The Freedom Bird (Officially known as the Patriot Express)

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luggage

Today is the last day of May, and I’ve decided to tell you about what it was like to travel to a new country–as a civilian on orders.

So when I first got the assignment, I had to go straight to the Pax Terminal.  Like, EVERYONE hounded me about making my reservations immediately. In the front of the Pax Terminal–it looks like a regular airport with a counter along one wall and rows of seats.  But I had to go to the other side.  Back there is where the military fly in and out.  Because I had orders, I was considered a “space required” passenger as opposed to a “space available” passenger.  That meant that I could not be bumped off the plane for any reason.  Which was good to know because I had worried that an active duty Airman–or some other person in uniform–could take my seat.

So the young Airman behind the desk printed out an itinerary and another page that had very small words on it.  I’m still not entirely sure what  it said.

The itinerary had me flying one of the contracted planes the  Air Force regularly uses–but it departed from Baltimore International in the middle of the night Monday–so technically, it was very early Tuesday morning.  From Baltimore, I would fly to Ramstein and from Ramstein straight into the terminal at Aviano.

These contracted jets are also known as “Freedom Birds”.

plane

I had the option of taking a commercial flight (government paid) from Philadelphia or anywhere else and flying into Venice but I chose not to for several reasons.  For one, I had to ship the car from the VPC in Baltimore (see my post about that), and two, when you are dealing with these kinds of logistics, the smartest thing you can do is make it as easy on yourself as possible.

Sure, it would have been super cool to fly into Venice, but then someone from the base would have had to drive and come pick me up.  I would have had to go through customs and all that associated headache.  (Although my fellow travelers and I also had to go through customs at Ramstein, at least it was with Airmen.  And you know when you are tired, you can barely understand English, let alone a foreign language you aren’t really familiar with) So I figured, all things considered, I would forego the joy of flying into exotic Venice and land at the mundane Pax Terminal on base.

Additionally, I had already begged my way into a hotel room on the base, so I wanted to be able to just touch down, get my stuff, and be driven straight to my room and go to bed.  Smart, right?  I thought so!

I guarded those papers with my life because I knew I needed them to board the jet at Baltimore.

On the day I left McGuire, I drove straight to the VPC and dropped the car off.  Then I took a cab to BWI and hung out there until midnight.  Finally the moment of truth. From the USO, I went back to the AMC Pax Terminal counter.   A the counter I pull out those papers from the McGuire Pax Terminal and the Airman looks at me and asks to see a copy of….my orders.    Its a good thing I had extras on me or I’d have been in real trouble!

So, the moral of this story is:  you don’t actually need your itinerary to board the plane, but you do need your orders.  Also, after they check your orders, you will have to take off your shoes and go through security just like for a regular flight.

But do hang on to that itinerary.  You will need it when you go to process your travel voucher. Which is the subject of my next post.

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The Italian Connection

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First, let me say that I adore blogging.  I’ve taken to it like a duck to water. In the past few days, whenever I had a spare minute, I thought about this blog and how I can make it better.  So hopfully, some neat changes will be coming soon.

Second, yes, I too will be happy when I can get off this base and start taking pictures of interesting things 🙂

phone

Okay now about phones.  Before I left the States, I read everything I could find online about the best way to go about staying connected while in Italy.  I have a Samsung Galaxy Android with Verizon.  I called Verizon and asked them to unlock my phone.  I was assured that it was unlocked.  I called back again about something else and was told that the kind of phone I had was not “Global Ready” and that it wouldn’t work in Italy even if it was unlocked.

I had already installed Magic Jack on my mobile.  Magic Jack allows you to use any Wi-Fi to make phone calls back to U.S. phone numbers (as if you were in the States).  It’s perfect, if you are like me, and have no actual phone service overseas.  All you have to do is find some free Wi-Fi, and you’re ready to roll.

The only downside is that if your W-Fi is spotty, your reception will be too and it may sound as if you are underwater, in a tunnel, or diving from an airplane.

The day after I got here, I bought an Italian SIM card from a store in the BX.  It works kind of like a pre-pay phone card where you put money on it every month or so and use it when you want to.  I think the minutes also roll over every month. I’ll let you know if that turns out not to be the case.

Now you have to understand exactly what an Italian SIM card will and will not do.

You should only use it with those who have Italian or other European phone numbers.  There is a bit higher charge for non-Italian numbers.  Under no circumstances should you call anyone in the States with that SIM card.  Nor should you allow them you call you–unless they don’t mind paying an arm and a leg for the privilege.

The problem I had was that because my Android was locked and not global ready, it wouldn’t recognize the new Italian SIM card…so I was basically SOL.

My solution?  I went back to the phone store and bought a little white Samsung Vodaphone flip-phone for 39 Euros.  I can talk and text on it, and and it came with a charger.  This way, I can use my Vodaphone to look for a house and give the number to my coworkers.  Most of them bought the Italian SIM and put it in their iphones or androids, because their phones are unlocked and can be used overseas.

Another little something I learned was that if you have a locked mobile phone, KEEP IT OFF OR IN AIRPLANE MODE until you are ready to use your Magic Jack app.  Otherwise, you will be constantly incurring roaming charges because your phone is always going to be on the lookout for a signal.   And those charges could add up.  So please be careful.

Okay everyone, enjoy your Memorial Day weekend!

The Endless, Mind-Boggling, and Completely Surreal Maze of Paperwork

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maze

That title should give you some hint of what I will talk about!

So, I’ve been on station for about four days now, and let me tell you, it’s been kind of fun and kind of not.  I flew in Tuesday night and was met by my sponsor.  (When you are assigned to an overseas base, you are provided with someone from your unit to shlep you around for the first few weeks until you get yourself settled.)

I’ve got a great hotel room with a lovely view of the mountains of which I’ll try to take a photo soon. I’m having a few hardware issues that will hopefully be resolved forthwith (that’s my favorite word at the moment).

Well on Thursday, I attended what is known as Jump Start.  It’s an abbreviated (3 hour) version of Right Start which lasts for two days and generally begins every Monday.  However, since next Monday is a holiday, it will begin on Tuesday.

Anyway, I showed up bright and early for Jump Start and sat in the second row so I wouldn’t miss anything.  The first brief was provided by a guy from the Safety office.  He talked about driving in Italy and all the things to do and not do.  At the beginning of his brief, he instructed us to hand him a copy of our orders, a short form he’d given us to fill out and the two certificates from the driving tests we were supposed to have taken online prior to arrival.  One went over the Air Force Instruction (AFI) for driving in Italy and the other was a road signs test.

And let me tell you, those online tests were no joke!  If you miss a question, you have to retake the entire test until you get every single question correct. There are 50 questions on one, and 30 on the other.

So after everyone turns in their paperwork, he tells us that we can pick up our new AFI license from the Pass & Registration office after the class is over.

The second brief was provided by an Italian lady from the housing office.  She talked about living on base and then moving into housing off base.  She made it clear that not everything she said pertained to me because I was a civilian.  But I will talk more about that brief in another post.

That’s the thing about being a civilian that can kind of sour the juice about working for the military (if you let it).  They talk a good game about the total force concept–meaning that active duty, reserves, and civilians are all one big happy family of service members (contractors are a whole ‘nother animal).  But the reality is that there are many distinctions that are made–and those distinctions sometimes take the form of benefits that active duty service members (called AD from now on) have that civilians don’t.

Prime example is the paint allowance.  Apparently, most Italian landlords require new tenants to paint the apartment before they move in.  This can cost anywhere from 700 euros up to 2000 or more.  The AD are given that money whereas civilians have to pay it out of their own pockets.

And in the States, civilians are not allowed to shop at the commissary or BX. I’m actually designated as emergency-essential, which means that I deploy to our expeditionary Wings. I absolutely believe that our AD should be entitled to every benefit under the sun, but it would be nice not to feel like buck-toothed, cross-eyed, knock-kneed stepchild sometimes.

*Sigh*  Back to the story.

After the class I went over to the Pass & Reg office.  You have to sign in on a computer and wait until someone calls your name.  In about 30 minutes, I was called and went up to the desk to explain I was there to pick up my AFI license.  He informed me that they would be ready in the morning.  Now, mind you, the Safety guy said to pick them up after class.

But whatever.  I end up going back pretty late in the afternoon the next day.  Wait 40 minutes, only to be told that I can’t get the AFI license until I have something called an ILS memo–individual logistical support memo from my supervisor.  So the Airman hands me a template for the memo, and that’s when I realize it’s not just a memo that I need.  There’s a list of about ten things I need in addition to the memo.  Things it’s going to take at least a month to get–like a physical address.

And that’s when I kind of lost it.  It wasn’t that there was a whole new set of hoops I’d have to jump through, it really was about the fact that there was nothing anywhere online that talked about this ILS.  And believe me, I scoured that website at least six times so that I’d know exactly what I needed to do. On top of that, the safety briefer never said a mumbling word about it either.  Aggggghhhhh!!

I didn’t yell or throw a fit, but I did ask for the name and number of the supervisor there.  And yes, he will be getting a very politely worded email from me.

My thing is, just please post the information somewhere, so people know what they can expect. And make sure the briefers know so they can say something!  Is that too much to ask?

Okay, my rant is finished 🙂

The USO & Me

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To me, the USO was a lot like Valhalla. Stories–legends really–had been handed down about that mythical place since WWII.  It was a place mere mortals entered at their peril.  And I have been in awe of it for a very long time.

So I was thrilled to learn that as a civilian, I am allowed to enter the USO at any airport that has one.  And I have to tell you, it’s kind of awesome.  Free computers, free X-Box games, free food and drinks and free TV.  What’s not to love?

So I am here at Baltimore Airport and my first order of business was to find the USO.  The airport is under construction, so I had to take the elevator down to the first floor, then go outside to the pavement, walk awhile, then come back inside and walk down another hall.  But I found it!  And yes, they let me in.

So the process is: they check your CAC card, then they stamp your hand so you don’t have to show the card again.  You check your bags into a room and then you are free to sample all the delights the USO has to offer.

And get this–when you are ready to leave, they have free carts you can use for your luggage!

uso

**Update:  So I sashayed up to the USO Food Counter and looked at the menu…and I saw cheeseburgers!!  I was soooo excited.  I had my mouth all ready for a fresh cheeseburger with lettuce and ketchup and mustard.   Then the hostess turned around, bent down, reached into the bottom of a freezer, and pulled out a FROZEN microwavable burger.

*Sigh*  You win some, you lose some.

The Voyage of Your Personally-Owned Vehicle (POV)

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There are some days when you just want to lay yourself down in the middle of what ever floor you happen to be on and howl and kick and scream at the top of your lungs.  Oh for those toddler days when such behavior was expected…

But now I’m an adult, so I have to at least attempt to behave myself.

Yesterday was just one of those days.  A simple day at the car wash turned into a nightmare.  But enough about me.  This post is really about shipping your POV.  Because now that I’ve actually done it, I can talk about it.  I was going to call this post The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but I didn’t know if people would get it 🙂

So if you are moving overseas, the government will ship one car that you own–or are buying–for free. There are a couple of websites that you can go to.  The main one is http://www.pcsmypov.com.

car

On that website, you’ll find a list of all the things you have to do to get your car ready for shipping–like clean out the inside.

Well, in case you didn’t know, I drive a Scion iQ. I used to have a Mercury Grand Marquis before that, so as you can imagine, my tiny Pearl (that’s her name) took some getting used to.  My coworkers teased me endlessly about both cars.  They called Georgia (the Grand Marquis) the land-yacht, and they called Pearl the skate.  But I’m the one laughing all the way to Italy now…

I digress.  Anyway, you have to clean out your car, make sure it’s in good driving condition, etc.  I actually got the front brakes done, the back brakes cleaned, a fuel system cleaning, two new tires and a wheel alignment.  I probably didn’t have to do all of that now, but 1) Pearl needed some of them (I’m still not convinced about the fuel injection system cleaning) and 2) I know, or at least I’m told, that anything I get done in Italy will cost twice as much.

I made an appointment online to take my car to the Baltimore Vehicle Processing Center (VPC).  That’s the place you have to drop your car off so that IAL can ship it.  IAL is the company DoD contracted to handle car shipments.

I was planning to drive from New Jersey, so I made the appointment for 1pm and that gave me plenty of time to leave about 8:30, drive relatively leisurely, grab lunch, and still get there by noon.

One thing I will caution you about:  be careful that you have the most current and updated list of VPCs.  There used to be one in New Jersey, but it closed down awhile ago, which is why I had to drive to Baltimore.  So just check online or call to make sure the place you plan to take your car is still in the government car shipping business.

So today, I showed up for my appointment and it went pretty well.  Everyone was actually very nice to me.  I called a cab company (I-95 Taxi) from the VPC and Dave, the driver, took me to Baltimore Intl Airport.  Just so you know, a cab ride from the VPC to the airport is a flat $25.  Given that its barely seven miles away, that is a little expensive, but what can you do?

Please, please read all the instructions carefully as there is a list of paperwork you’ll need.  I don’t own my car yet, so I had to get a letter from the bank authorizing me to take it overseas.  If you still owe, you’ll have to do the same for your vehicle.  They will also want two copies of your orders and there’s a pre-shipping form you’ll need to fill out.  You could do it there, but I’m a big fan of doing things early.  Besides, it makes you look like you’re on the ball and the employees appreciate it. (At least I think they do.  They may not care).

You’ll also need to show them your CAC  card.  So make sure it’s easily accessible.

And make sure you have cash on you.  Philly cabdrivers have been coerced into accepting credit cards, but I’m not sure Baltimore is there yet.

They actually want you to ship your vehicle six weeks in advance, but that just wasn’t an option for me.  I was commuting to work at the base from Philadelphia.  And I just felt like it would be a lot easier to get rides from coworkers at Aviano than trying to do it here.  So I’m literally shipping the car the same day I’m leaving.

I’ll let you know how that worked out for me 🙂

Civilians and the Med Group

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records

Sounds like a really bad book title.

Well, the whole experience was definitely…interesting.  Turns out that even though I am a civilian, I still have to go through the Med Group on base to get out of Dodge.  I think what saved me a smidgen of hassle was the fact that I had deployed in 2013, so I was already in the Air Force DEERS system.  (I have no idea what that stands for)

Anyway, when you are moving overseas, you have to go by the clinic and so they can make sure you aren’t riddled with disease, psychotic, or dying.  It’s called a pre-employment exam.  They will make you take a pregnancy test, and every time they see you thereafter they will ask if there is any chance you are pregnant.  I don’t think being pregnant disqualifies you for an overseas tour.  I guess they just want to make sure they know in advance.

Your civilian personnel officer (CPO) can set up the appointment for you or you can make your own.  If I had to do it over, I’d make my own.  The one I had was almost 6 weeks out and I’m just convinced I could have gotten in sooner.

She also made a lab appointment for me…and I found out when I got there that they don’t even do appointments.  It’s first come first serve.

I had to have more blood drawn, take a pee test, and have my immunization records scrutinized (having deployed, I don’t think it’s even possible for me to catch anything.  They gave me about 20 shots so I’m pretty sure I’m immune to West Nile, rabies, and Ebola at this point).

I also had to get my hearing checked, and since I’m over 40, an EKG.  (I know, right?? And just so you know, those electrode stickers can HURT when they are pulled off)

I’d already gotten a mammogram in 2014, so I was good there.

The fun part came when I went to get the dental checklist signed.  So I was sent to the dental clinic on the Army side, but the lady there was adamant that they didn’t take civilians–and to top it off they were closing shop permanently the following week.  So I trotted back over to the Med Group and told my liaison–the Public Health lady– what the soldier told me.  Her face scrunched up and she said “They do take civilians.  I worked in that office for 20 years, so I should know”.  She made a call and I was sent back across base.

You’d have thought I was a two-headed alien from the looks and whispers I was getting.  It was so over the top that I honestly expected people to try and touch my skin or my hair to make sure I was real.  It was like “Oh my God, she’s a civilian?  And she came here?  We see civilians? For reals?”  (In my mind, they said it with the “s”)

It’s a good thing that all they had to do was X-Ray my teeth.  I wouldn’t have put it past them to try some experiments on me otherwise.  I must say though, it did make me sympathize with horses…the way they were poking around in my mouth.

The trick to surviving a trip to the Med Group is to know going in that most of the people you will be dealing with have no idea what they are talking about in terms of what they are supposed to do for you as a civilian.  So definitely speak to a supervisor or three.

Also, once they get past the fact that you are a civilian, they treat an overseas PCS like a deployment, so be prepared for odd questions.  You’ll have to check in with a mental health provider.  And don’t forget to fill out the medical questionnaire thoroughly.  If you take medication, you definitely want it on the forms so it will be in stock when you need it.

Once they have satisfied themselves that you aren’t a threat to yourself or anyone else and have at least three years of life left in you, you will take a copy of your medical record to your CPO.  You’ll also need to email a copy to your CPO at your new base.

Health Insurance

insurance company

If you are in the military, then you know there are about a million different plans you can choose from to have access to pretty good healthcare.  I don’t know about anyone else, but at least for me, the Affordable Care Act did not materially change anything.  I guess because we had the option of sticking with the provider we already had.

So I have GEHA in the States.  They are okay. I think they tried to cheat me once last year.  What happened was that when I moved to Philadelphia, I was told I needed new insurance cards, so when they arrived, I tore up the old ones and tossed them–so I wouldn’t get them mixed up.  Fast forward to Winter 2015 and after I found out I got the job, I had to get a physical, bloodwork, the whole nine.  Well the doctor’s office sent the bloodwork to the wrong lab and GEHA tried to tell me it was my fault.  So after about 6 phone calls and two letters, they finally coughed up some cash and paid a portion of the claim.

It left a bad taste, but I’m not bitter.  Bygones…

Well it turns out that GEHA is one of the companies that will insure you while you are overseas.  I know that active duty service members have Tri-Care, but as a civilian, I don’t have that.  So I was happy to know that I could keep GEHA (stick with the devil you know and all that…)

I called GEHA and gave them my new address and they told me that whenever I go to a doctor for care, whether it’s an Italian or American provider, that I can submit the claim online, and it will be taken care of.

NOTE:  You definitely want to double-check and be sure that your insurance will cover you for overseas care–medical/dental/eyecare.

Getting stuck with a fat bill after you get a root canal is just adding insult to injury.

The Official Passport & Visa

Ohhhh…where do I start??

So the very first thing that about a billion people will tell you–once they find out you are PCSing (moving for the rest of us)–to Italy is that you absolutely must have an official government passport.  This is NOT the same thing as the American tourist passport which is usually blue.  The government-issue passports are maroon, or brown.  Whatever.  But they are definitely not blue.  There is no mistaking one for the other.

The other thing that you must have is an Italian visa.  This is basically a stamp inside your official passport that lets the Italians know, you really do have the right to be in the country, and that you won’t become a burden on Italian society because you already have a job lined up..

So I thought I was ahead of the game because hey–I already had an official passport.  So I trotted over to the Passport office at my home station…only to find out that the guy who used to do passports was no longer there and that there was an active duty Airman who was doing them as an additional duty.  And naturally, she was TDY (away on temporary duty) for the next few weeks.

So me, being the smart cookie I am, went over to the Army side of the base so that I could get the ball rolling on the Visa.  And that’s when things went from vaguely annoying to downright cray-cray.

The guy who did visas over there was just…weird.  There is literally no other word for it.  I was creeped out from the beginning.  What made it even worse was that he didn’t really seem to know what he was doing.

(Rule #1:  Always, always read everything at least three times)

So he was trying to tell me that I would need to send my paperwork in to the consulate in Philadelphia.  I, having read the instructions, knew that my visa paperwork, went to the office in Crystal City, Virginia.  After telling me about 30 times how the Italians would send back the paperwork for any little mistake they find, he printed out about 20 copies of the application form.  (Ummm…isn’t this the digital age?  I do have computer in my office that I can download the application from. Just sayin’…)

Anyway, he also told me (about 50 times) how the rules change every single day, so every time I brought back a completed application, he would have to print out the latest rules.  Okay…but, if the rules that applied to me were on only 2 of the 30 pages that regulated visa, why did he print the ENTIRE THING out every time I went over there?  I could hear the trees crying in protest.

I sat there for three hours…in which he hemmed and hawed about God knows what, I was then informed that since my passport would expire prior to the end of my duty tour, that I would have to obtain another one.  And I guess he couldn’t have told me that first and saved three hours of my life that I can Never. Get. Back.

After that, I’d had enough.  I decided I’d just wait for the Airman to return and go through her office.  There was only so much that one relatively normal person could take.

So in the end, she finally returned adn we got the official passport paperwork sent  off.  The passport came back about a month later, and we applied for the visa, which came back in about three weeks.  I told her that I’d literally been traumatized from my experience on the Army side.  She just shook her head and said she heard that a lot.

Note:  You cannot apply for the official passport and visa at the same time.  You must have the official passport first. You definitely don’t want to wait until the last minute to get these taken care of.  If a lot of people are moving around the same timeframe as you, a backlog could occur.  And understand this:  The Italians will not let you into the country without the official passport and visa if you are a DoD civilian on orders. And if you do somehow manage to sneak in, you’ll be sent either to Germany or back to the States to obtain your visa.  It’s definitely not a risk worth taking, so just be smart, and get it done as early as possible.

 

Getting the News

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So back in the winter, a job in my field became available, so I applied. Since I never thought I’d actually get hired, no one was more surprised than I was when I got the call. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I was qualified or couldn’t do the job. I am supremely confident in my abilities–and hey–what I don’t know, I can learn.

It had more to do with the fact that I’m not exactly a senior person in my program. I’ve only been in since Summer 2010. And come on–Italy is a plum assignment, by anyone’s standards.

From the get-go, I knew that this move would involve some red tape ( I mean…I do work for the government), a lot of craziness, and a fair amount of frustration. And guess what?? I wasn’t disappointed lol.