When Lt. Col. Mike Montague retired from the Army in 2015, he and his wife, Stephanie, had a crazy thought: what if they journeyed overseas ― permanently?
The idea came from watching the HGTV show “House Hunters International” and dreaming of living in exotic locations. What was holding them back, they wondered, from leaving the United States behind after their military life ended?
“We decided to take a year off to travel and planned to return to ‘regular life’ in the U.S. after that,” said Stephanie. “But during that year, we realized that living overseas and ‘slow travel’ could be a lot cheaper than living in the U.S.”
The Montagues are part of a global community known as expatriates — expats for short — who purposefully leave their native nations for somewhere new, often in pursuit of work or life goals.
According to a VA spokesman, there are 18,473 veterans in the VHA enrollment system currently living overseas. That number doesn’t count spouses, dependents or non-enrolled veterans.
Luckily for military families, government benefits will travel.
“For eligible veterans living or traveling abroad, VA offers medical services through the Foreign Medical Program (FMP),” the spokesman wrote in an email. “Through this program, FMP will pay for health care services, medications and durable medical equipment for service-connected conditions and conditions associated with and held to be aggravating a service-connected condition.”
Furthermore, veteran expats “can receive disability compensation, pension, education and training, health care, home loans, insurance, vocational rehabilitation and employment and burial,” the spokesman wrote.
The Montagues have lived in multiple countries since retiring, currently residing in Spain. They quickly learned that expat life consists of cycles: honeymoon, irritation and acceptance.
“When you first arrive … you’re charmed by all the little quirks of the culture and how it differs from America,” said Stephanie. “But after the initial excitement wears off, I think there’s often a period of frustration when you’re not always in the mood to use Google Translate to figure out whether you’re buying conditioner or body lotion, and some of those charming cultural differences can even become the things that get on your nerves.”
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Culture shock certainly hit Air Force Staff Sgt. Antony Lindner when he moved to the Netherlands after leaving active duty in 2000. Stores closed at 7 p.m., and almost none were open on Sundays. Food portions were much smaller than America’s. Even desserts tasted different.
“It was the small, lifestyle things I had to adjust and get used to, and that’s not really that bad either,” said Lindner. “But after you learn some things, it is not so diffic
ult at all and is actually quite rewarding.”
Army spouse Nadine Venable has also faced some early difficulties when moving abroad. Her American husband became an expat in 2021 when they relocated to her native Germany two years after he left the service. It was a rough time initially, she said, thanks to more stringent COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in Germany than Texas.
“We didn’t have a good experience because it was different than what we hoped for, and we thought about moving back,” Venable said. “It really took at least six months to adjust.”
Stephanie agrees on the transition period, so much so that she started Poppin’ Smoke, a blog about traveling overseas as a military family ― including permanently. She regularly writes about expat life, sharing tips like what to do with stateside HHG (you get a free year of storage) and figuring out which countries tax VA or military retirement.
Expat living isn’t for everyone, she said, but it certainly is a wonderful option for the adventurous.
“Over time, you learn to accept and live with any aspects of your adopted home that you don’t like (or, if you realize that they are deal-breakers, you move),” she said. “We’ve loved our expat experiences.”
Want to be an expat?
Use these tips from Stephanie Montague at Poppin’ Smoke to kickstart your journey:
- Decide what you’re looking for ― temperate climate, language, geographic closeness to family, visa options, child-friendly cultures and more are all factors to consider before shipping off your HHG.
- Research ― take advantage of online, government and community resources to study your options on residence visas, financial implications, availability of medical care, safety and school options.
- Visit ― this is the fun part! Get on a plane and go see where you think you could be happy after military life. Consider it a post-military recon mission.
- Live like a local ― when you visit, spend several weeks or months in a rented house or apartment to get a true feel of the area. Don’t be a tourist. Living somewhere is very different than visiting.
- Have a backup plan ― not everyone is thrilled with expat life. It’s OK to return home after a trial period.