Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com writing about military families.
"I was personally victimized by the SOFA," Beth Conlin said as she shared her experiences with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the deals between governments that dictate how service members and their families are treated while posted overseas, with a group of fellow military spouses.
Roughly 10 years ago, Conlin, like many military spouse professionals, found herself unexpectedly unemployed and living in a foreign country, far from family and friends. But Conlin's frustration with the SOFA was not just that these international agreements limited her ability to transfer her dream job to Germany, but that no one she spoke to with the Department of Defense seemed to know how to help her.
"When I moved overseas, I asked a question, 'If I moved to the Munich office [of her current employer], does that affect my SOFA status?'" Conlin recalled. "Nobody could answer me." Without guidance from the military, her employer, which had international offices and employees working in Germany, did not feel comfortable retaining her.
As she later discovered, her unemployment was totally avoidable. Conlin could have signed a German employment contract with her company to continue working, get paid in euros and pay German taxes, which would have helped her avoid a five-year gap in employment.
"Had I known that I was going to lose my job going to Germany; had I also known that nine days after we got there, my husband was going to deploy for a year, I never would have gone," said Conlin. However, future generations of military spouses will benefit from the painful lesson she learned.
Over the past 10 years, Conlin has spent much of her free time advocating for improvements to the SOFA. Her efforts picked up speed after she participated in the Bush Institute Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program (a program I participated in, though not at the same time), where she pitched her idea of forming a SOFA coalition and connected with other leaders working on military spouse-focused efforts. Her work helped inform a presidential executive order that requires that the DoD provide support for military spouses navigating complex employment requirements while stationed overseas and resulted in the American Bar Association's release of a legal opinion aimed at helping military attorneys better advise spouses as they navigate these opaque agreements.
There are roughly 120 different Status of Forces Agreements between the United States and countries where America has a military/diplomatic presence. The SOFA are negotiated by the Department of State and are designed to create an understanding of how local laws should apply to American service members living abroad, but they are then handed to the DoD to interpret. Most of these agreements were written during peacetime occupation in the 1940s and '50s at a time when many service members were unmarried and those who were typically didn't have working spouses. While society has modernized, SOFAs have not, until recently.
Because these agreements involve many parties including the Department of State, Department of Defense, Congress and various representatives from the host nation, there are many competing agendas.
According to Conlin, there is a lot of misinformation about who wants what out of the SOFA. Her research indicates the SOFAs that actually mention employment narrowly focus on how many jobs the military installation will be open to local nationals, rather than overtly restricting military spouse employment.
The notion that host nations are worried about how an American presence will impact their economies with military spouses possibly taking jobs from their citizens, is mostly urban legend. Conlin believes that because leaders have to navigate these perceptions and highly complex realities, the very real military spouse employment concerns have fallen by the wayside in the name of compromise.
"What is very frustrating is a lot of SOFAs were updated to include vehicle emission standards, but nothing about [military spouse] employment, so you can amend a SOFA to bring your car over, but you can't amend a SOFA to keep a family's financial security intact," Conlin said.
Bolstered by increased awareness and adoption of remote/telework options, Conlin reached out to the DoD/State and Congress, asking them why the SOFA had not been updated. She also contacted a division of the American Bar Association called LAMP, or Legal Assistance for Military Personnel.
In August of this year, the LAMP committee drafted a resolution that provides a legal opinion for military lawyers as they advise spouses on employment issues. Because the ABA resolution "urges" the DoD and State Department to provide clear guidance to families and employers, it adds weight to the existing efforts of advocates.
The National Military Spouse Network, or NMSN (I do some work for this organization's magazine), advocates for improvements to military spouse employment opportunities, including working overseas. NMSN's 2020 White Paper highlighted challenges their members faced when working abroad and, like the ABA, proposed the DoD coordinate with DoS to provide clarity to spouses wanting to work abroad.
"Let's figure out what already exists and where are the knowledge gaps," said Sue Hoppin, president of NMSN. "Rather than making this a discussion about the SOFA, let's just make it a discussion about the limitations to military spouses working in that location."
Currently, guidance provided on DoD's Military OneSource website directs families to "Check the Status of Forces Agreement" or "Check with your military command." But military spouses report the information they are provided by their command doesn't seem reliable.
"[Going] overseas is a big ask for a lot of military families ... to be able to make [SOFA policies] clear for someone who's bringing their business [OCONUS] would be super helpful," said Laura McClernon, career coach and Navy spouse. "I googled 'SOFA in Japan,' and I got a document to send to my employer to explain it for the first time. But did I have the updated document? I don't know." McClernon wishes that more obvious resources were available for spouses and employers so neither party needs to feel like they are violating the law.
Employment experiences also vary by country, and until recently, being sent to Italy, while a feast of the palate, was a famine for careers, boasting some of the most restrictive employment policies. However in August 2023, the U.S. and Italy quietly "exchanged letters that stated that U.S. dependents in Italy with a missione visa may telework to jobs with US employers." This exchange of letters stands to change the game in Italy. Although it is unclear who helped initiate this progress, it seems to be in line with Italy's effort to become more hospitable to remote work in an increasingly digital world.
"Italy has been the most austere in terms of their policies. ... To see the 180 and see where they are now is so exciting," said Hoppin.
Despite this progress, some military spouses say more work needs to be done.
Gaby Cavins is a Navy veteran and military spouse who is about to move outside of the continental United States. Cavins became a mother while she was serving on active duty, an experience that highlighted the need for more maternal support for service members and military spouses. As a result, she became a lactation consultant and later the executive director of the Military Birth Resource Network and Postpartum Coalition.
As she began preparing to move to Japan, she knew she needed to pay attention to the SOFA. Professionally, she had been tracking the SOFA agreements across Asia for some time, as it is an area where Tricare is seeking to roll out a new pilot program that would help provide doulas and lactation consultants to mothers.
However, according to Cavins and other advocates, SOFA does not seem to be a consideration in its plan to roll out this congressionally mandated child-care and breastfeeding demo program. Instead, Cavins reports being told that Tricare has engaged some host nation doula agencies, but was not tracking how the SOFA would apply when it comes to contracting with military spouses.
"[This] concerns me," said Cavins. "If the priority is to have spouses be employed, how is that going to work?"
Because the DoD manages but doesn't negotiate SOFAs, there seems to be a lot of confusion about who "owns" it. But regardless, it is clear that individual military spouses are not waiting for someone to take the lead. And change can't come soon enough.
In the past, military spouse employment overseas has been regarded as a luxury. But for many who rely on two incomes to sustain their families, these efforts to improve SOFAs could mean the difference between living at the poverty line and questioning the military lifestyle and financial stability and getting to enjoy an overseas adventure.
In addition to her reporting, Jennifer Barnhill is also the host of Military Dinner Table Conversations, a monthly reverse town hall with military families. She is a 2023 Bush Institute Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar, the editor-in-chief of the National Military Spouse Network's Career Connections Magazine and the military spouse liaison on The League of Wives Memorial Project.