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OCONUS PCS – Can Seeking Help Hurt You?

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2020 was a year full of change and hiccups for everyone. In July 2020 I unexpectedly lost a close friend of 18 years. Shortly thereafter, my husband deployed for the first time in our entire relationship. I had no idea that these circumstances could impact a future OCONUS PCS move.

By Carrie Conley

My dear friend, Jessica, passed away at age 36 from a blood clot a few weeks after routine foot surgery. She left behind her family and two beautiful children, ages 6 and 3. Factor in the stressors we were all experiencing due to COVID – masks, working from home, the constant news updates, and changing rules. It was a lot to wrap my brain around.

I’m naturally a positive, upbeat, optimistic person – I can usually find the good in any situation. However, with so many things happening that were beyond my control and after talking out loud with a few friends, I decided to seek out a counselor. I was mindful of my almost-constant negativity during conversations with friends and my spouse and did not want this to continue. In November 2020, at my regularly scheduled annual checkup and two weeks after my husband left for deployment, I asked my doctor for a referral for counseling. I explained I did not want (or need) medicine, I simply wanted an outlet to share my stressors, thoughts and feelings. 

A few weeks later I met my counselor, who serendipitously was also named Jessica, and we clicked. We talked about my grief over losing my friend, the changes in my life due to deployment, work and COVID, as well as other life situations that were beyond my control. I decided that I wanted to continue to see Jessica (the counselor) once a month and did so from December 2020 until December 2021.

So when I learned that our family might be given orders to Italy in Fall 2021, while I was wrapping up my final sessions with my counselor, I was in a better place than where I began one year ago.

But it never occurred to me that the very thing I was doing to help relieve my stress and anxiety would end up being the cause of more stress and anxiety.

The OCONUS PCS Paperwork

Shortly after receiving the official word that we would be Italy-bound in May 2022, my husband was asked to fill out a form to apply for me, the “dependent”, to receive command sponsorship. For those of you, like me, who have no clue about anything in the military, this form was a “precursor” to a screening I would have to do to be approved to go to Italy. It also stipulated that the military needed to obtain all of my medical records. 

The paperwork was confusing from the start, clearly intending to be a ‘one-stop shop’ form for OCONUS PCS screening*. I made an appointment with my regular doctor who, thankfully, had seen the form before and completed it promptly for me. What wasn’t clear was that EVERY doctor you see has to complete this form – which I didn’t learn until two weeks later when I received a phone call from a military administrative employee. I was informed that my counselor also needed to complete the form, even though I had turned in my entire counseling history and notes. This made this complicated process take even longer, as we inched closer to our PCS date.

*This form has to be completed for every dependent in the household. If you have a spouse and three kids, you need to print four copies of the form. 

EFMP & Me?

It took exactly a month from receiving the initial form for everything to be submitted and accepted. I then had to wait an additional two weeks for my Military Health Screening (MHS) appointment, which I thought was to determine (or not) my enrollment into the Exceptional Family Members Program (EFMP). What I wasn’t told at ANY point along this process was that I was automatically going to be enrolled in EFMP because I had received mental health counseling. 

My counseling was elective and short-term. I sought it out, was not on medication and was no longer under a doctor’s care. I naively assumed there would be no issues. I was wrong. After my meeting on February 22, I still had to wait for the nurse to type up her notes, enroll me into EFMP, and send me the forms to sign and return – all before my paperwork could go to Regional Health Command Europe and await even further screening.

Thankfully I passed screening and was approved for our PCS to Italy. However, I was already experiencing the start of the “hurry up and wait” that has defined this entire PCS process. At the end of the day, I did not make the timeline – my husband PCSed to Italy on May 14 while I remained in North Carolina awaiting my paperwork. With no home, no household items and no car, I moved in with my parents. Believe it or not, I was one of the fortunate ones and only had to wait two weeks before I could leave for Italy and meet up with my husband. 

I’ve heard from so many people that OCONUS PCS moves, and especially the ones to Italy, are stressful for numerous reasons. I could provide a laundry list of things that have gone wrong, but ultimately stress began with EFMP.

Is there a solution? 

I believe there is a way to improve this process. It begins with making the OCONUS PCS health and screening paperwork more user-friendly. I work in higher education and have a master’s degree, but could not for the life of me follow the instructions and thought process for this form. 

Additionally, why was I only now hearing about EFMP? If receiving mental healthcare for longer than six months automatically enrolls someone in EFMP regardless of the situation, then why did I not receive any information when I crossed the six-month threshold? If we had been moving to Louisville, KY, would I still be oblivious to EFMP and my newfound status?

EFMP is a foreign, and sometimes scary entity for many of us in the military. We hear horror stories about an EFMP status killing a family’s dream of PCSing to a desirable location, separating families and sending the serviceperson OCONUS unaccompanied. This does not even address the headache of attempting to dis-enroll from the program. Cleaning up their form and making it easier to understand for family members and non-military personnel, would be going a long way in easing the program’s reputation. Since the entire OCONUS PCS process timeline hinges on the approval of family members, it is very important to get this streamlined. 

Luckily, in the end, it all worked out. We’re now at our new duty station in Italy where I’ve been learning a lot more about paperwork and patience. I’ve also learned more about EFMP and additional military-based programs designed to support spouses and families. I won’t go so far as to say I’m glad for the experience, but I am hopeful that my story may be able to help another family through this process. It’s a wonderful and challenging thing, being a military spouse and now more than ever before I am grateful for this community.

About the Author

Guest Blogger Carrie Conley with her husband after her OCONUS PCS move to Italy.

Carrie Conley hails from North Carolina, where she earned a BA in History from Appalachian State University and a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has worked in fundraising and development for universities and nonprofit organizations for over twelve years. After becoming a military spouse in 2016, Carrie learned that she loved moving around more than she expected and together with her husband, Devin, has called Monterey, CA, Fort Irwin, CA, and Southern Pines, NC home. Carrie and Devin are currently stationed in Vicenza, Italy, where Carrie is a volunteer with the American Red Cross. 



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