When the Military Orders Families to Move, Spouses Are Left to ‘Figure It Out’
The Pentagon announced new efforts to help military families shoulder the struggles that come with frequent moves.
Originally published by The 19th
It was 25-year-old Bayleigh Brown’s first military move: Her active-duty husband received orders to move from Tennessee to Pennsylvania, where he would be an Army recruiter. Brown had a 1-year-old, several pets and an entire household to move in about two weeks.
“Basically all of the logistical things behind the move — it was on me,” Brown said. “I’m the one that handles all the calls and setting up things. Maybe it’s just a wife thing. I’ve been on the phone with the insurance companies; I made the reservation for the truck; and though my husband did all the heavy lifting loading the truck, me and my mom and my grandmother packed the whole entire house. And it’s a lot harder when you have kids as well.”
Service members and their families are required by the military to move frequently. These moves often strain budgets, cause financial insecurity and bring immense stress — a burden often brunted by military spouses. More than 90 percent of those spouses are women. Each year, more than 400,000 service members and their families move to a new post, where they will typically stay for two to four years. The majority of these moves occur between May and September, in what is referred to as permanent change of station (PCS) season. Service members can choose to use military moving services, typically contractors; organize a move themselves; or use a combination of services for packing, insurance and transport.
The 19th contacted a handful of military families about their experiences during PCS season and heard repeated instances of lost or broken furniture, delays, and financial setbacks. The process for many was long and stressful even after the moves as they waited for sizable reimbursements.
Military leaders, no stranger to PCS through the course of their careers, are aware of the challenges. The secretary of defense announced new efforts to “ease the process of permanent change of station moves,” effective this month. In a memo to senior Pentagon leadership, Secretary Lloyd Austin III directed the Defense Department to increase the upper limit of the temporary lodging expense, which partially covers lodging and meals, from 10 to 14 days. Those in an area facing housing shortages now have up to 60 days. There has been a 20 percent spike in rental housing costs on average across military housing areas. In addition, the department will now pay service members a dislocation allowance one month prior to their move date to offset personal moving expenses, and it will continue improving its online information portal to help families move, according to Austin’s directive.
“Our military families provide the strong foundation for our Force, and we owe them our full support,” Austin said in the memo. “This is also personal for me. I have seen firsthand how much our military families sacrifice. … In the face of challenges and frustrations, our families show incredible resilience.”
Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Defense Department spokesperson, said the department has been listening to military leaders and hearing directly from military service members and spouses about their recent struggles, including an increase in housing shortages or administrative delays.
“Military families have always had a lot of challenges that they’ve had to face, but it’s especially become more so in these past couple years with the pandemic and inflation,” Schwegman said. “Military spouses do a lot. Part of taking care of our members is taking care of their families, and Secretary Austin has been really clear about this: people and readiness are linked.”
In Brown’s case, the family sold their house so quickly there was no time to schedule military movers — who would have done all the packing, wrapping, loading and unloading, but over a longer period of time.
“Usually, that takes a couple of months to get all of your stuff, and even then you have to worry about someone stealing things or losing stuff — which is very common,” Brown said.
Brown and her husband decided to rent a moving truck. In early October, Brown’s husband drove the truck, which was pulling a trailer carrying a Mustang, and Brown followed in another car with her 1-year-old. They drove seven hours the first day and were seven hours into the second day — just about an hour from their destination — when Brown noticed smoke coming from the back of the truck. Frantic, she repeatedly called her husband, but there was no response. It wasn’t until an 18-wheeler pulled up next to the truck and honked that her husband pulled over.
Brown jumped out of her car, called 911 and grabbed her baby, important documents and her pets before running down the grassy embankment, away from the highway just in case there was an explosion.
Brown’s husband unlocked the trailer to see if he could get his dirt bike out — he had drained the gas tank but there was always the risk that remnants in the tank or the battery catching fire could ignite an explosion. Brown distinctly remembers some Tide pods falling out and one of her son’s yellow balls bounce across the turnpike. That’s when she noticed smoke moving from the front of the trailer to the back.
“My heart was racing, and I was hysterically crying,” Brown said. “I remember feeling like I was going to throw up because I was just scared. I had already called 911 and then FaceTimed my dad, trying to show him that the truck was on fire, engulfed in flames. He couldn’t understand me because I was crying so much.”
Within 15 minutes, the 26-foot storage container was engulfed in flames and Brown knew everything — their clothes, furniture, dirt bike, baby toys, photos, “their whole lives” — was lost.
“It would take me days to name all of the stuff that was burned,” Brown said. “My son’s baby clothes — I was going to keep those. All those little hospital bracelets and things, I was going to make a little shadow box. It’s gone. All of my husband’s Army gear and medals, which is thousands of dollars. It’s gone.”
And Brown has yet to receive any reimbursement from the military or insurance.
“We’re already out all of that money for the move, and now we’re out like a ton of money because we have nothing in our apartment,” Brown said. “We don’t have anything to sit on, we had no utensils to eat with, not even a towel or a roll of toilet paper. … It’s probably going to be next year before we see any money from that move.”
Brown said she thought there could have been more guidance early on in the moving process. Her husband had to go around to all these different buildings on post to get an OK to leave. But there was no formal briefing, she said, on exactly who he needed to talk to and when. There was a transportation brief, however, which helped them officially log the move in the system. Still, Brown said it wasn’t apparent which receipts to keep, who to submit them to for reimbursement or where to go for further assistance.
“There’s no one telling you what to do or where to go,” Brown said. “You just kind of have to figure it out on your own, so that’s stressful and takes days.”
For some military families, permanent change season gets easier with each move.
Lindsay Manjarres, 42, has been through seven permanent change seasons over the years with her husband, who is active duty Air Force, and sons, who are now 10 and 13. Since her husband went active duty in 2008, she has been moved to Illinois, Texas, California, Nevada, Germany, Italy and then back to Nevada this past summer. For each permanent change of station, Manjarres said, they opted to have the military handle the move.
Manjarres, a nurse, said a lot of the household stress, including the moves, falls on her. Her husband’s high rank requires he leave for deployments regularly and for long periods of time, making it difficult for her to find employment at each of their stations, depending on the size of the military base and the needs of her growing children. Her husband missed her son’s whole first grade year, she said.
“That’s just the way it’s worked in our family: I’m going to make sure everybody is situated and all of these things are stable and consistent and everyone is set up with their schedules before I get employment — because that’s what I do,” she said.
For the most part, Manjarres said that looking back, the moves themselves were “pretty smooth,” but always stressful.
“It’s different for every move,” Manjarres said. “Usually with every move, there’s always damage to something. There’s always something that’s stolen or missing — like this move we just did, we had a vacuum cleaner stolen. And so you have to go through the process of claiming and then getting reimbursed later, so that’s always a tedious process.”
Manjarres said she had a large, handmade butcher block stolen from a storage garage in the United States while they were abroad. A group of packers in Italy broke some bookshelves. But the worst move was in 2012, when their moving truck caught on fire in Arizona, en route to California, burning everything inside. According to investigators, the fire was caused by a flat tire. Manjarres said they were fortunate to have their own renter’s insurance: Their private insurance covered over $100,000 of losses, while the military coverage would have given them only around $44,000.
“After [the truck fire] happened, I was told: ‘Go through everything that you owned, write down when you bought it and how much you bought it for and where you bought it, and just make a spreadsheet and send that in,’” said Manjarres, who had a 2-year-old and a six-week-old baby.
It was just another moving-related task she had to handle. After that would be determining her child-care needs and, later, school enrollment. Then she would begin figuring out her place in her new community.
It’s all part of the process, she said.
“I find that it’s just easier before I jump into something that everybody else is taken care of first.”