get me. Thankfully, our night ended there.
Hurry up and shelter in place
The next morning, realizing Santa Clara County was still under a shelter in place order, we were faced with the daunting task of sitting in a hotel room for an entire day as we waited to head to Travis Air Force Base the following day. We had been subjected to quarantine in Florida, but at least there we had all of our creature comforts of home. In this hotel, we had the kids, the dogs and the Disney Channel.
On the road again
Saturday morning eventually came – the day we were scheduled to travel from Travis to Hickam. After this grueling process and journey, we had finally reached our last day of travel.
We started in San Jose, leaving just as the local protests were gaining traction. A great deal of uncertainty surrounded our trip as the protests had turned violent the night before.
Since we had the time and opportunity, we drove through San Francisco on the way. We were able to catch a few incredible landmarks: The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the surrounding hills. Other highlights included a brief stop in Redwood City where I got to check out the Insight Meditation Center and driving past Napa Valley.
The fun continues
We had to be at Travis no later than 3:30 p.m. for check in. When you are using space available, as we were, check in is called roll call. Roll call began at 3:30 p.m. The car we rented was due back earlier, so we went to check in at the terminal early, arriving at 12:30 p.m.
Because of federal regulations regarding COVID-19, we couldn’t enter the terminal until a medical officer came to screen us. Having dropped the keys to the van in the lockbox upon arrival, we were effectively stranded outside the airport until he arrived three hours later. We set up a little homeless camp and waited.
Once the health officer arrived, we moved ourselves and bags approximately 20 feet inside the terminal. We had another four hours to wait before we could take-off. The check in process was super smooth and the Airmen working at the terminal were friendly. We had been awake for 14 hours and it was now time to board.
Remember that earlier preparation?
There was only one other family scheduled to fly with us, despite the fact that 42 seats were available on the aircraft. Unfortunately, the other family learned a real-time lesson in preparedness. One of their children was 13 years old and did not have a military ID. While some policies regarding military IDs were adjusted due to COVID-19, including bumping the required age to 14, the passenger terminal still required an ID for children, age 13 and above. The family put up a pretty strong argument and I found the Military Personnel Message describing the change to assist them, but it was all too little too late. The child could not get on the flight without the card. As we found during our move, a ton of preparation is required, even more so in these trying times. Unfortunately for them, they seemed to have missed a step.
We ended up having the plane to ourselves. The flight attendants were a little shocked but could not have been more friendly and accommodating. We each had enough room for our own 3-seat rows. The flight was just under six hours long and the only thing to look at through the windows were the stars above and the cottony blanket of clouds masking the Pacific Ocean. We gave the kids free reign of their iPads and our oldest, Skyler, who is 10, buried his face in his for the entire flight. By the time we landed, this kid had now been up for nearly 24 hours yet was still a little ball of energy. The rest of us were exhausted and ready to be settled.
Touch down at Hickam
We landed at the terminal at Hickam just before midnight local time. It was super bizarre. From all the research I had done prior to the move, we knew that the state of Hawaii required all incoming people to register with the state, fill out statements acknowledging the need to quarantine for 14 days, go through a health screening and give a phone number to the health department with which they could check in on you daily. Expecting this, I was completely lost when the ground crew at the terminal escorted us off the flight line, took our pups to animal quarantine and essentially smacked us on the collective tailbones saying, “good luck.”
There was no health screen and no guidance. We found ourselves in a new, very different location with all of the possessions we were able to carry, with a hotel reserved but no way to get to it. Because of COVID, the hotel shuttle wasn’t operating so we scrambled for a cab. Luckily, the hotel was close, so we got there relatively quick.
COVID adds yet more confusion
We arrived at the hotel exhausted, frustrated and emotionally drained. There had been changes to local policy stating incoming military personnel and their families were no longer were required to quarantine. When we arrive at the hotel, we found that this was a point of confusion for the hotel staff. This was a pretty big deal since we had no way of getting our dogs out of customs due to quarantine restrictions. So, after about 10 minutes of back and forth, we got our rooms with the promise to follow up in the morning. Yet to be resolved was whether or not we could receive key cards valid for the length of our stay or the new customary 30-minute key cards tourists receive to ensure they are quarantine compliant.
During the past 24 hours, the most we had slept was three hours. The room they gave us for our quarantine was a double bedroom: one room with two double beds for two adults, two kids and two large dogs for 14 days. After five days of confusing and often frustrating travel, we were close to a breaking point.
We somehow managed to get some broken sleep as we fought the jet lag. When morning rolled around, I went to the front desk to inquire about an adjoining room. We have a set dollar amount which the Army will reimburse for lodging. The front desk staff were unwilling to accommodate an additional room based off this rate.
After a little reflection, I told them we were looking for new accommodations as there was no way we were going to be able to stay in the one small room for two weeks. The next morning, we received a call from the front desk saying they were able to work it out and accommodate us with two adjoining rooms.
Two weeks of monotony
As I’m writing this, we’ve been here for 10 days. There is still confusion between the hotel staff as to whether or not we’re officially quarantined but I’ve helped them come to an understanding. The state is no longer requiring military personnel to stay in rooms, but the Army Command places us under a 14-day Restriction of Movement (ROM).
The ROM means we can only leave the room for groceries, medical emergencies, or to fill prescriptions. Basically, if it pertains to keeping you alive, we can do it. We aren’t allowed any sightseeing or tourist activities. Until we are allowed to break “quarantine,” I’m referring to this as the worlds’ worst vacation.
Ten days thus far in a hotel room by the airport and I think I might tear my hair out. We get out daily to go grocery shop. Essentially, we go to Target to buy stuff we “forgot” to buy the previous day. It’s not much but it helps break up the monotony of the day.
We have a house on Schofield which will be ready later in the summer. While we are blowing our entire housing allowance on the house, we felt the one we chose would be best for us to start our life here.
Lessons learned and reflection
As I close this out, I want to pay extra attention to a couple of things learned during our OCONUS move.
First of all, our kids asked for none of this constant turmoil. I don’t know many that would. They were born into this life. They have every right to be grouchy, upset and completely out of sorts. Yet they have been the two most resilient little people during all of this chaos. Military families face struggles that most will probably never face nor understand yet they often turn out all the better for it.
Secondly, I understand that Hawaii is a part of the United States, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Little cultural nuances here and there make you fully realize you’ve just packed up all of your worldly belongings and moved your family nearly 5,000 miles west across an ocean. It’s a bizarre feeling and very disarming at first.
We are here on this virtual paradise of an island, yet it is a little bit difficult to be thankful for it as we don’t yet have furniture, a vehicle or the comforts of home. I’m grateful we made the move, and I know that once our stuff gets here later in the summer, I’ll be ecstatic. For now, we will have to wait to appreciate the beauty this island has to offer.Read comments