Marine Corps Base Quantico -- Jenni Booth, a kindergarten teacher at Kyle Wilson Elementary, a new school in Prince William County, handed her duty station “dream sheet” to Rebecca Childress, prevention specialist for Marine Corps Base Quantico’s Family Advocacy Program.
Booth, who was role-playing a Marine Corps colonel, and her “family” of fellow teachers had selected Florida for proximity to grandparents, Virginia for the school systems and Colorado for the mountains as their preferred continental United States (CONUS) stations. They’d selected Hawaii, Alaska, and England as their dream overseas (OCONUS) locations.
Childress took Booth’s dream sheet and promptly ripped it up, scattering the shreds of paper on the wet grass of the school’s baseball field.
“Congratulations, you’re going to San Diego,” she told Booth, handing over the orders.
The teachers were taking the “PCS (permanent change of station) Challenge” as part of their teacher training Aug. 23 in preparation for the new school year. The program was facilitated by school liaisons from Marine Corps Base Quantico and Fort Belvoir and employees of the MCBQ Family Advocacy and Exceptional Family Member programs.
“It’s meant to give the teachers an idea of what the PCS experience is like for children,” Christopher Lamb, MCBQ school liaison, explained. “From talking to families and co-workers, it seems like there is no such thing as a smooth PCS move.”
Childress had made a list of some of the ways a PCS can challenge family dynamics. Maybe the service member’s spouse is upset because he or she has to leave a rewarding job and won’t be able to start over at the new location. Maybe there is tension because the spouse’s father is concerned that the new station is dangerous and wants the family to come “home” while the service member goes on assignment alone. Maybe a school-aged child is devastated because his or her favorite sport isn’t offered in the school at the new location, or a younger child suddenly becomes clingy and starts complaining of headaches and stomachaches.
Lamb said Prince William County has the largest population of military students outside of base. The county has received a grant from Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) to educate teachers and increase awareness of the military lifestyle.
“This will give us a better understanding of how we can support our military students,” said Felicia Norwood, principal of Kyle Wilson Elementary.
The teachers were divided into family groups and given roles to play. Each family had a service member from a different branch of the military; a spouse; high-school, middle-school, and elementary-school-aged children; and perhaps an extra family member such as a grandparent or pet.
After receiving their orders, the families had to first make sure every member who would be moving was listed on the orders. Then they were given packets of cards listing different personal possessions which they had to sort into piles according to whether the items would be hand-carried, shipped, or placed in long-term storage—all the time keeping weight limits and allowances in mind.
“There’s going to be a lot of math involved here,” Childress warned.
The families then loaded themselves onto wooden skis to simulate the actual move. Before making the trek across the baseball field to the new duty station, they had to make a complete circle around a hula hoop in the center of the field—representing a stop-off to visit relatives they hadn’t seen in three years.
The facilitators threw an extra challenge at Booth’s family. Booth’s colonel had to deploy suddenly, missing out on leave with the family and causing the spouse to have to complete the move alone. Another family was told that their household goods had been misplaced and they were going to have to go without them for an extra few months.
Once the families arrived at their new duty stations, they talked about the experience of reintegrating into the community with other service members, spouses, and school-aged children.
“It’s not so hard for the service members, who are going right into a job they’ve been trained for,” explained Amy Watson, training, education, and outreach specialist for the MCBQ Exceptional Family Member Program. “But the students have to learn to fit into a new school without attracting too much attention. And spouses have to get along with other adults who come from different backgrounds and aren’t used to communicating those differences with each other.”
“It’s good to be reminded of this stuff because it’s not on my mind daily,” Booth said of the exercises. “Every morning I try to do a check of all my students and when I see that one is down or sad, I try to problem-solve and figure out why. The military situation isn’t on my list of possible problems. But it will be now.”
“I thought this training was really good,” Norwood said. “It will give us compassion for our military families. It was a wonderful presentation.”