In Service to Our Country . . .
Firu is about 2 years old but he’s lived a lot in those two years. He was brought to the local animal shelter by a good Samaritan who found him crumpled on the side of the road, the victim of a car going at least (judging by the extent of his injuries) 40 mph–he’d been hit and left to die. His left rear femur was cracked clean in half, his hip was dislocated, and the vet at the shelter was skeptical that he would survive; but, against all odds, he did. We adopted Firu shortly after we arrived in Costa Rica and we consider ourselves very lucky to have him in our lives. I’ll bring Firu back in a minute.
Our move to Costa Rica was our second international move in seven months. The stress those two moves caused for our children was obvious and, at times, extreme–we swore we would never do two back-to-back international moves again. Of course that is ultimately out of our hands–we gave up a lot of control over our lives when we joined the Foreign Service because we serve our country and the needs of that country can, and have, superseded the needs of our family. But we’ll do what we can.
So, why do we do what we do if it’s so stressful? The obvious reason is that we love the life we have chosen. We feel a global upbringing provides gifts for our children that we would otherwise be unable to give them. We thoroughly enjoy immersing ourselves in new cultures and at least touching the tip of what this amazing planet has to offer.
Then there’s the other reason, we feel it is important to serve our country and being a Foreign Service family is the way we’ve chosen to do that. We believe in the power of diplomacy, the power of words, the power of communication, the power of dialogue. We believe those things can help our country and we believe those things, when done well and with integrity, serve the American people.
I learned very early on that a great many Americans don’t understand what the Foreign Service does and, in fact, have some pretty extreme misconceptions of what our lives are like. So, in a nutshell and contrary to popular belief– we don’t spend our time on the cocktail circuit, I don’t spend my days lounging by the pool at the country club, we don’t belong to said country club, we don’t jet set, we don’t make a lot of money, we don’t have a wealth of resources provided to us by the Department. Here is what we DO: we do exactly what other middle-class families in the US do only we do it in different countries. Additionally, we help our kids transition when we move; we wipe their tears and hold them while they cry because they miss their friends and teachers, we help them find new friends, we encourage them to learn the local language, we help them settle into new schools, we worry endlessly when we live in countries that can barely provide them with basic health care and we remind ourselves hourly to be vigilant for signs of a medical emergency because the closest adequate hospital could be an eight hour plane ride away (as was the case when we lived in Guinea). We do a bunch of other stuff connected with moving every few years and, often, living in potentially hazardous places. We teach our kids that they represent our country overseas and should act accordingly. And we endure separation; since we joined the FS nearly eight years ago our oldest has been separated from his father for a total of one year and six months, our two youngest just shy of two years due to medical evacuation, post evacuation and my husband volunteering to go to Iraq.
I saw very early on that our service is not valued the way the service of military families is valued–and I’m confused by that. We serve our country like they do, we move our families like they do, we endure separation and danger like they do. We do it because we love our country, just like they do.
I’ve learned to shrug off, for the most part, the misunderstandings that people have about our lives. I try to maintain my belief that, understand us or not, we do what we do, we do it proudly, and we do it because we believe it’s vital for our country. However, that misunderstanding sometimes has concrete consequences, most recently those consequences have come via United Airlines. United airlines recently changed their policies for transporting pets, making it a far more expensive and logistically difficult process. A pet that used to cost $250 to move could now cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousands of dollars. When you move your pets every few years that cost becomes prohibitive. Rightly, United has granted our military families an exemption from that rule in recognition of the service they provide to our country. Which led those of us who also serve our country on government orders to say “Um, hello?” Not you guys, responded United, only folks who serve. Sigh. It’s all outlined very well in this article– the misunderstanding of our service, the reasons United is often our only option for flying, and the profound consequences the new United policy will have on our families.
Which brings us back to Firu and our other animals. We’ve found the one thing that helps our kids the most when we move is the presence of familiar friends, it’s amazing what a slobbery doggy kiss on a nose will do for a broken heart and equally amazing how our four-legged family members will help provide a bridge between a chapter closing and a chapter opening. Because of the new United policy we could be looking at thousands and thousands of dollars out of pocket every few years in order to keep our family together. One thing we know, we cannot afford that. Another thing we know, we cannot give up the four-legged members of our family. So the situation our family is facing is the proverbial rock and a hard place. We are not alone, thousands of FS families are here with us. All because the service of diplomacy is not recognized. Our kids sacrifice enough, we absolutely cannot ask them to sacrifice their pets. If you feel the same, please tell United that by e-mailing them: email@example.com, Tom.Billone@united.com, Jeff.Smisek@united.com