Tuesday, May 15, 2018

South Korea; 14 Years in the Making, Part V (The Final Part)


Returning to Italy was, as you would imagine, wonderful. It truly felt like we were coming home after a near three year absence. We had plans of finding a place back in Caldogno since it was the town we’d always lived in and so many people around town were practically family to us. I never fathomed living anywhere else however fate always has a way of intervening. We looked at several places in our old town but couldn’t find anything that matched what we wanted or needed. Eventually Virginia announced that she wanted to live downtown, in “Centro”, the historic center of Vicenza. Her reasoning was simple; she does not drive and so she spends a lot of time taking the bus to places she needs to go, usually either downtown or to the base. She absolutely loves Centro because they have a lot of outdoor markets and such, similar to what she grew up with in the Philippines and Hong Kong. I was inclined to agree with her as I prefer living somewhere where I have everything I need all within walking distance. If we could not find a place in Caldogno, then Centro it was. We had a brief flirtation with a huge villa in a town called Torri that we had agreed to rent but it fell through when the landlord jerked us around and I told him to go pound sand which worked out perfectly for us. 

In the end we did end up finding a place right in one of the most historical piazzas in Vicenza, Piazza San Lorenzo. Our windows look right out at the beautiful San Lorenzo church, the oldest Franciscan church in the world (built 1280-1300). Living in Centro turned out to be everything we hoped it would be. I’ve grown fond of exploring the side streets and back alleys of the city which contain some amazing architecture and sights. Virginia spends a lot of her time visiting the shops and stores around the main piazza and buys all our fresh fish, fruits and vegetables at the huge outdoor market that takes over Centro every Thursday. The kids are content to sample every gelateria they can find. They absolutely love it here; Xavier’s best friend from Caldogno, Daniele, moved about 10 minutes away about a year ago so he comes over most weekends. Luca and Max love riding their bikes and playing hide and seek in the piazza while I sit outside CafĂ© Terzi enjoying a glass of vino. Life is truly bliss here.

So why leave? That’s what everybody keeps asking me. I don’t really have an answer, at least not one that most people would understand. Taking the job in Korea has nothing to do with wanting to leave Italy. I’ve turned down other opportunities because I could not envision leaving Italy, even though it meant that I’d be forced to go back to Sumter when my 5 years is up. In fact, when the Korea job came up, Virginia and I talked and decided that we wouldn’t do it because the timing was horrible. We’d only been back here a little over a year, how could we think of leaving? It made zero sense. But the more I ruminated over it, the more appealing it became. It was like something just awoke in me. All those years where I’d coveted the chance to go work in the Pacific theater came back to me and I realized that this would probably be my last real chance. Italy is our home and we love it here but it’s time move on and explore new places. It’s time to rekindle our love affair with Hong Kong and the Philippines and find new places to enjoy and discover. 

South Korea: the next piece of the puzzle in our adventures

Beyond all that crap, there are practical reasons. This job opportunity is a huge deal for me. When I went through all the BS with the LQA audit I lost all the enjoyment and motivation I once had doing my JOPES job. Sumter did little to help bring it back. But the thought of jumping back in and working at such a challenging level in a place I've always wanted to live has me excited again, it’s exactly what I need. It’s also a major stepping stone to bigger and better things – the guy who just left the job is now working in Hawaii and if I can follow in his footsteps, that would be amazing. 

So…am I crazy? Perhaps. It hurts tremendously to leave Italy but after all the crazy twists and turns my life has taken since I left for Europe in 1998, who knows, maybe we’ll end up back here someday. Whatever happens, at least I can say my life is never boring…

Monday, May 14, 2018

South Korea; 14 Years in the Making, Part IV

By the time I arrived in Sumter, SC, assigned to USARCENT at Shaw Air Force Base, I had been living in Europe for 16 years (4 in Germany, 12 in Italy) so it was like a double culture shock for me; adapting to life in the US in general and adjusting to life in the south specifically. I quickly realized that the US was a completely different country than the one I’d left 16 years earlier. Everything seen different to me. Hell, we didn’t even have cell phones the last time I lived in the US. It was a very difficult adjustment for me to say the least and the fact that it was in a rural southern town with barely any culture, decent restaurants or shopping certainly added to the difficulty.

There are some really beautiful places in South Carolina but Sumter ain’t one of them. I went there with a completely open mind, armed with the knowledge that we would not be in Europe and that there would be plenty of things that I was used to that would not exist in our new surroundings. I had a few friends who had lived in or visited Sumter and most of them described it as a small city full of southern charm. Unfortunately, I never did manage to find that southern charm. 
What I did find were lots of trailer parks, a couple Waffle Houses, every fast food restaurant known to man, rampant crime, shopping that was limited to places like Walmart and K-Mart, and a level of incompetence that I had never experienced before, not even in Italy. Take, for example, the school buses; they would routinely arrive 20-30 minutes late and at least a dozen times a year, they would not even show up at all. It was breathtaking.

Living in Sumter sometimes felt like stepping back into the 1950's. Many of the mentalities seemingly haven't evolved since then...

As I said, I arrived with an open mind, determined to make the best of whatever life was like in our new home. But I started realizing that we might have a hard time when several of the locals I met around town casually referred to it as “Scumter” and “Slumter”. That was my first clue. Of course any place has its detractors – hell, I met plenty of people in Italy who hated it there and couldn’t wait to leave. Different strokes for different strokes and all that, right? But I started noticing that all the “awesome” things about Sumter that people were telling me turned out to be a different story as I got to know the place better. For example, people who love Sumter are quick to tell you that the city is home to no less than seven institutions of higher learning. What they don’t tell you is that most of them are found in strip malls…

Anyway, it’s not my intention to bash Sumter. We were treated badly there by a lot of locals and most of our three years there consisted of one bad thing after another happening to us but we did meet some good people too. There are plenty of people who love the town and all it has to offer (whatever that may be) and more power to them. I’m happy that they are happy there, it just was not for us. We spent most of our weekends driving to Columbia or Florence to do grocery shopping (they had
places like Whole Foods, Kroger and Harris Teeter whereas Sumter had places like IGA, Food Lion and Piggly Wiggly…cripes, I can’t even type that with a straight face), eat at decent restaurants, and wile away the hours in Barnes and Noble. Eventually we developed a new hobby that kept us sane – trips to Atlanta. One of my best friends is a guy named Monty who I met working at US Army Europe HQ in Heidelberg, Germany. Monty had spent most of his career in Europe as well and we hit it off with him and his Dutch wife Marlene immediately. In a twist of fate, Monty was working in the very department I was assigned to at Shaw AFB and we instantly rekindled our friendship. Monty and Marlene had a home in Atlanta; ARCENT used to be located at a base in Atlanta but it got closed and they relocated ARCENT to Shaw AFB. They were planning on spending a few years in Sumter until Monty retired, then moving back to Atlanta but as Monty described it, “After our first trip to Sumter, Marlene said there was no way in hell she was living in this place”, so she stayed in Atlanta, Monty bought a trailer in Sumter to live in during the week, then drove home on weekends until he retired. We visited them one weekend and they took us to all of the huge food markets. Atlanta is home to a robust Chinatown and there are giant Asian markets everywhere. Virginia and I were completely blown away. Monty and Marlene are huge foodies like we are so every trip to Atlanta to visit them turned into giant food tours. Our favorite restaurant was a Korean BBQ place where they cook the food right at your table and surprisingly even the kids loved it. Usually we would go to the markets and stock up on all manner of Asian groceries and then Monty and Virginia – both amazing cooks – would spend the afternoon and evening creating exotic Asian dinner feasts while I put a dent in Monty’s extensive and impressive wine collection. Those weekends were such a welcome respite from daily life in Sumter and helped keep me motivated to try and get back overseas somewhere. Anywhere.

Atlanta is an absolute Mecca for Asian food and culture. A harbinger of things to come?

When DoD civilians return to the US from overseas, we are required to remain in the US for at least two years before you are eligible to return overseas with LQA. With this in mind, I started flinging my resume at every overseas job I could find once I started approaching my two year mark. Unfortunately nothing was sticking. My buddy who got the job in Korea that I'd wanted so bad told me that he was planning on leaving in a year or so and that he would recommend me as his replacement. This excited me greatly as you would imagine but it never came to pass as he got extended and ended up staying longer. I applied for jobs in Germany, Japan, Korea, Belgium, Italy, hell, even Hong Kong. But nothing came through. I even considered quitting my DAC job and taking a job in Afghanistan as a contractor for huge money and then leaving government service altogether. Then one day I saw a posting for a job in Italy that was somewhat related to my career field. I wasn't sure if I had a shot but applied anyway, made it through the selection process and after almost three years in Scumter, I was hired for another position in Italy. We were of course thrilled at the prospect of returning to the land that we loved so much. It was an opportunity I never expected to have again. I'm not sure what I was more excited about; the idea of going back to Italy or the fact that I was finally getting THEE hell out of Scumter. Regardless, I hadn't been so happy since before the whole LQA audit nightmare started, we were going home. But as it turns out, home is not always where the heart is...

Stay tuned for Part V (the final part)...

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

South Korea: 14 Years in the Making, Part III.

On May 1st , 1998 my life began in earnest when I first stepped foot in Germany and discovered an
entirely new world than the only one I’d ever known. On May 1st , 2013 – exactly 15 years later, to the day – it ended. On that day I was notified that one of the big bosses needed to see me in his office with my supervisor. It’s never good when the big boss asks to see you in his office and it’s usually worse when he asks to see you with your supervisor. This meeting would certainly not be an exception and would alter the course of our lives considerably in many ways, all for the worse.

Most DoD civilians who work overseas receive a housing supplement which is called Living Quarters Allowance (LQA). It basically pays for your rent and utilities, employees don’t pocket any extra money from it. When you receive a job offer from an overseas position, they have an LQA cell whose job is to review your documents and ensure that you are qualified to receive LQA. When I got out of the Army in December 2004 (here in Vicenza), I was lucky enough to find a job here as a contractor for Northrup Grumman. After a little over a year, the contract was getting cut and I needed to find a job. NG found me another job within the company but the only one I was qualified for was in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Now that might sound like a dream opportunity but when you factor in that the salary was only $50,000/yr with NO housing and NO base privileges…well, I wasn’t sure how we would survive in Hawaii on that but it was the only thing I had and with a wife and one year old at the time, I didn’t have much choice. Truthfully, I was even a bit excited at the prospect of finally getting to work in the Pacific theater anyway. However, about a month before we were supposed to leave for Hawaii, I got notified that I’d been selected for a DoD Civilian position up in Germany. Once they reviewed my paperwork and determined that I was eligible for LQA, I quickly informed Northrup Grumman that I was resigning and we made the move to Germany. Were all things equal, I would have taken the Hawaii job but the LQA made the decision to go to Germany an easy one, if only for financial reasons. And so in April 2006 I officially became a DA Civilian. As I mentioned earlier, we stayed two years and then relocated back to Vicenza where I also received LQA.

Fast forward to May 1st , 2013 and the aforementioned meeting with the big boss and my supervisor. He closed the door, sat down at his desk and clasped his hands in front of his mouth as if trying to figure out how to say what he had to say: the government, it seemed, had suddenly decided that the LQA regulations had been ‘misinterpreted’ by every overseas LQA cell around the world for the last 40+ years. They had recently conducted an audit of overseas personnel, applying the new interpretation, and identified almost 700 overseas employees who they claimed were erroneously found eligible for LQA. Because of this, those employees would have their LQA taken away and they would also have to repay every cent of LQA that they had received. Needless to say, I was one of the 700 and in my case, that meant that suddenly the government was telling me that I owed them about $200,000. I felt as if I’d been punched in the nuts. I left his office in a daze, not sure what to do. I was numb. I had rearranged my entire life working for the government based on being told I was eligible for LQA – how could they come back almost 8 years later and basically say “Oops, we made a mistake, we’re cutting you off and oh by the way, you owe us $200k”?! I went home and broke the news to my wife who was thoroughly perplexed at how the government could do something like this. The rest of that night remains pretty cloudy, all I can say for sure is that there was a lot of wine involved. I cannot tell you what a scary time that was for me. A wife and three kids and facing certain financial ruin, it felt like my life was over. I even briefly considered renouncing my US citizenship and moving to the beach house in the Philippines, such was the depths of my despair. I saw no way out. The DoD told us that if we submitted a waiver request, they would support it. What they didn’t tell us was that in submitting the waiver request, we would first have to sign a form admitting that this was a valid debt and that we were responsible for repaying it. Not only that, but the DoD has no authority to waive such ‘debts’; that authority rests with an office called the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA). If we submitted a waiver request and DOHA denied it, then they had a document with our signature on it admitting that we were legally responsible for repaying it, which meant we had no legal recourse.

I could write an entire book about the LQA audit nightmare and all the sordid details involved with it. One thing we knew for sure was that what the government did was at best disgusting and at worst,
criminal and illegal. But rather than go gentle into that dark night, a sizeable percentage of us decided to rage and try and fight the despicable action. We quickly organized and soon other affected employees from all over the world joined us. We had everybody on our side; 4 star generals were appealing to the Office of the Secretary of Defense on our behalf, the Commander in Chief of the VFW wrote to the OSD (and cc’d the White House) telling them in no uncertain terms that what they were doing to us was despicable. Soon the fight reached Washington DC as several Senators and Congressmen and women got involved on our behalf. We worked our asses off trying to force the government to do the right thing and it took its toll on me pretty bad. I look back on that year and wonder sometimes how I survived. Under the auspices of trying to make it look like they were doing everything to help, the government allowed us to keep LQA for 12 months in order to give us time to make arrangements to go back to the US. While this did help, the vast majority of us were still stuck overseas as the 12 month mark creeped closer and closer. There was a hiring freeze in the US and nobody was getting hired back there. Virginia and I talked about our options in case we were still here when they cut off our LQA and the best one we could come up with was for her and the kids to go stay at my mother’s house in the US while I sold pretty much everything we had and tried to find a cheap one bedroom apartment until such time that I got hired in the US somewhere (whenever that would be). I tried to explain the situation to my older kids so they wouldn’t get blindsided when the time came and they cried at the prospect of having to leave without daddy. It broke whatever semblance of a heart I had by that time.

Something else happened during that year that is integral to this story. One day, while searching the government jobs website looking for something to get me back to the US, I noticed that the job in Korea – the very one that I had wanted for so long – was open. It was the first time I had ever seen it posted but the timing could not have been any worse. Because of the LQA audit nightmare and the impending loss of my LQA, I could not afford to take the job even if I was able to get hired for it. Realistically it made no sense to even apply but in the back of my mind I thought why the hell not? Maybe we’ll get a miracle and the LQA crap will get overturned and I could take it if it got offered. So I did and forgot all about it. A few months later I got an email from a Major in Korea informing me that they had narrowed the list down to two people for that job and asking if I was still interested in the position. I was completely and utterly crushed. I emailed him back and let him know that I was sorry but I would be forced to withdraw from consideration because of the LQA audit. He said he understood – he had a few friends there who were also caught up in the audit and he told me he thought it was unconscionable what the government was doing to us. In a strange twist of fate, the Korea job ended up going to a very good friend of mine, who I had no idea I was even competing against. I was happy for him; if I could have it, at least it went to a good guy like him.

The DoD has a system called Priority Placement Program (PPP) that is supposed to help civilians find jobs in the US when their overseas tours are up. The way it works is that your resume and position description go into the system and when a job in the US opens up that matches it, they put you in that position. But the system is broke, as many people will tell you. Some people wait years to get picked up on PPP. I was already on PPP when the audit hit and originally I was hoping that I’d be one of the people who waited a few years to get picked up so I could stay in Italy longer but now, with my LQA getting cut off, I was desperate to get out of theater before the May 1st , 2014 deadline or we would be bankrupt within 6 months or so. We appealed to our elected officials to pressure the DoD to help us get back to the US and eventually they did just that in October, 2013 by releasing new guidance that all the LQA audit employees on PPP were to be given a priority 2 status, which meant that any job that closely matched our resumes were supposed to automatically go to us. It still wasn’t helping and by the end of January, I faced the real prospect of being stuck overseas when they cut off my LQA. Then one day several people sent me a link to a job posting in my career field. I read it and it matched my resume 100%. I angrily emailed my PPP rep at the personnel office and asked why I wasn’t matched to the job. Her answer was simply “Well, did you apply for it?”. I responded that I’m not supposed to HAVE to apply, I’m supposed to be MATCHED to the job automatically. It never even should have gotten posted to begin with. Her response - “Well I don’t know what to tell you” - sent me over the edge. I looked at the memo sent out by the OSD, got the email of the head guy in DC and emailed him directly. I told him I was one of the LQA audit employees who the government was screwing and demanded to know why I wasn’t matched to the job. He said he would look into it. He got back to me right away and said I was right, the system failed. He then informed me that they had frozen the position pending a quick investigation after which time I would be placed into it. True to his word, I was notified in late February that the job was mine. We had barely two months to get there before my LQA would be cut off and we made it with a mere 10 days to spare. We would be heading to South Carolina but by that time it didn’t matter if it was North Dakota or Timbuktu, all I cared about was that we were escaping just in time and would soon be leaving the nightmare of the past year behind.

Unfortunately, a whole new nightmare awaited us.

NOTE: If you'd like to read some news articles written about the LQA audit nightmare, here are a couple:
DOD civilians use 'strength in numbers' to fight LQA loss
US lawmakers getting involved in civilians' housing benefit fight

Saturday, May 05, 2018

South Korea; 14 Years in the Making, Part II

From 2006 - 2008 I worked in Heidelberg, Germany and one of my civilian supervisors was a Japanese-American guy who had spent much of his career in the Pacific theater. He had come to Germany from a small base in Japan called Camp Zama. We used to spend a lot of time chatting about Asia in general and Camp Zama in particular. The way he described Camp Zama sort of rekindled my interest in eventually making the jump to the Pacific theater at some point. He said he'd probably be going back to Zama after his time in Germany was done and so I told him to keep me in mind should any positions come open that I might be a match for. He did indeed go back to Zama and I kept in touch him but it never produced any tangible opportunities for me. Trying to find a position in Asia seemed utterly futile and I was very happy living in Europe anyway so it wasn't a major deal at the time. Then something out of the ordinary happened; while having coffee with my buddy Phil one morning, a couple of guys in maroon berets walked in and one of them just happened to be a friend of his. We went over so he could say hi and it turned out that the other guy he was with was the new commanding general of the unit I'd worked for down in Vicenza, Italy. He was very personable so we made small talk while Phil caught up with his friend. I mentioned that I worked in Vicenza before coming to Heidelberg, he asked if I liked it and I said I do but that I would love to go back to Italy if I ever had the chance. His eyes widened and he said "Oh really? Because you know we have an opening coming up later this year..." I told him in no uncertain terms that I would take it in a heartbeat. And so it was that after two wonderfully memorable years in Heidelberg, we relocated 
back to Vicenza where I'd left my heart only a couple years earlier.  We were so incredibly happy to be back in Italy that I planned on staying as long as I possibly could. There is a senseless, idiotic rule for government civilians working overseas called the "5 Year Rule" and it basically states that  civilians are supposed to be overseas for a maximum of 5 years, then they are supposed to go back to the US for at least 2 years before they can go back overseas. Your unit can give you an extension but over the past 10 years or so, extensions are becoming rarer by the day. I arrived in Europe in 1998 but I didn't become a DoD civilian until 2006 so I figured that I'd get at least 3 years in Vicenza before I hit my 5 year mark in 2011. I ended up getting lucky and getting a two year extension before the government told me that I'd been overseas too long and denied my next extension request in 2013 and finally forced us back to the US in 2014.

My second go round in Vicenza lasted 6 years (2008-2014) and so many life changing things happened in those 6 years that it's hard to believe and even harder to make sense of sometimes. The first was my maiden trip to the Philippines in 2010. Virginia and I had been married almost 8 years by the time I made my initial foray into the mysterious land of the Philippines which seems strange looking back but it always seemed like something came up or was going on that prevented me from going - an exercise, a deployment, the kids' school...always something. When I finally made it there, I instantly felt remorse at never making more of an effort before. Those 3 weeks were probably the most enjoyable vacation I've ever had. I discovered things that I'd long ago lost in Europe, not the least of which was a sense of newness, adventure and "exotic-ness", if there is such a word. This was a place and a culture that was all brand new to me and I relished in experiencing all of it (well, most of it anyway - I wasn't crazy about the lack of indoor plumbing...).

My first trip to the Philippines..."I could get used to this".

Even beyond the excitement and adventure of discovering and exploring a new place, I had - and will always have - a certain connection to the Philippines since my wife is from there, her whole family lives there and my kids, though American in almost every way, are half Filipino.  I completely fell in love with the Philippines on that first trip, so much so that we even ended up buying a small beach house on Lingayen Gulf close to Virginia's family. It being the Philippines, the place wasn't anything fancy but was extremely cheap and I had plans of visiting regularly after that first trip so when we had a chance to get it, I jumped at it. We ended up going back every summer for the next few years and those trips were just so enjoyable and life changing for me. I've never felt more relaxed and at peace than during those vacations at our beach house. Virginia's family are amazing people and I love being around them, eating and drinking, doing karaoke, playing on the beach and such. At night I would sit outside and wonder at the breathtaking sunsets. I was living in Italy, one of THEE most beautiful countries in the world but whenever we went on vacation to our beach house, all I could think of was that I never wanted to leave.

Sunset from the front of the beach house; very few things I've seen in my life match the beauty.

During my second trip to the Philippines, I discovered something that has become somewhat of an obsession with me ever since; Corregidor. Corregidor, for those who weren't aware, is a small, tadpole shaped island at the opening of Manila Bay. It was also the scene of perhaps the most important and pivotal battles of the Pacific theater in WW2. There are few better examples of the courage, bravery and intestinal fortitude of the American soldier than what occurred on Corregidor in the course of WW2. The main heroes of Corregidor were the 2-503 Airborne - one of the very units that is currently stationed at the base I work at in Vicenza, Italy - and so I felt an instant connection to the place. I did a day tour on my second Philippines trip and was so enamored of the place that I left wanting much more. When I got back to Italy I devoured everything I could find about Corregidor online and at the local library. On every subsequent trip to the PI, I have always done the Corregidor tour so as to explore more of the island. Though it was nothing more than a pipe dream, I have even found myself daydreaming of being involved with the island in some official capacity someday, such as preservation, publicity, etc. as Corregidor was possibly the entire key to the US victory over Japan in the Pacific theater; it bothers me to no end that the average American knows all about Normandy and D-Day but has never heard of Corregidor. But I digress...

(NOTE: If you would like to read the daily journal I kept on my first ever trip to the Philippines, you can start with Day 1 HERE

In the years between 2010 and 2014, my mind would often wander back to the thought of someday finding a job at a base somewhere in the Pacific - Korea and Japan being pretty much the only options - so I could be closer to the beach house and to Corregidor. But we loved living in Italy so it remained nothing more than a thought I occasionally entertained in the back of my mind. We were living 'la Dolce Vita' in Italy, a place that felt more like home than anywhere else I've ever lived. I could not possibly think of leaving.

Unfortunately, some nameless, faceless lowlife scumbag beancounters in the US government had other ideas.

Stay tuned for Part III...