Commentary

As we move military families, we need to accelerate change or families lose

It’s moving season. The time of year to look toward new opportunities, celebrate cherished memories, and say goodbye to our possessions.

Not all worldly goods will make it to our next destination. Some don’t arrive due to downsizing choices, many driven by a dated Joint Travel Regulation and the weight of bureaucracy.

Back in late October 2020, Military Times reported the possibility the Department of Defense was relooking household goods weight allowances. In March 2021, it was reported consideration remains underway.

Many households let out a collective sigh of relief celebrating what we all know: the need to update policy, most of which was written decades ago.

The article written in October went on to state junior enlisted members and families face the highest incident rate of going over weight limits, but said a decision could arrive before this year’s PCS season. Unfortunately relief has not occurred. The wait continues. This is an issue, especially for more junior troops and their families.

Allowable weight is determined based on rank and existence of dependents, yet only 2,000 pounds separate a “family rate” from the single service member. How about for families with larger numbers? Also, not every service member enters the military with no kids at 18 years-old. Again, the matrix or logic applied doesn’t reflect the times. It’s just how it has been for decades without challenge or debate.

After 26 years of service, I have found bureaucracies are not known for rapid change. A bureaucracy can be agile when crisis is at its doorstep, a sense of urgency is sparked, or a visible reminder given. This is usually because the issue gets elevated beyond lower levels of inertia.

The chief of staff of the Air Force’s mantra is “accelerate, change or lose.” This is an area where accelerated change and decisions are required as many families are losing.

My experience has shown me moves are never easy. Moving during a pandemic is even tougher on families, especially overseas, due to added unforeseen costs. As I go through my things, I can’t help but think of those who don’t have the means to face additional penalties for exceeding moving weight limits, especially when dealing with a year of COVID-19.

COVID forced many people to hunker down in their homes with the record upswing of telework. In April, I was in the Pentagon and it was a virtual ghost town, with most teleworking. With a surge in telework rates, not just in D.C., people outfitted homes at personal expense for work and resiliency purposes.

Costs and responsibilities to “voluntarily” outfit home workspaces shifted to a host of employees out of extreme circumstances and necessity. Some had to quarantine for extended periods after temporary duties and this drove added work-related requirements — again, usually at personal expense — to create suitable work spaces. Separating from family during Restriction of Movement and quarantines added not only a required need for makeshift offices, but also necessary quarantine living spaces. This included added furniture.

Now consider today’s rigid rules. They do not count office furniture or fixtures, fitness equipment, work-related memorabilia, or office decor as part of professional gear or “free weight.” It counts as weight toward a move with personal dollars added for every pound over. The policy certainly doesn’t take into account COVID-borne costs.

The outdated policy does not suit today’s realities. Here are a few of the issues with it.

The No. 1 reason is to just do what is right. The Military Times article states junior enlisted members with families have, on average, more incidents of overweight charges.

We have established the COVID pandemic added work-related out-of-pocket costs to sustain productivity and mission success. This occurred across the ranks.

Home items and equipment became required for work use. Let’s face this fact.

COVID also required people to figure out how to keep fit as gyms closed or were restricted in many areas. Yes, running and push-ups are free. However, let’s face facts again, purchase of personal fitness gear increases readiness for work and resiliency. I feel for those who found it necessary for their mission as that will be significant added weight when they move. These items should not count against weight limitations any longer, or at least during COVID.

COVID also drove new home school requirements and added “things” to households to keep sane during insanely challenging COVID times. How many people bought desks, chairs, books for schooling of kids alone? Now multiply this per kid, per household.

The ritual of purging personal possessions sadly becomes a norm for some Department of Defense employees and families as we continue to live with the outdated transportation regulations.

Shipping of vehicles to overseas destinations can also bring financial burdens, especially to lower ranking service members.

DoD funds one vehicle to and from an overseas assignment, requiring an out of pocket expense to ship a second car. How many families in America share one vehicle these days? How many junior enlisted families lost unacceptable amounts of money due to highly encouraged guidance to downsize? “Reputable businesses” offer well below Kelly Bluebook when in a pinch to sell a second car quickly. This is felt more painfully at lower ranks.

DoD should adjust shipping rules, weight allowances, or at a minimum, raise dislocation allowance or expand the definition of pro gear for family households. Potentially selling a car at steep loss to meet overseas missions isn’t right, especially for younger troops who perhaps can’t afford it or rely on it for work at the next duty location.

The JTR is insufficient and COVID has made it glaringly apparent.

Pro gear or weight limits should factor in at a minimum what was purchased to outfit homes during COVID to increase productivity and make exceptions to policy until this can be figured out.

Dislocation allowances rarely cover costs associated with moves. DoD should not treat family scenarios as one-size-fits-all. We can’t continue to transfer the costs of moves unnecessarily to the force and families, especially junior service members and their families. Change is required. Otherwise, unnecessary stress is placed on families.

Current circumstances certainly feel like a loss, not the accelerated change that is required and being encouraged. It’s time to break through bureaucracy and get word to those who can bring about needed change. The antiquated JTR must adjust with the times. Let common sense prevail for the good of all, but especially for younger service members and families.

Air Force Col. Christopher P. Karns is the director of Public Affairs and Communication Synchronization, Headquarters U.S. Africa Command, Stuttgart, Germany.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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