What Are a Military Family’s Obligations?


News in Japan has dropped from the front pages and the averted government shutdown consumed the attention of military families for a week or so — so it may be news to some that DoD ended the voluntary departure of family members from Japan as of April 15 and is preparing to start returning dependents to bases in the Tokyo region. They’re also restarting the PCS of service members and families into Japan — I’ve already heard sighs of relief from friends who spent a stressful, uncertain month caught in stop-movement limbo.

I’ve watched the process from a base elsewhere in Japan. I’ve had a lot of thoughts, some sympathetic and others more harsh, for the people who demanded that the government relocate them out of Japan when there wasn’t any clear, immediate danger to life or property.  Throughout the saga, I’ve found myself wondering — as military families living OCONUS, what are our responsibilities and obligations to our host country, if any?

Clearly, we take on additional legal obligations – our household goods, where we can live, what we can wear and our employment are all subject to the scrutiny of military authorities to a degree we’d never accept stateside.

We are often told that military families are overseas for reasons other than just morale. Stationing families overseas is a sign of long-term strategic commitments in a region. Families are told from the moment we choose to PCS that we are ambassadors and representatives of the United States to our host country. It’s our home, for some length of time; and the Japanese people, through their government, are making allowances for us to live here and making special accommodations for us.

So how does it make us look when there’s such a clamor to leave the country at the first sign of problems that may or may not affect us directly? Military families pride ourselves on our resilience and flexibility – I dare say we hold ourselves to a higher standard than civilians.

Shouldn’t we be prepared to take on some additional risk beyond what we would expect while living stateside, and when leadership says, “Things will be fine, tough it out,” be prepared to do so?

Or is this all my own bias towards exploration and immersion talking? We all know people who find it an unbearable hardship to be PCS’d from the place they consider “home” to stateside locations where people spend lots of money on vacations. I have it on good authority that even here at our little base, there’s people who never leave the housing areas.

Having decided to live and shop off-base, send our son to a local preschool and take every possible opportunity to experience Japan, I won’t claim that I know any of them or understand that mindset, but it exists. Maybe I’m just trying to make my own preferences seem universal.

For the record, I don’t think dependents are obligated to stay in another country until the bitter end. Our safety, in the event of foreign invasion or natural disaster is the government’s obligation. This was an unprecedented situation; radiation is a phenomenon that even educated people don’t understand completely. I also think in this situation, there were failures in communication and leadership that contributed to  reasonable people reaching conclusions that looked unreasonable in retrospect. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m observing at a distance, with 20/20 hindsight.

Now that the immediate situation has passed, I would love to know what other spouses think about this question more generally. As military families, do we have obligations to our host country beyond the government fine print? Or, as I’ve said to friends more than once about my own status in Japan, are we just “semi-permanent tourists?”

About the Author

John is married to an active duty Navy officer. He has been a Navy spouse for 13 years and a Navy boyfriend for an unknown number of years before that. He has been "That Guy" in multiple spouse clubs and is accustomed to being addressed as "ladies...oh, and John." He has been an off-again-on-again blogger since 2002 and is very pleased that most of his past writing is no longer on active sites.
  • Amy

    Well said, John. And since I can’t really speak from experience all I can do is speculate — if it was me, I would stay.

  • jessica

    i LOVE living in germany. but i look at it as a semi permant tourist situation. i took it upon my self to go, do, explore, see anything and everything. make the most out of not being stateside. but it wasnt my first choice to be there, and if something happened like in japan….. id be banging down the doors to the first c-17 i see roll up to get the heck out of there. i dont understand radiation, and i rufe to stay in a country thats not mine as a toss up. well… it *could* be bad, or not. if it was stateside, id stay. this is my country and itll be my country through anything. sounds bad, but its how i think. i do how ever think our active spouses have a duty to help an protect our host country and they should stay. thats there job after all. but its not mine.

  • Linda

    I think our obligation to the hosting country would not preclude the safety of my family. As in any situation, It’s better to be safe than sorry. I would’ve asked to be flown out too.

  • Robin

    There are things I would risk and obligations I would take on personally that I would not inflict on my two young children. Radiation exposure is one of them, especially when it was clear from the start that the Japanese government was withholding information (whatever their motivation for that may have been, negative or positive) about the extent of the problem. Military families give up a lot for their servicemembers’ jobs. The health and safety of their children should not be among them.

  • KateKashman

    I was looking at it from a different perspective. Supporting a large community of “visiting” Americans requires a huge number of resources, and certain resources were in scarce supply in the aftermath of the disaster. I’m guessing some of those resources are still limited, and in my mind it only made sense to remove all those people from the resource-using equation.

    I had just said to my daughter, “If we were in Japan, we’d have just started an unscheduled visit with Grandmom and Grandad” when the news was announced the US families could leave. We currently live in an area that is prone to earthquakes and volcanos, and it is my plan to head out at the slightest whiff of trouble. I don’t to sound like a scaredy-cat, but if a natural disaster were to occur, the locals will have significantly more important issues that taking care of their “guests.”

  • A thought provoking article, John. I don’t think I’m qualified to comment, but I think it is a question every military family should ask (and answer) for themselves prior to committing themselves to such an assignment. It is probably one the military should even define for those families.

  • cjgcat

    John, as Chris stated a thought provoking article. As someone that lived through the “saga” here in Yokosuka, Japan I ran through the same thoughts as you about the people here who relocated. As a military spouse living OCONUS I feel that my obligation to my host country is the same as to my friends, neighbors, and coworkers anywhere that I am. That is to support them and stay until it is truly a safety issue. This is my home for the length of time my spouse is stationed here and where he is is my home, whether overseas or in the States. I agree with you in the resources, and consoling issue as well.

    As someone who works in the environmental field for the DoD and at one time was a nuclear worker I had a little more information then the average spouse. If you are unsure there is plenty of places to educate yourself on the issues taking place.

  • Geraldine Herron-H.

    I am Ms.Gerri Herron-H, my son has been in the Marines for 14 years. I have not seen him in almost 3yrs. His recent wife is from Japan and her son and their family, they love my son. His father-in-law just passed . I talked to my son after my 54th Birthday 3/12/2011.But, around 3-4 times. He was amomg the personnel sargents- Marines and Navy that was promoted on Nov.1, 2010, on the USS Essux. I haven’t heard from her and her family, from the time of the Quake. Yes, I wish she, and her family atleast , her young child was sent here. My son keeps asking has she gotten through to me. He was been off and on our U.S. Ships/ Subs. And Just sent to help in Japan durning these last few weeks my only Birth son. And I only have one Birth daughter. And we both would like to here from them all. He also has 4 birthchildren here. He has been in other Countries including Irac. I haven’t been in the best of health. So I hope and pray for our family. My sons nick name is HERO!!!!!

  • Holly Slavich

    I think that no ones knows for certain that even a few hundred miles away there is no danger. Their culture and government also does not have the same beliefs about disclosing information to it’s public as ours does. I think that just like choosing to serve as a soldier, the decision to stay or go must be a personal one. Choosing to possibly sacrifice or take risks for others is what makes our sevice members and many of our citizenry great. No one should be forced, volunteers here. If, however, servicemembers or their family members were caught in a situation where they had no choice I would hope that they would rise to the occasion to be the most helpful, competent and wonderful examples of industrious americans as possible. Hopefully being better in times of crisis and hardship than your average bear. I know my husbands soldiering has caused him to cross train me in some respects many other people may not have ever gotten to be trained in, so I think I would do well!

  • Grits

    There is no way I would ever consider sacrificing the health of my children for the sake of flexibility and resiliency. In fact, I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure their health and safety. When there is a strong possibility that my children could be exposed to radiation, that goes well beyond accepting “an additional risk.” My obligations are to my faith, my own country, and my family. Anything beyond that is not an obligation, but a pleasure.