Before anyone gets too excited, let me preface this post with the fact that MSGs (neither Detachment Commanders nor Watch Standers) DO NOT get to bid on posts.
Our State Department brethren talk (and complain and stress out) about this magical process called “bidding”, the process by which they “choose” their next post. Choosing?! What is this sorcery?
First and second tour officers are given the coveted bid list and must rank every post on that list as high, medium, or low in terms of preference. Then, the magicians back in DC go to work making assignments. From what I hear, people typically get a high or medium (though we do know a number of people who bid Tegucigalpa low and lo and behold…) Third tour officers and beyond also receive a list of open positions, but have the autonomy to secure their own assignments. They do the exhausting bidding dance, reaching out to posts at which they want to serve, interviewing, rinsing, repeating. They might receive a tentative offer, known in State speak as an “air kiss,” but nothing is official until they receive a real offer, or a “handshake.”
Air kisses and handshakes? In the Marine Corps, we just call it what it is: orders. For MSGs, there’s an elusive “wish list”, though we were never asked to make one. A few of our junior Marines have made them, but results varied. What it really boils down to is someone up at the top making a selection based on “the needs of the service.” Then you get an email with a totally random name that you can’t even pronounce (Tegucigalpa, anyone?) and you just go.
But if we could bid… what would our priorities be? Foreign Service Officers have a lot to consider: getting a job “in cone” (the equivalent, I suppose, to an MOS), training requirements and timing, career trajectory, etc. But none of those things really matter for MSGs. For us, we would focus on…
- Security: Don’t get me wrong, we’re at a high-threat post right now and we’ve had to make sacrifices to feel safe, but we’ve so far come out unscathed. There isn’t really such a thing as a “garden post” anymore, but at the very least, I’d prefer to serve somewhere we can walk freely.
- Language: While officers get extensive language training at FSI (and must demonstrate proficiency in a second language early on in their careers to receive tenure), we just show up and fulfill the monolingual American stereotype. Serving somewhere where
weI can speak the language (looking at you, Francophone world) or at least have a shot at learning it (¿que tal, Spanish?) is really important. Or somewhere that English will get us by, of course.
- Detachment size: This is probably the only tactical factor we would consider, but it’s a big one for us. Marine detachments range from 7 to two dozen plus Marines. We prefer to be on the small end of that spectrum so we can actually get to know them and J can actually be a mentor.
- Runnability: Quality of life matters. Everyone has that one thing that really matters to them. After running in quarter-mile circles for the last 1,500 miles, this is my one thing.
- Travel Opportunities: This one is a no-brainer for anyone serving overseas, but you know, some cool local or regional travel wouldn’t suck. We’ve taken some amazing trips to El Salvador and Costa Rica, but somewhere with more in-country opportunities would really make us feel like we’re experiencing life abroad.
Of course for families of different sizes or setups might have other concerns: spouse employment opportunities, quality and availability of schools, restrictions on pets, air quality, availability of certain foods/goods, etc.
So if we can’t bid, why bother thinking about these things at all? I’d argue it’s even more important to discuss and determine your values when you don’t get to bid. Chances are, at least one of your posts on MSG will tick very few of your boxes, so you better be prepared to deal with it. Prepare not to understand anything being said around you. Prepare to live somewhere you’re not allowed to walk or use public transit. Prepare not to have a job for many months while you wait for a security clearance. Prepare to make your favorite recipes without certain ingredients. Prepare to drive in a high-stress environment. Prepare to leave your pet behind if you’re not able to bring him or her. Prepare to be really, really hot or really, really cold. Prepare to wait 6-8 weeks for your mail to arrive.
Don’t just prepare mentally, either. Be proactive. Find an online course to start picking up some of the local language. Reach out to post ASAP to find out about EFM positions or search for remote opportunities if your skill set allows it. Put some money aside to tide you over until a job does arise and your clearance is granted (hint: this can take 6+ months). Practice parallel parking so you can squeeze into tiny spaces in cities where buses and taxis are forbidden. Start making a list well in advance of all the ingredients and products you use regularly and pack your consumables shipment wisely. Find a friend or family member who will take care of your pet for a few years, just in case.
These preparations can be difficult, but they’re a big part of the reality of MSG and worldwide availability (the part nobody tells you until you’re in the thick of it). The sooner you figure out what’s important to you and how you’ll compensate for it or cope without it, the more you’ll be able to enjoy (or at worst endure) your time abroad.
Side note: we know where we’re going for our second post and we’re very thrilled that it ticks all of our boxes and then some this time around! But no more on that until it’s officially official.