[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story is the first in a four-part series exploring some of the ways Army Community Services supports personnel throughout the PCS process and assignment durations while stationed at U.S. Army Garrison Benelux.]
USAG BENELUX – BRUNSSUM, Netherlands – Each year almost half a million service members and civilians make a permanent change of station, or PCS, across the globe for new assignments, within the continental U.S. or outside, CONUS and OCONUS. Regardless if the move is the first, tenth or twentieth, whether the person is single, has a family, wants to go or wants to stay, it’s understandably a stressful process.
The ACS team at U.S. Army Garrison Benelux is an organization uniquely positioned both physically and professionally to guide individuals through transition aspects of the PCS process. From onset of notification, through pending departure and even after arrival at the new location, ACS provides evolving support for the duration of assignments, helping ease stress and equipping service members, civilians, Families and dependents to make the most of their new home.
“I like to say, ACS is the front door of the installation, we’re here for education, prevention and intervention,” said Clint Strutt, division chief for ACS across the Benelux. “Each team member has a unique perspective that offers value to your interaction and access to services.”
With a team of fourteen personnel and physical locations at SHAPE and USAG Benelux -Brussels, Belgium; USAG Benelux - Brunssum, the Netherlands, and Dülmen Tower Barracks, Germany, the organization supports all transitioning personnel throughout the garrison's area of responsibility.
Serving as a conduit for community members, ACS connects those in need to information, resources and solutions.
Relocation experts and information and referral teams offer pre-departure briefings, newcomer orientations, and information about job and volunteer opportunities, childcare, school liaisons and more. Plugging in with these teams in the pre-PCS planning stages is key and in many cases an individual’s first introduction to their new installation.
“We help Soldiers, DoD civilians and their Families – before they arrive, as they arrive and after they arrive – so any time they’re going to need our help, we are here to help and support them,” said Lindita Celaj, relocation program manager for the Chièvres and SHAPE community.
Often times an ACS program manager at a losing installation will notify the relocation team of inbound personnel, connecting the individual client to the gaining installation, Celaj explained. Program managers across the Benelux rally to connect with the individual(s) based on their projected inbound location directing them to appropriate pre-arrival information via Military One Source and the garrison’s website.
“Another first thing to do is find a sponsor – this person is your best resource man or woman,” said Rien Odekerken, information and referral specialist for the Brunssum / tri-border community. “He or she, will guide you through what is going on here in country.”
ACS relocation program managers are responsible for sponsorship training, the garrison’s Military Personnel Division acts as the installation’s sponsorship coordinators, and each unit bears responsibility to match inbound personnel with a sponsor prior to PCS.
“The unit designates the sponsor so they have to match the sponsor to the right (newcomer) considering the same family or marital status, same gender, same rank – those are ideal – but sponsors also do a great job even if they are not exactly matched,” said Celaj.
Celaj described her first PCS experience with her husband to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as positive. It set the correct tone for her family's stay at Fort Leavenworth.
“A sponsor can make a big difference, but they need to be trained and dedicated,” said Celaj. “My role is to provide information and resources on how to be an outstanding sponsor!”
Another key in first steps includes a client intake assessment administered by the team. The tool designed to capture the individual’s or family’s needs and wants, is uploaded, tracked and ensures the client is referred to the right ACS program manager(s). The assessment is completed at Newcomer’s Orientation or one-on-one with an Information & Referral specialist for each community location.
“It helps to integrate folks into the culture and the language in each country, because each country is different and each community is different,” said Celaj. “We offer Newcomers Orientation (where spouse and dependents are encouraged to attend) and also offer Spouse Orientation where we provide additional information from the key agencies.”
“We work with community organizations and (installation) services to help solve problems and make it easier for newcomers to navigate things from banking to housing to cultural issues, when they arrive,” said Odekerken.
Recognizing the importance to further assist personnel integration for all three countries in the Benelux, in late 2021 ACS shifted from satellite and remote support to 100% in-person offices at Dülmen Tower Barracks.
“We’re building the Newcomer’s Program, have met with city officials, are working with the local language school and working with the community, to be a communication link, bridge information and get folks plugged into resources quicker.” said Steffani Simkins, specialist for Dülmen Tower Barracks.
For Simkins, like her colleagues, the motivation has personal meaning.
“This is an opportunity to use my experience as a military spouse, a volunteer and I’m also a veteran, along with formal education - both my degrees are in psychology – and my experiences, to relate to and help service members and their Families.”
Celaj, Odekerken and Simkins concur, navigating services: A new environment inside and outside the gate, integrating into the community, understanding the language and cultural differences, go a long way in helping people not only transition into their new assignment but also thrive.
“Use me as a sounding board to get your message, your need, to the right people,” Simkins said. “While you’re here, we want you to be happy and enjoy the assignment.”
“I’m from this area, and even I’m learning every day,” said Odekerken. “My priority is helping people out, and I don’t want to leave them confused. They (newcomers) come over here and say ‘I’ve been sent away from the bank three times.’ I go to the Dutch bank and help them – I speak the language, it’s easier for me.”
Celaj had a similar experience in reverse during a first-time PCS to CONUS.
“I had culture shock when we went for the first time into America – even though I speak English – but for me it was a panic,” she said. “The country is different, the culture is different, the food is different, people are different – so everything is different for you too when you come here, you need to have support.”
Strutt echoed the sentiment.
“Whether you’re looking at something OCONUS and dealing with borders and COVID restrictions and all the other things that come along with being at a duty station that is overseas or whether you’re going CONUS – realizing that you’re in the U.S. speaking the same language – that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a very large difference between say a JBLM and San Antonio and Fort Riley,” he said. “They (each assignment) can all be very different places culturally speaking.”
ACS programs and resources during the PCS transition period extends well beyond Newcomers Orientation. ACS has a lending closet program with dish packs, transformers and household essentials like ironing boards and small appliances. Additional offerings include cultural tours outside the gate to begin to understand how to navigate your new home, support via various stress management classes and discussion groups, and access to credentialed professionals via Military & Family Life Consultants (MFLCs) and Personal Financial Counselors (PFCs) for life counseling and financial planning.
Even seasoned personnel can benefit from ACS programs and services during PCS.
“Those who are coming several times or have been in Europe before, you’ll think that it is a little bit easier and I’ll say it may be, but each community is unique, so the first thing is to know and integrate into that community, the culture and language. Each country in Europe is different, this place is unique!”
Celaj continued, “So maybe you have been several times moving around, you get better at navigating the process but don’t hang onto that information for yourself, consider being a great sponsor. Fill out the gaps that maybe your sponsor didn’t do for you one time. Make that effort to provide first impressions to the newcomers because it will be a lasting impression!”
Celaj, Odekerken and Simkins all agree wherever you are in the Benelux, it is a special region.
“There’s so much to do, learn and see: Keep coming back, there is more than just getting started,” said Odekerken. “And if the Soldier or civilian is the only one coming and the spouse or dependent is home, you’re missing out – you get so much useful information! Take advantage of all the time you have here and all the things you can explore.”
For more PCS support:
ACS maximizes technology and resources, adapts to unique installation requirements, eliminates duplication in service delivery, and measures service effectiveness.
ACS program and services include Army Emergency Relief, Emergency Placement Care, Employment and Volunteer Opportunities, Exceptional Family Member Program, Family Advocacy Program, Financial Readiness Program, Relocation Readiness Program, Sexual Harassment Assault Response Prevention (SHARP), Survivor Outreach Services (SOS), Information & Referral Program, Army Family Action Plan, Army Family Team Building and Military & Family Life Consultants.
Stay connected to offerings, how-to-videos and so much more, consider following ACS on Facebook.
Did You Know?
July 25, 1965, Gen. Harold K. Johnson, Army Chief of Staff, dispatched a letter to all commanders announcing the approval and establishment of ACS. By 1967, the majority of continental U.S. installations had initiated ACS centers, and by 1969, 155 ACS centers and points of contact were established Army wide.
From the initiation of ACS, and throughout its history, its volunteers (primarily Army spouses) have ensured the success and support of ACS programs. One Army spouse who made many notable contributions to ACS was Joanne Patton, wife of Gen. George S. Patton.