Tuesday, December 08, 2015

And Then I Retired

Retirement is pretty sweet!

It was my own fault really. I took my eye off the ball, let my attention wander and simply lost track of time. So, without my doing anything at all to prevent it, I turned 65. And, by the rules of the game, I was sent to the bench. If I’d paid closer attention, I just wouldn’t have turned 65. I’d have refused.

It’s difficult to complain too much. I knew the rules when I joined, I knew my age at that time and I have a fairly decent grasp of simple math. My retirement date was, therefore, an easy calculation to make. On the last day of the month in which you turn 65 you must, by law, retire from the Foreign Service. So I did. Law abiding, that’s me. For those of you who are considering retirement, it’s critical to choose the right date. Especially in cases like mine where you don’t have 20 or more years of service. State assigns a Retirement Counselor to each potential retiree and one of the things that person will do is advise you on the optimal date to retire. In my case, any date other than the last day of the month in which I turned 65 would have cost me hundreds of dollars a month in my annuity payment. Even retiring one day earlier would have resulted in a pretty severe penalty. It all has to do with a government formula that I won't even begin to try to understand, much less explain.

Little known fact: I became temporary Kashmiri Royalty during my tour in Islamabad.

When I turned 65, I was still in Papua New Guinea, still the Management Officer in Embassy Port Moresby and still enjoying every minute of my brief career. Against all odds (and the early betting line amongst my colleagues), I had received tenure, become fluent in a language other than English, spent two fantastic years in Rome, been promoted twice, worked in a ‘Danger’ post and volunteered for three years at a ‘Hard-To-Fill’ post. I’d worked in three different bureaus (SCA, EUR and EAP), been a GSO, Econ Officer, Consular Officer and Management Officer. I’d met crowds of interesting people, made many new friends and couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Little known fact: I often walked around disguised as a tourist in Rome.

As I told my friends, I had only one regret. When we first joined, during the orientation session on handling classified material, our instructors explained to us that we would have to be vigilant and wary, especially those of us who happened to be older men (that would have been me) because attractive young women were sometimes used to try to pry classified information from gullible aging Officers. I did everything but carry a sign saying, “I have secrets and I’m remarkably gullible!” all to no avail. I retired with my secrets intact and my escutcheon unbesmirched.  Seriously though, I would never discuss classified material with anyone because of my fear of punish sense of personal honor.

Little known fact: I joined the Hela Tribe in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea!

So, on the last day of the month in which I turned 65, I left Embassy Port Moresby and flew back to the U.S. as an Annuitant. I registered in the WAE program with Human Resources, took my check-out physical and sat back to let retirement happen. WAE stands for ‘When Actually Employed’ and it gives retirees, who are interested, an opportunity to return to work on short term contracts to fill gaps. We are allowed to work a maximum of six months a year and there is a cap on our earnings. Accepting or declining an offer is completely voluntary, so I signed up.

If you want to be eligible for the WAE program, you have to maintain your security clearance and your Class One medical clearance and there’s a box on the medical check-out form to indicate your intent. You have two options for the physical, you can travel to Washington DC and take the physical free-of-charge at the State Department’s medical facility or you can take the handful of forms to your own physician and have him or her perform the exam. After which and upon submission of another handful of forms the State Department will reimburse you. I retired straight out of post and didn’t want to return to DC just for the physical. I was moving to my new home and didn’t have a doctor there yet so this gave me an opportunity to sort of ‘kick the tires’ on one for free. 

I found a doctor with an office not too far from my home and made an appointment. I handed him my stack of forms and explained that each and every little box had to be checked off. He looked the forms over and made doctor noises, “Hmmmm. Ahhhh. UmHuh!” Then he said, “Well, I suggest that we just give you the standard physical for men in your age group. A few of these tests and procedures are unnecessary and one or two of them we don’t even recommend any more.” He then tossed the mandatory government medical forms quite cavalierly onto his desk and explained in perfect doctorese why many of the 'little boxes' were totally unnecessary and then said, "now take off everything but your undershorts and the opening in the gown goes in the back." 

I had to explain that each and every little box had to be checked off or the Department of State would not renew my Class One medical clearance and I would then be ineligible for any potential WAE assignments. This requirement for mandatory box-checking troubled the good doctor who had, apparently, made it into his early fifties without ever having come into any contact whatsoever with the government or its obsession with forms! After a good bit of to and fro, he agreed to poke, prod and probe in the government required manner and we began the exam, at the end of which he was able to attest that I still had all the bits and pieces I’d had when I joined and all were, more or less, healthy and in working condition.

So, I was a retiree or in State-speak an annuitant, and I began to do the things retirees do. I slept in, I got a library card and began working my way, alphabetically, through the fiction stacks, I fixed things in my house and then called professionals to come and repair the damage I’d caused, I washed my car, I visited my sons and my granddaughter, I wrote a novel, I deleted said novel from my computer and destroyed the notes, I played three or four rounds of golf and washed my car. 

A tree fell on my house and there wasn’t a GSO in sight to take care of it for me. My heat pump threw up its hands, said, “No mas!” and died. Facilities Manager?… absent with the GSO. Oh, the pool equipment needs to be replaced? Yep, all of it! I quickly discovered that this whole homeowner business wasn’t all it was cracked up to be as, one after another, every major appliance and system in my house died or blew up. I longed for the days when I could complain about my housing and express righteous indignation if it didn't meet up to my lofty standards. It was definitely time to lobby for some WAE opportunities.

Little known fact: There's never a GSO around when you need one!

I wrote brief emails to several bureaus asking to be considered for any WAE opportunities they might have in their posts’ Management sections. Then I sat back and drew up a list of the criteria I’d use to select the perfect offer so the Department could notify the lucky post:

  • Interesting location with scuba diving nearby 
  • Extraordinarily competent locally employed staff 
  • A country not expected to host a Presidential or Sec. State visit 
  • A place my friends would want to visit
  • Good restaurants near the embassy
  • Housing without trees falling on the roof

Then I washed my car, played another round of golf, began a second novel and made it through the D’s in the library. State was obviously playing it coy but I wouldn’t just jump at any old offer. I wasn’t desperate. The second novel followed the first into the fire and I began to lobby a bit harder. 

After I had sent several friendly ‘reminder’ emails to the WAE contacts in several bureaus, I received a reply from EAP asking if I’d be interested in going back to Papua New Guinea for four or five months beginning in June of 2015 to cover an unexpected gap in the GSO position. My initial reaction was decidedly negative. I had just spent three very enjoyable years in PNG but I was hoping for someplace different for my first temporary assignment. EAP is loaded with incredible opportunities and PNG is only one of them. When it became apparent that this was the only offer I was going to get, I jumped at it and became a WAEer. So, my first job in retirement was to go back to the post I’d just left and become the GSO reporting to the woman who had taken my old job as Management Officer. It was actually a great opportunity and I was happy to go back. 

The way compensation works as a WAEer is pretty straightforward. You are not on the FS pay scale any longer so you're put on the Civil Service GS pay scale. If you retired at any Foreign Service grade below Senior FS you are put on the GS13 pay scale at the step closest to your pay rate at your time of retirement.You don't get any health benefits (although, presumably, you are already covered through your retirement benefits) and you can't make any further contributions to the TSP. You don't get paid any of the post's differentials until your 43rd day at post and then it isn't retroactive to your first day. You don't get paid holidays, sick leave or premium time no matter how many hours you work. What you do get is your hourly rate of pay for every single hour you are on the clock. I wasn't going back to work for the money (although it was very nice!) so most of those pay related items were irrelevant to me. I was going back to work so I wouldn't wash my car again!

Vania (the Management Officer) and I knew each other and had worked well together in the past so the three months should have gone by pretty quickly. However, when I arrived at post I learned that the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) was going to be held in Port Moresby in early September and the Department was sending a contingent of approximately 40 people to attend it. They would require a considerable amount of support. We were also scheduled to receive an Inspector General's audit in October and had to begin to prepare for it by completing tremendously long questionnaires. The GSO questionnaire alone contained over 400 questions. Housing faced the usual problems all posts experience during the summer change-over season and, oh, virtually every single motor pool vehicle needed to be replaced and we were short three drivers and a dispatcher. By the way, the DCM was departing post and Vania would need to spend a month back in DC while I was in Port Moresby. In other words, it was business as usual and I felt like I'd come home. We were able to build on some good things that had been begun and worked hard to improve things that needed improvement. I arrived in June and departed in mid-September on the day the PIF ended. I was pleased with what had been accomplished and felt that I'd contributed to the effort. As my flight took off over Port Moresby I looked down on the city with a bit of sadness knowing that I'd probably never see PNG again.

In October, EAP contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in returning to PNG in January, February and March 2016. The offer was tempting but I had already made some personal plans for much of that time and besides…”EAP is loaded with incredible opportunities,” in countries other than Papua New Guinea! I declined the offer and asked to be considered for other opportunities in Summer 2016. Going back to work as a WAEer is great and I hope that there's a gap somewhere that I can fill for a couple of months next year. 

While I wait for State to call, I think I’ll write a novel…right after I wash my car.

This is one of my new neighbors. He lives in the pond by my house.