The average military family moves every two to three years. Their household goods are supposed to follow them, but it doesn’t always pan out that way. Some military families report that their possessions were lost, damaged, or stolen during moves — and they say the military doesn't do much to help.
Sarah Taranto’s forehead knots with frustration as she looks through old photos on her laptop. She’s an amateur photographer who loves to capture images of her life with family and all the places they’ve been stationed with the Army.
But she never expected to need the photos as documentation.
The Tarantos moved from Grafenwoehr, Germany, to San Antonio in May of 2017. The Army paid for their move and selected the moving company. But when their furniture and household items arrived in Texas, somebody had ransacked it.
"They went through everything. I mean, just empty box after empty box,” Taranto said. “This one: That was a dollhouse that my uncle built me when I was a kid. You can see in the picture, they actually sliced it open on one side looking for stuff on the inside of it.”
Lost In Transit
The shipment had been robbed in transit for a loss Taranto estimates at $36,000. Other service members coming from Germany had similar problems.
Taranto went up the chain from the local Army claims office to the Secretary of Defense, trying to figure out who was accountable.
“It took me almost two weeks of calling almost every day to different places, asking the question: ‘Okay, I'm having trouble with our moving company. I want somebody aware of what's going on. I want to see if I can get them punished. Who do I go to?’ And everybody was like, ‘I don't know,’ ” Taranto explained.
In June, Taranto filed a claim with her military-contracted mover. They denied some items and, for the rest, offered sums far less than what the items were worth.
“Turns out that the packers wrote the inventory so poorly that the moving company was able to say, ‘You didn't give us this item. Lack of tender, lack of tender. Denied,’ " she said.
Every year, the Department of Defense moves about 430,000 people, and spends more than $2 billion doing it. But nobody keeps track of how many have problems.
Kelly Hruska, with the National Military Family Association, says overseas moves are especially troublesome because they're more complicated. Most problems are relatively minor, but thefts sometimes occur.
We've heard cases where somebody will open a box and it'll be labeled ‘books’ but it'll be filled with bricks,” Hruska said. “Sort of like a bait-and-switch type thing.”
Even for more typical problems, like damaged furniture or accidental loss, Hruska said families often don't get back what they think the items are worth. She said that, sometimes, military-contracted movers just wait out families who file claims.
“The companies have really just drug their feet,” Hruska said, “haven't been as responsive and I think they just hope that the family's going to forget about it and move on.”
TRANSCOM, the U.S. Transportation Command, is the government entity responsible for moving military families. But it doesn’t systematically track complaints. Most of those are handled by local claims offices, said Col. Ralph Lounsbrough, chief of TRANSCOM’s personal property division.
“The services all have their own military claims offices where those go to get adjudicated,” he said. “So I see some of those, but it’s hard for us to track the metrics on all of the claims because we don’t see a big chunk that are quickly corrected.”
He went on to say that conflicts between movers and military families are tracked in a limited way.
“So the service member thinks their stuff is worth X, and the carrier says, 'No your full replacement value is Y.' They can't agree, and then that goes to the military claims offices to adjudicate,” he said. “Anecdotally, there's problems here and there with that. But I don't have hard numbers.”
TRANSCOM leaders say they communicate with local military claims offices enough to hold movers accountable and track trends in their behavior. They said the Tarantos' mover was eventually suspended for failing to prevent the theft.
Lounsbrough says cases like the Tarantos’ are not typical.
“Right now we're at around 91 percent customer satisfaction,” he said. “But, of course, one of the things we realize, when you're talking 430,000 people, that 9 percent represents about 35-40 thousand people that are not satisfied with their moves.”
To address that, TRANSCOM is reworking move.mil, the website where families set up their moves. Lounsbrough says that will make the system more accessible to families in need of help with problems, and make it simpler for TRANSCOM to collect move data and complaints.
But that will come too late for Sarah Taranto, whose family still hasn’t been fully reimbursed for their stolen items. She holds up a broken canvas with a child’s drawings smeared across the front — once a birthday gift from her daughter.
“She wrote me a little note on the back,” Taranto said. “It was one of the sweetest things she'd given me so far.… Even now, I still just want to go wring somebody's neck, because I'm never gonna be able to fix this. I can't put it back.”
Carson Frame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carson_frame
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.