An ongoing, comprehensive review of assignment and relocation policies, and their effects on families, will allow the Defense Department to see how its leadership uses existing regulations and resources to allow families much-needed flexibility during military moves, an official told senators at a Tuesday meeting.

Testimony from military family advocates in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee's personnel panel called into question whether such flexibility exists.

A provision in last year's Senate version of the defense authorization bill would have let families move up to six months ahead of, or after, a service member for reasons related to family education or spouse employment concerns. That provision was removed in conference, said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

Newer language being proposed to address the Defense Department's concerns about costs would no longer provide additional money for housing and dual moving expenses, Gillibrand noted, asking Stephanie Barna, acting secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, whether these changes would allow DoD to support such a plan.

Barna said she could not speak to any pending legislation. But concerns in the past were about a law that could potentially give less flexibility to moving families, she said. 

"The area of military assignment and relocation is not an area where there's a lot of law. …. We believe the absence of law now allows for a much further line of demarcation," she said, giving DoD, commanders and families maximum flexibility already.

DoD officials are concerned about a law that might constrain the time frame for moving to 180 days before or after the report date; Barna said existing policies "allow moves to take place much further on either side of that line of demarcation."

Laws also could limit eligibility for such programs, Barna said: "Today, a spouse or family can come forward for any reason and ask for additional flexibility on either side of that service member's report date."

Gillibrand asked military family advocates to weigh in on DoD's flexibility. 

"That's not the experience of people on the ground," said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families. In her own example, when her husband received orders to relocate from Europe one year in June and her daughter's school year didn't end until July, the family was not able to change the move date, she said. The family paid $15,000 out of pocket to stay for another two months.

"I think a lot of times our service members and families don't know what to ask. We tend to salute and move forward with the military," said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. She said families are seeking options for them to be able to make the best decision, but noted it's still a "tough decision" for the service member to go ahead of the family or stay behind.

Raezer said many spouses have not had enough lead time to work on job-licensing issues before they move, for example, or the spouse or child may need to stay behind to finish out a semester.

"We're very happy to do anything for national security, but moves that take place in October or February don't necessarily help national security," Roth-Douquet said. It's very difficult for a child to start at another school in the middle of the school year.

The flexibility in moving puts families more in control, and "make necessary challenges bearable," Roth-Douquet said.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said there needs to be a culture where it's OK to say the military shouldn't be imposing these hardships, such as a family paying $15,000 to stay behind for a child's education.

"Right now we're not communicating the potentially negative impact on families because of what they've been ordered to do," Tillis said.

The results of the DoD review will be included in a report due to Congress in June, Barna said, adding that DoD hopes to "ensure we're optimizing the use of existing authorities and resources."

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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