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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

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MARCH 2017

51

A

s DS adapts to the need for more temporary duty

assignments (TDYs) to tough places, morale among

family members has taken a hit. More agents are report-

ing that they like their jobs, but their families are strug-

gling. Go on any DS message board, and you’ll see

spouses who are worried about how to tell their children

that yet another unaccompanied tour is coming their

way. You’ll hear from spouses who are trying to manage

households in far-flung locations while their employee

spouse has disappeared on yet another TDY with no clear

end date. And, of course, you’ll hear about the special hell

that is DS bidding.

For tandem couples, the

challenges of trying to keep a

family together can be even

worse. “DS has tried to make

it work for us,” says one agent

and mother of two. “But some-

body has to raise the kids.

Somebody has to be there.”

“It’s going to work early

on,” she continues, but “it’s dif-

ficult down the road.” For the

first eight years of her career,

she says, “things were easy.”

But as the couple advanced

in their careers, it became

harder to find posts where they could serve together. And

because they have small children, they are facing multiple

years apart as they separately complete the requirement

to serve at unaccompanied posts.

It used to be that agents were required to do an

unaccompanied tour once per career, but now it's once

a decade, and the math works against tandems: “That’s

four years apart during our career,” she says. “My genera-

tion of agents didn’t sign up for that level of hard-core,

high-threat work. What’s the plan for families left behind?”

“If you’re a tandem,” she says, “expect to sacrifice. The

question for us now is, how deep is that sacrifice going to

be?”

The long-term separations take a toll on marriages, so

she’s not “shocked and horrified” when people split up.

“What does this separation do to the quality of relation-

ships?” she asks. “Separating made us stronger,” she

adds. “But it can be a death sentence.” She wouldn’t have

been able to move up the DS ladder without the support

of her agent husband, whom she calls her “biggest cheer-

leader,” but she thinks she’s an outlier: “If we can make it

work, we’ll be the exception, not the rule.”

Together since high school, Jim and Shannon Eisen-

hut have been part of DS for more than a decade. They

are currently posted in Miami, but they plan to move to

Baghdad—for the second time this decade—in 2017. Jim

thinks the key to success as a tandem is flexibility. “Your

career path isn’t as simple,” he

says, because of the multiple

approval processes you have

to go through to try to get

assigned together.

“We don’t have kids, but

it’s still challenging,” says

Shannon. “We just want to be

together, and because of that

our options are extremely

limited.” That’s why the couple

decided to go back to Iraq for a

second tour.

Recent changes to the nepo-

tism regulations have restricted

tandems like Shannon and Jim

even more, and they say many tandems are encouraged to

take leave without pay so they can stay together without

quitting. “I know a handful of agents who have decided to

leave DS,” says Shannon. “Some have already left.”They

were “rising stars,” she says, but they couldn’t find a way to

make the career work for their marriages.

The Eisenhuts think DS could fix this problem and

retain more of their qualified tandems if the bureau cre-

ated a roster of telecommuting jobs. Imagine one spouse

is assigned to a post in South America or Europe. Put the

other spouse in the same post, and that person could be a

“regional desk officer” with a quicker response time than

somebody else posted back at headquarters. There are

ways to make this work, they say, but “it comes down to

funding, policy and changing mindsets.”

—D.S.G.

“We don’t have kids,

but it’s still challenging,”

says Shannon.

“We just want to be

together, and because

of that our options are

extremely limited.”

Twice the Hardship: Tandem Couples