The military was on the brink of PCS season. Some families had started packing up, others were set to close on homes at their new duty stations. Then coronavirus struck.
To keep military personnel in place and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Pentagon unveiled a stop movement order to temporarily suspend almost all permanent-change-of-station moves — a decision that has come at a price for service members and their families as their PCS plans have been completely upended.
And now because of the Pentagon’s recent extension of the directive through the end of June, service members are forced to wait even longer to PCS.
“The orders were a big and exciting life change for my wife and I, and something we had been looking forward to since I got selected for them,” a sailor who was gearing up for a new duty station on the West Coast told Military Times on the condition of anonymity. “When the newest revision of the full stop came out...it put a wrench in the plan even more.”
Originally, the sailor said the stop movement order meant his March PCS date was pushed to the end of May, and now it’s been delayed again. The extension has complicated matters further and the soonest he could move is July.
Meanwhile, he and his wife are shelling out money to cover two rents — one for their residence at their current duty station, and another at their new duty station to ensure they keep the new house. This wasn’t something for which he and his wife were financially prepared.
“More than likely, my stuff is going to go into storage and I’m going to have to stay with a friend and move my wife in with her family,” he said.
This sailor is far from the only one in this situation.
Under the latest directive from the Pentagon, most PSC moves are being suspended until at least June 30, a delay from the original May 11 deadline. Exemptions apply for certain circumstances, including deployments within combatants commands and basic training.
For those who don’t qualify for exemptions, the order has meant military families are not closing on home purchases at their next duty stations, are paying rent in two different duty stations, and are unsure when they’ll actually move. Service members and their spouses spoke to Military Times on the condition of anonymity, due to concerns about retribution.
“This stop [movement] order has affected our plans completely. We have bought a home to get us settled into the new area and we also have another home. Now we have to pay for two mortgages,” said a Texas-based Army spouse who was slated to PCS in May.
“I recently sold my home and have my furniture in storage waiting to be shipped overseas,” a soldier stationed at Ft. Hood said. “I recently got a phone call from the storage company wanting answers as to when to ship my belong[ings] of which I could not give.”
An Air Force spouse stationed in Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland said that she and her active duty husband were poised to close on a house in early April at their next duty station, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
But they were forced to cancel the closing because they couldn’t occupy the home in 60 days, in accordance with VA loan stipulations. She said she and her husband dropped nearly $1,000 on an inspection and an appraisal for the house — money they can’t get back now.
“We will never get the time and emotional investment we put into house hunting and selecting our new home and making all the arrangements to close,” she said.
“We most likely will end up purchasing later or just living on base with all the current unknowns,” she added. “That is, when we actually arrive there, which we have no idea when that will be.”
Additionally, there’s no guarantees that the Pentagon won’t issue yet another extension as the policy is reevaluated every 15 days. That’s another concern in the back of the mind of this Air Force spouse.
“That’s the part that kind of gives me anxiety now is that we don’t really know when we’re leaving at all,” she said. “It’s pretty much up in the air still — we can’t make any solid plans for anything...we have no idea what our living situation is going to be.”
The extension has also complicated matters for dual military couples who were eager to share a duty station. For example, another Navy sailor who spoke with Military Times said he and his wife have been at separate duty stations since January 2019.
The sailor was poised to PCS to his wife’s current duty station in May, but then the orders got postponed until June. Now their reunion is further delayed as the sailor’s moving date has changed again.
“We are going on 18 months apart, paying rent and maintaining two separate households on opposite coasts,” he said. “In this 18 months we have seen each other three times… Three.”
The sailor predicted the chances of him receiving a waiver are “slim to none.”
According to the Pentagon, waivers may be issued in cases where travel is determined mission essential, necessary for humanitarian reasons, or warranted due to extreme hardship. Commanders of a combatant command, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretaries of each of the military departments can issue waivers, along with a few other leaders.
“Since the beginning of this fight against the coronavirus, we have put measures in place to protect our personnel and their families,” Defense Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness Matthew Donovan told reporters Saturday.
“We want to give our people sufficient time to plan to make personal and work adjustments and to prepare to the changes this extension will bring," he said. “Additionally, understanding we are approaching our major permanent change of station season, the department will actively provide support options to assist our people."
For example, he said waivers would be issued a bit more generously under the extension. Specifically, he said the DoD would consider in-place assignment extensions or PCS waivers for those with school-age children as the Pentagon evaluates PCS moves on a “case-by-case” basis.
That means some moves will be labeled a higher priority than others, and Donovan said the individual services are “queued up and ready” to get the ball rolling on that process.
For the Army, that means prioritizing moving soldiers who were already in the middle of the PCS process but were ultimately delayed due to the initial stop movement order, according to Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army’s deputy chief of staff.
“What we want to do is get those people who were kind of in limbo to be able to move to their next location,” Seamands told reporters Monday.
Seamands said approximately 48,000 soldiers are slated to PCS through the summer months, but noted that “several hundred” personnel moved in March after qualifying for an exemption.
“My expectation is you would see that number increase a little bit as we go into April and May for some of the more critical reasons,” Seamands said.
Additionally, the Army is examining the possibility of soldiers moving themselves once the stop order movement expires so the transportation industry isn’t as overwhelmed during the latter portion of PCS season.
When service members complete these moves, known as Personally Procured Moves, they are usually reimbursed 95 percent what the government would have forked over to administer the move, according to Lt. Gen. Duane Gamble, deputy chief of staff for logistics.
One of the incentives on the table is increasing that percentage so more personnel conduct a Personally Procured Move, Gamble told reporters Monday. More than 7,000 personnel in the last fiscal year moved themselves, he said.
Capt. Carrie Volpe, a spokesperson for the Department of the Air Force, said more than 26,000 airmen and roughly 170 civilian airmen who were slated to PCS have been delayed due to the order.
“Military members whose moves were considered mission essential, or where an Airman or family member was experiencing a hardship, received waivers to move,” Volpe said in an email to Military Times. “For operational security purposes, we are not releasing those numbers.”
“Prioritization is a balance between mission priorities and taking care of families that have already started their transition and exempting them to allow further movement, thereby reducing hardship,” Volpe said.
Additionally, the Air Force Personnel Center has provided information so that commanders can help their airmen receive full reimbursements for eligible expenses that have arisen due to the postponement, according to Volpe.
It’s unclear exactly how the other services plan to proceed. The Navy and Marine Corps did not respond to a request for comment from Military Times.
While this PCS season may be one the most difficult yet for service members and their families, there have been a few silver linings, according to the Air Force spouse stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
“For now we are thankful to have a steady paycheck during these unprecedented times and are thankful for some extra family time,” said the spouse, who is also a nurse.
“I just want people to remember that through all this it might be frustrating, but really, they’re just trying to keep us safe,” she said.