After years of complaints, the Pentagon is trying to reform the way it manages the moving process for military families. The current system is plagued by delays, lost shipments, theft, and lack of accountability.
Andrea Cacho and her family are finally settling in to their new home at Fort Belvoir, Va., after a difficult move last summer. The Army transferred Cacho’s husband from a base in Kentucky and paid to move all of the family’s possessions to their new home.
But things got off to a rocky start. The company assigned to pack the household showed up days late and did a careless job.
“The corners of the boxes were bulging,” Cacho recalled. “My husband's a medic, so we only had medical tape in the house. But I put medical tape on top of their packing tape because it was just not sticking to the boxes.”
After the shipment left Kentucky, it took months for it to reach the Cachos at Fort Belvoir, a journey that normally takes about ten hours. The items changed hands repeatedly, with four companies responsible for packing, trucking, and warehousing them.
By the time they arrived, many of the items had been damaged or stolen — a loss Cacho estimates at about $4,000.
“Every box was smashed,” she said. “There was water damage. There was mold. Glass. Our wedding photo, our TV, everything was shattered. It just felt like we took a total loss. Like, I would have rather them have lost it -- like we didn't get it back -- rather than to see the damages.”
One aspect of the move proved especially challenging for the Cachos. Their eldest daughter’s bedroom furniture was largely destroyed en route, making it difficult for her to adjust to her new environment.
“She was having a really hard time with the move,” Cacho explained. “She has special needs. ... So it was honestly very stressful seeing the condition of her things. Like, ‘Oh, no, Lea is not going to get her things back. She's not going to get that sense of peace or safety with her own belongings. She's still going to have a hard time with this transition.’”
Calls For Change
Military families have long complained about the poor quality of their moves. Last August, one spouse circulated a Change.org petition pushing Congress to hold moving companies accountable. It went viral, gathering more than 100,000 signatures in just a few weeks.
That forced the military to re-think its approach.
Gen. Stephen Lyons heads U.S. Transportation Command, or TRANSCOM, the part of the Defense Department responsible for household moves. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, he said there are too many offices involved, making it difficult for the military to manage movers and hold them accountable.
“Today, if you were to look at the way we manage this department: completely diffuse, completely decentralized. Every service is running their own thing. There’s no enterprise approach. A carrier can be suspended over here and working over here….”
There are currently 42 regional military offices responsible for contracting with moving companies. Each household move gets contracted individually, with approximately 450,000 military moves taking place every year.
Now TRANSCOM wants to hire what it calls a “single move manager” by the summer of 2021. It’s a private company that would build networks within the moving industry and oversee contracting. The Canadian and UK militaries already rely on programs like it.
Rear Adm. Pete Clarke of TRANSCOM said the current system is so complex and over-regulated that movers often don't want to take part. He blamed that bureaucracy, in part, for the shortage of quality movers during peak seasons.
“The primary premise is that the single-move manager, who will be an industry expert, will remove the barriers for entry….that the government has put in place,” Clarke explained.
But the change worries some advocates. Kelly Hruska of the National Military Family Association said she isn’t sure which problem TRANSCOM is trying to solve.
“It seems like the most common complaint that we're hearing is a quality issue: lack of quality assurance inspectors, too few transportation providers, a lot of broken items, and that the claims process is overly burdensome,” she said. “So I'm not exactly sure how outsourcing the management of the move piece is going to solve all of the other problems.”
Hruska said TRANSCOM has already made some small but important changes to the move process: additional quality assurance employees, an increase in crated shipments, and making more mover accountability metrics available to families. She argued that TRANSCOM should wait for those changes to shake out before making even bigger shifts.
Megan Harless, an Army spouse who authored the Change.org petition, echoed those concerns. She said the military has offered alarmingly few specifics about a program that is supposed to start soon.
“I've been hearing a lot that this is going to be a great plan, that it's going to solve all the problems. But there's been very little evidence to show that it really is,” Harless explained. “So any type of study, market research, even just a cost analysis plan done on it to see what is going to happen ... would be beneficial.”
Andrea Cacho said the stakes are high for fixing the problem, because bad moves have already started to affect the military’s mission.
“I know multiple people who were like, ‘We're just going to get out of the military after this term because of the move.’ So then you're losing your soldiers.”
The single-move manager system is still in its infancy. In June, the Defense Department plans to get bids from moving and logistics companies, and will then determine whether the single-move manager concept is cost-effective and technically feasible.