By Bianca Strzalkowski
An overseas assignment offers military families the opportunity to experience new cultures around the world. These once-in-a-lifetime duty stations are often sought after. Nonetheless, present times leave OCONUS families with worries outside military life norms. 2016 terrorist incidents hit close to home with attacks in heavily traveled locations like France, Germany, and Istanbul. An attack on a Brussels airport in March claimed the life of an American military spouse and wounded members of her Air Force family.
How are families in Europe balancing security and normalcy with global threats lingering? Army husband Dave Etter says even though it is impossible to know the specifics of the next attack, recent events do leave an impact.
“Daily life, no. Travel plans, yes. But, as has been pointed out by common sense, there is no way anyone can predict when or where the next attack may happen. Anyone living abroad, for any reason, should be practicing avoiding predictable movements, avoiding large crowds when practicable, avoid pointing out that you are a foreign visitor with your wear, remember we are visitors,” he said.
Etter, who lives in Germany where his wife is assigned, explained that his family in the U.S. struggles the most when events occur.
“It’s not my family in Germany that are the nervous nellies concerning these recent threats of violence. It’s the family back home that feel it the most,” he said. “They can’t be in contact in person to offer support, so they wring their hands harder than we do. I am grateful for easy video calling to help them not worry as much.”
Overall, he says this is part of a new normal for those living abroad, but it is the younger families enduring the biggest change between new military life and grappling with contemporary times.
Though Katie Kilian is not one of those new military spouses, her move to Stuttgart, Germany is less than a year old. She says she was excited to move there because of ease of travel around Europe and access to history. While it was an adjustment to get used to their new location, she describes it as the “adventure of a lifetime.”
The mom of three is very aware of present-day incidents and limits information flow to her children.
“Well, since we don’t have cable out our house, we don’t really let the girls know the specifics of what has happened around us,” Kilian, who has been married for 10 years, said. “They know that there are some bad people that don’t like Americans, but that most people are good people. We talked when we first got here about that to help keep their behavior in check when we were out and about, and don’t need to remind them too often anymore. Our girls are 8, 6, and 4 so I don’t want to taint their innocence unnecessarily.”
Kilian says that even though she has worries, she intends to make the most of the family’s remaining time.
“They 100 percent concern me,” she said. “But I refuse to let them [terrorists] win by making us afraid to live our lives. So, while we have to remain diligent in our conduct, we will still enjoy Europe the same way we planned to. Maybe we’re a little more aware of our surroundings or we only go to festivals on the off hours– we are still trying to soak in all this continent has to offer.”
The State Department is responsible for informing all U.S. citizens of the traveling public, including military members and their families, about perceived threats. Officials say they do that in a number of ways.
“It’s through what we call our consular information program, and that really consists of travel warnings, travel alerts, information on every country in the world, and then security and emergency messages,” Will Cocks, spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, said.
Information is kept up-to-date and specific.
“We put out travel warnings and travel alerts when there is more of a chronic or a bigger security issue that we want to alert U.S. citizens to. For example, right now Europe has a travel alert that we issued on November 21st and which is valid through February 21,” he said.
There are roughly 40 warnings in place currently for locations around the world. In the event that an attack does occur or there is to be a potential violent demonstration, the department will blast out security and emergency messages to Americans via email. Cocks advises families to sign up for those alerts through the smart traveler program.
The State Department sometimes issues advisories on what countries to visit and to avoid. Either way, Cocks recommends knowing the risks, understanding the risks, and deciding if you are comfortable with them before you travel. He also says families should have the following in place:
- Plan: Devise a plan in the event there is an emergency, like keeping copies of important documents ready,
- Discuss plans with loved ones: Let family and friends in the U.S. know what you would do in a scenario where an emergency occurs, how they can contact you, will you post updates on social media, etc., and
- Situational awareness: Avoid public gatherings and public transportation, or if you those are unavoidable, know your surroundings and exits.
For more information on safety when living and traveling abroad visit the State Department online at https://travel.state.gov.