Military’s $4B moving program keeps climbing — and no one knows why

Lt. Col. Alan Brown and his wife Kristy Brown get ready to leave their home in Eagle River after three years, the longest they've been in any location since they married. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Eagle River)
Lt. Col. Alan Brown and his wife Kristy Brown get ready to leave their home in Eagle River after three years, the longest they’ve been in any location since they married. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Eagle River)

Last year, the Department of Defense spent $4.3 billion moving service-members and their families all over the globe. The annual cost to taxpayers keep trending upwards, even as the overall number of moves shrinks amid a restructuring of the nation’s armed forces. A federal report issued last year found not only that the price of the average military move is rising significantly faster than inflation, but that the military doesn’t collect enough data to make sense of where it might find savings. Or if the policy of relocating service-members every few years still makes sense.

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Standing on his deck in Birkenstocks earlier this summer, Lieutenant Colonel Alan Brown showed off his backyard in Eagle River, just a few miles beyond Anchorage.

“We’ve had moose come up right along the back end of the fence multiple times,” Brown said, pointing to a corner of the yard where his Schnauzer Lucy sniffed inquisitively.

Thickets of trees stand between the yard and the actual Eagle River down a steep slope, but Brown said during the summer he and his wife Kristy can hear it from their bedroom, and glimpse its edges in winter.

The deck is a peaceful reprieve from the frenzy inside: Boots crackling across butcher paper, boxes sliding over bare floors, and the screech of packing-tape bouncing off empty walls.

Every year, the US military moves about 650,000 service-members all across the globe, along with 300,000 of their dependents. In military terms, a move is labeled a “Permanent Change of Station,” although everyone calls it PCS for short.

Professional moving companies approved by the military handle the packing for entire homes in just a few days. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Professional moving companies approved by the military handle the packing for entire homes in just a few days. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The family has lived in this house for three years, and for Kristy Brown that constitutes a streak of stability compared to the seven moves the couple has made since getting married. She rattles off their journey from Army installations in New York, to Colorado, to Kansas, to Texas before landing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

“We came up here for the stability,” Ms. Brown explained.

“Before this we’d moved annually, and that got quite challenging,” she added with an exhasperated laugh.

Postings in Alaska generally last a year longer than in the Lower 48, because the state technically counts as an overseas rotation, like bases Korea or Germany. And rotational moves are the most expensive category.

The family is moving back to New York, where Col. Brown will teach English at West Point. The plan is for Ms. Brown and their two kids to fly to the Lower 48 while Col. Brown drives their truck down the ALCAN. Then all together they’ll make their way across the country, stopping throughout national parks along the way.

But their stuff is another matter.

Alan showed me where the movers had started squeezing boxes into crates fitted within moving trucks. He described it as “power Jenga.”

“Or Tetris, depending what generation you’re from.”

Each rough wooden crate is tall enough to fit a Queen-sized mattress with room to spare.

“We had seven crates coming up here, my money’s on eight crates going back,” he explained. “We’ve accumulated some stuff.”

Those crates will make the 4,400 mile trip first by ship, and then by truck. Movers will drive them right up to the Brown’s next house, and unpack them.

This is where the Department of Defense is spending 3.7 percent of its budget every year: shuffling personnel and their families from place to place.

And every time a military family moves, everything they own goes with them — from cherished mementos and kitchenware to the furniture and toys a family just can’t seem to shed.

“That’s my scuba stuff,” Brown said, pointing to flipper protruding from a pile in a corner.

“I haven’t used those in a long time. When was the last time we went scuba diving?” Brown asked his wife.

“On our honeymoon,” she replied.

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Lt. Col. Alan Brown stands in the garage, filled with boxes that will be transfered into wooden crates, then fit into Sea-Land containers set to be shipped to the Lower 48, then trucked across the country to the family’s new home in New York. In the background is Lucy, the family’s Schnauzer. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The military is moving less people annually as the size of the force draws down, but the moves are getting more expensive, outpacing inflation by 28 percent.

While there are theories as to what’s driving costs, a report last year by the Government Accountability Office looking at data on the PCS program from 2001 to 2014 found that no one in charge can definitively account for the rise.

“Some of the services report it, some don’t,” said the paper’s author, Brenda Farrell, about PCS data.

One of the biggest findings in Farrell’s GAO report is how inconsistently data on PCS costs is tracked by the different service branches and Pentagon.

And there are two reasons why this is a problem, according to Farrell. Firstly, it keeps officials from seeing which factors are actually pushing PCS costs upwards. And secondly, it means the Defense Department isn’t regularly evaluating the program to assess whether spending more than four billion taxpayer dollars a year is worth the expense.

During her review, Farrell asked officials with the Defense Department when they’d last done an assessment the PCS program, and was told that “none of them could could recall such an evaluation being done.”

“DOD’s own guidance requires that they conduct an assessment of factors that may increase or decrease costs,” Farrell said.

The GAO report makes a number of recommendations, though most of them take as a starting point that the military needs to collect more data in order to make intelligent adjustments. So far, Farrell says DOD hasn’t acted on any of the suggestions. A working group was convened in May, but it won’t begin taking steps for at least another 18 months.

Defenders of the PCS program say the frequent moves structure military careers and are one component in spreading skills across the armed forces.

As the movers deconstructed a spare bedroom, Alan Brown maintained that the PCS policy is integral to the Army’s larger mission.

“The Army could save a bunch of money if we were all stationed here for four or five years — it would cut down on the rotation,” he said. “But it doesn’t work that way.”

When personnel are promoted, he explained, there might no longer be a job for them at a given location. Other times, a soldier may need to go to a different base on the other side of the country to receive training in a particular skill set.

All of the airborne infantrymen within the 4-25th brigade combat team at JBER, for example, spent chunks of time at Fort Bragg’s jump school in North Carolina.

“The Army really needs them to move somewhere else and try something new,” Brown added.

On top of being expensive, PCS costs are spread unevenly, with disparities across the branches as well as among their ranks.

The Marines are the least expensive service-members to move, on average, at $4,679. The Air Force is the most expensive at $8,548 a move, in part because they’re the most officer-heavy branch, and officers cost more money to relocate than enlisted troops. Between 2010 and 2014, according to the GAO report, the average cost per move for an officer was $12,983, compared to $5,553 for an enlisted service-member, a difference of 134 percent.

Brown is in the Army, which falls below the Air Force but above the Marines and Navy. However, he’s an officer with a family stationed effectively overseas, and so has a high allotment for how much freight he can bring on each move: 17,500 pounds.

But the PCS program’s costs aren’t just freight. The military also pays for the various minor expenses that are normally incurred whenever you pick up your life and move it elsewhere: Reimbursements for mileage, a per diem, a relocation stipend.

“You gotta go buy mops,” Brown ticked off, “you gotta go buy cleaning supplies, you gotta go buy ketchup and mustard and all the things we can’t ship — that the Army says we’re not allowed to ship — that can’t go, that we have to leave behind.”

He isn’t sure of the bottom-line when you add all these expenses together. The Army never gives him that number.

Two days later, I checked back in, and the busy home had been transformed into an empty house.

“My wife’s Pilates equipment is completely gone, her desk is gone, dining room table is gone,” Brown said, looking around his former living-room. “It’s more like an echo chamber actually.”

There were some kitchen items and an air mattresses left — enough stuff for Brown, his wife, two kids, and Lucy to house-camp for a few days. But it turned out they sent off way more stuff than the eight crates Brown expected. In the end, it was 14, just slightly below their full allotment.

When I reached Brown by phone a few weeks later, he said the family was settling into their new home, and that the move was their most successful yet. Only one item was damaged in the relocation of nearly 9 tons worth of material from Alaska to New York: their snowblower.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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