Thursday, August 21, 2014

The difference between Army life and contractor life in Germany

I was going to wait until we got settled to write this post, but the mood is striking now.  So here goes...

In September 2007, Bill and I moved from Fort Belvoir, Virginia to Stuttgart, Germany, courtesy of the United States Army.  Because it was an Army move, we were allowed to ship about 17,000 pounds of our personal items and store what we didn't send.  We were allowed to ship one car at government expense and unaccompanied baggage.  When we arrived in Stuttgart, we were given money for sixty days of temporary living expenses.  The housing office, such as it is, was able to help us find a home and negotiate the rental contract.  And we were able to access medical and dental services at Patch Barracks.  Fortunately, I only required a contact lens exam and a dental cleaning and small filling (and I was actually very impressed by the services at Patch).  If we'd had kids, we could have sent them to the schools offered on the military installations for free.

In August 2014, we moved from San Antonio, Texas to Stuttgart, Germany, courtesy of a government contractor.  We had very little time to plan for this move.  When we moved with the Army, we found out in November 2006.  In January 2007, Bill deployed for six months; then when he came back, we had six weeks to get everything together and move to Germany.  We knew well ahead of time, though, so I was able to do things like train our dogs to use their carriers and get all of the red tape started.  This time, Bill got an informal job offer in late June and a formal one on July 8th... three weeks before we had to vacate our rental house in Texas.  It was a lot more of a rush to get stuff taken care of so we could make the move.

Part of the reason Bill got hired is because there was a recent mass exodus of contractors, due to the work being taken over by a new company that severely underbid all the other contractors.  It meant that the previous contractors were going to be paid about $20,000 less for their work, mainly because the new contractor wasn't offering an education benefit to contractors with kids.  Contractors have to pay for their kids to go to school, while military and DoD employees don't.

We were given enough money to ship 5000 pounds of our belongings.  Fortunately, the Army pays for storage for the recently retired;  it's only for a year, though.  Then Bill gets the government rate on storage.  Because there are only two of us, it's no big deal that we only got 5000 pounds.  Most of the stuff I really wanted to bring, I could.  However, we did have to get rid of a lot of stuff and a lot went into storage.  If we'd had kids, that 5000 pound limit would have cramped our style a lot more.  Of course, we were also lucky because the guy that packed us for our move to Germany was just plain awesome.  Wish I could say the same about the folks who packed our stuff for storage.

We had to pay to ship our cars-- it was about $4000.  It would have been less, had we been able to drive the cars to Houston and pick them up in Bremerhaven.  But the logistics of doing that weren't feasible for us.  We have to repay Bill's company for the plane tickets to fly to Germany.  We pay for our temporary housing before we move into our permanent digs.  We get a housing allowance, but it's paid quarterly instead of monthly; it's plenty for the type of house we wanted (and ultimately got).  We did have to find the house and negotiate the rental contract ourselves; fortunately, we're inheriting a house from a military couple and our new landlords seem to be pretty used to dealing with Americans.  Special thanks to the Facebook Stuttgart Friends and Moving to Stuttgart groups for turning me on to Stuttgart Bookoo.  None of these things existed when we were here last time.

Bill's salary is somewhat comparable to what he earned as a lieutenant colonel-- the difference is that it's kind of split between a base salary and the quarterly housing allowance.  He doesn't have to pay as much in taxes as he would in the United States and he also gets retirement pay, though part of that is temporarily being withheld because he had a brief lapse in service in the 90s and has to repay a bonus he received back then.  In about 18 months, we'll be getting the full retirement pay, which should make things pretty nice.  He gets medical, dental, and vision benefits, along with the usual retiree medical benefits, too.  

And healthcare and dental care, for me at least, will be strictly on the economy.  Bill was able to score an appointment to see a doc at Patch, but I don't know if that's going to be something he can do the whole time we're here.  We will also have to buy our own major appliances, whereas when we were still Army, we got to borrow them from the government.

Here's another weird thing that happened.  Last month, I got a new ID made because Bill retired.  This month, I got another one made because we're overseas.  The overseas ID is only for use in Germany.  The other one is for use in the USA.

We do get to use most of the services available to the military.  For example, we get an APO box, which allows mail to be sent and received at US rates, although no one could get us a box before we came.  Consequently, the boxes we sent here general delivery may or may not be on the way back to Texas.  We get to use the PX/BX, commissary, hotel, and gas ration cards (allows us to get gas at prices closer to what we'd pay in the US).  We get a USAEUR driver's license good for Germany.  We both have SOFA cards (last time, they were stamps).  But life as a contractor as opposed to being a government or military employee is a bit more bare bones.

When it comes time to leave Germany, there is no telling what will happen.  It's my understanding that contractors win and lose contracts all the time.  So it could turn out that Bill's current company loses its contract and he'll be out of a job.  Or the next company may decide to hire him.  In fact, I've heard that happens fairly often because it's cheaper and easier to hire talent that is already local.  For that reason, we could be in Germany for awhile.  Or we could end up leaving next year.  Bill says the contractor he's working for now really bid low, though, so the chances of them losing the contract are pretty low.  This probably means the company will keep the contract and we'll end up staying.

We love Germany and hate job hunting... and I doubt the company will want to lose Bill now that he's here.  Not everyone can afford to spend as much money as we did just to relocate for a job.  We know of some people who turned down positions with this contractor because of the somewhat stingy relocation package.  If government contractors can't afford to pay employees enough to move and take care of their families, they won't want to come to Germany.  If they do come, they probably won't stay as long as they might.  We don't have kids and don't need as much money to survive.  We just have dogs and a serious case of wanderlust.  Fortunately, Bill gets three weeks of paid leave a year and major holidays off!

It used to be that the Department of Defense offered contractors enough money that moving with them was more like a military move.  But since the government is cutting back on the military, there is less money to go around and contractors are the first ones to feel the cuts.  On the up side, it appears that there's plenty of work to be done.  Bill says he and his new work buddies are being kept very busy with stuff that normally would be handled by people in the military.  Apparently, fewer military folks are being sent to Europe-- again, due to downsizing.  So guys like Bill are picking up the slack and, perhaps, ending up doing some work that may not be in their job descriptions.  Of course, Bill has done this kind of work before and still has his Army work ethic, so he's able to get the job done.

So why did we come here if it was such an expensive logistical hassle?  Simple.  No one in Texas seemed eager to give Bill a job.  We had a choice of moving to Germany or taking our chances in Texas, where there were no job offers on the table and we were in a rental house with property managers we absolutely hated.  Since we love Germany and Bill knew he could do the work and would enjoy it, the choice was easy, despite all that went into the move.

There have been some positives to our move, too.  One thing I'm glad I didn't have to do this time was get a physical, even though I could probably use one.  I also didn't have to go through EFMP screening since as civilians, EFMP doesn't apply to us.  I didn't have to get an official passport, not that that was such a huge deal.  It was just a pain to have to keep up with two of them.

Since we are ultimately paying for our transportation over here, we were allowed to choose which airline we wanted to use.  In most cases, if you are flying on government funds, you have to use the cheapest American carrier for as long as possible.  This wouldn't have been an issue for us if we weren't bringing dogs.  A lot of American airlines don't fly pets in the summer or require them to be flown via cargo services which can be very expensive.  We flew Lufthansa, which allows pets to be flown as baggage, yet keeps them in a safe area.  Instead of paying over $1000 to bring our dogs, we only had to pay $400 and they were there at baggage claim waiting for us when we arrived.

Also, because we aren't here with the military, we aren't forced to live in an apartment on a military installation, nor are we forced to use military lodging.  Military lodging is fine if you want to use it, but we prefer being on the economy.  Because we've been here before, the culture shock is not that much for us.  Things haven't changed a whole lot in the almost five years we've been gone.  It probably helps that we've visited Germany twice in the five years since we left!

I am grateful that we got to move back to Germany.  Hell, I'm grateful Bill has a job at all-- especially in Germany, which was our favorite of all our duty stations with the Army.  The beauty of this arrangement is that we could end up living here for a lot longer than the barely two years we got last time.  We aren't subject to the government's whims quite as directly as we were before.

I'm sure I'll have more to write about this experience once we've been here a bit longer and have settled into our new house.  For now, all I can say is that it helps to have been here before, because when you come here as a contractor, there's less support and you have to figure more things out for yourself.

Here's an update as of September 2015.

4 comments:

  1. Are you all still in Germany? I have a few questions if you don't mind? I am thinking of taking a contract position with General Dynamics in Stuggart. I just left the army 6 months ago after 9 years of service? I would love to know any information that you could help me out with. I am married with 2 kids so I would like to know is this a good move or should I wait for something to come up stateside. Please email response to me at dsmann06@gmail.com-- thanks in advance.

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  2. Hi I too was wondering if you are still in Germany? My H retired from the AF in 2014 and works for a contractor in the Middle East but has accepted a position at Stuttgart starting in Nov. We were stationed at Ramstein in 2003-2006 so I know what to expect but I am a little nervous about making the move without the safety net of the AF. I would love to exchange emails or Fb msgs.

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  3. Hi Kelly,

    Yes, we are still in Germany and have plans to stay as long as they let us. You can find me on Facebook here... https://www.facebook.com/theovereducatedhousewifeblogspot

    Don't worry... Stuttgart is awesome. You might want to join the Stuttgart Friends and Moving to Stuttgart Groups to get your bearings. Also, check out the Stuttgart Bookoo page. Someone in either of those groups will direct you.

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