Megan Harless is a military spouse and Army veteran. She spends her time volunteering as a Family Readiness Group leader and family adviser; serves on the board of her post Protestant Women of the Chapel chapter; and volunteers at her children's school. She is the creator of Military Spouse Chronicles and a military family advocate on PCS reform who regularly engages with TRANSCOM, members of the moving industry and Congress
Up to 450,000 military families move every 12 to 24 months on average. The moves cost up to $2.1 billion annually, concentrated in a summer window known as the PCS season. It is no secret that, over the last few years, military families' satisfaction with this process has been steadily declining, with no resolution in sight.
Near the end of the 2018 peak season, which usually runs from May 15 to Aug. 31, I was tired of seeing so many of my friends experience horrendous moves that included damage, loss, theft and claims that weren't resolved in a timely manner.
It was that frustration that led me to write an open letter to our elected officials, and then start a petition on my Facebook page, Military Spouse Chronicles, that ultimately went viral. Once the issue started to make waves, I knew I had to keep it going.
Members of Congress started to pay attention. I was asked by one of the staffers of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, to work on a letter explaining the situation. It was eventually sent, with bipartisan support, to U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), which oversees military moves. At the same time, the House Armed Services Committee sent its own letter with questions about all the issues that military families were experiencing.
I also went to the source, contacting the head of TRANSCOM, Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, about military families' concerns over the PCS process. To my surprise, I received a reply detailing his commitment to improving the process and experience for military families and an invitation to sit on an advisory panel.
Leaders from across the military have acknowledged that there's a problem. Second lady Karen Pence's staff have met with me to learn about the problem. TRANSCOM and service officials have offered a variety of ways to improve, including increasing the number of quality-assurance employees available, opening call centers, placing more household-good shipments in crates, and continuing a push to use a customer satisfaction survey that is supposed to help eliminate bad movers.
But the biggest proposed change is the most concerning: privatizing the military move system.
Privatization might look good on paper, but there are many holes. A single move manager would oversee all contracts with individual moving companies. But with that simplicity come larger concerns over a lack of contractor accountability and the dangers of multiple layers of subcontracting. A contract wouldn't even start until 2021, leaving another two full years for moves with the same problems we've seen thus far.
But the biggest problem of all is the lack of research supporting the idea. One 2012 study on the concept showed it would increase the overall cost of PCSs, and officials at the time rejected the idea. There's been no more recent study or research conducted to show potential benefits, nor has there been a new cost analysis of what this large-scale shift would mean for taxpayers.
There has also been no consultation or feedback from the moving industry, service members or families. Even the advisory panel convened by TRANSCOM was not asked to weigh in.
My research and involvement in this issue, however, have shown me that there are other, faster solutions available that we aren't using. Rather than move straight to privatization, TRANSCOM should consider one of the following:
- Increase the PPM incentives.
Once known as a "DITY," Personally Procured Moves (PPMs) are reimbursed at 95 percent. If that could be increased to 100 percent and offered with other incentives, such as cash for packing materials, more families would use the program and the stress on the moving industry would decrease.
- Increase the quality-assurance inspector workforce.
Army officials said last fall that their goal is to increase inspections to 50 percent of shipments, including sending inspectors on temporary duty to help in some special assignment locations. But no plan was announced to actually hire more inspectors. Creating a program to hire military spouses would help achieve the goal of a 50 percent inspection rate and reduce military spouse unemployment.
- Real-time household goods tracking.
FedEx and Amazon can tell us exactly where our packages are and when they will be delivered. Why can't the same be done for our household goods? Many moving companies have this capability and already offer it to their civilian and corporate customers. For families, being able to see when and where their household goods are during the move process will allow for more peace of mind. And when they go missing, tracking information will be available to help us find them.
- Standardized moving company training.
Create a simple training guide moving companies could provide to their employees, including what the Defense Travel Regulation is and covers, packer and loader responsibilities, customer responsibilities, how to mediate through disagreements using the assigned move coordinator and the local quality-assurance Inspector, how to properly pack, and how to fill out a proper inventory. Training that mirrors the counseling many service families receive would also help get everyone on the same page for what is supposed to happen and what right looks like.
Implementing these solutions would greatly improve the experience many families face each year, provide resolution now, and allow more time for TRANSCOM to be able to evaluate whether the single move manager plan is the most efficient and best plan with which to move forward.
-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.