This article was updated June 29 to add clarification to a quote from Randolph AFB.
On May 29, Army wife Becky Vinales got the news: their moving company was refusing to move their household goods because of the mold contamination in their house at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.
“We were frantic,” said Vinales. “We had put in our notice to be out of our house by June 15, and were scheduled to leave on a plane for Hawaii on June 30. We didn’t know what to do.”
One day later and not far away on Randolph AFB, workers had loaded about one-third of the Daniels family’s household goods on the truck when Air Force wife Barbara High-Daniels got a call from the moving company’s headquarters, asking her if she knew there was mold on their belongings. Within a half hour, company officials had ordered workers to remove the Daniels’ household goods from the truck and place them in the front yard alongside another third of their household goods waiting to be loaded.
In California, Marine wife Samantha Keller and her family have moved to a house in the community near Camp Pendleton for her husband’s new duty assignment – while their entire mold-contaminated household goods remain sealed in their previous home at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.
These three military families have been battling with their privatized housing companies, trying to get their mold problems addressed. Now they – and an unknown number of other military families – are finding the problems of mold are reaching further into their lives.
For some, an already difficult PCS season has become even more challenging thanks to the presence of spores.
“It’s a spot where housing issues are colliding with PCS issues,” said Megan Harless, an Army wife and veteran who is part of an advisory group providing input to the U.S. Transportation Command to help improve the moving process for military families.
This year, some service members have already had problems scheduling their household moves for various reasons unrelated to mold, such as shortages of capacity in the moving industry. The sheer volume of military moves, along with shortages of trucks and labor with the improving economy have made it more difficult, especially in certain regions.
In the case of the Vinales family, their joint personal property shipment office worked for several days before they could find another company to move the shipment, contingent on clear mold tests.
Over the past year, as first reported by Reuters. and testimony by military families have brought attention to black mold growing out of walls, floors and ceilings, with entire families getting sick and frustration in getting families problems addressed.
While these three spouses said their mold issues are not entirely resolved, they did report one positive development: Once they were out of their houses, their families’ health has dramatically improved.
Across the country, hundreds of military families across the country have been affected by problems with mold, vermin and other issues in their military housing. It’s not known how many of those are moving this summer, but at some point in the future, they will move.
This issue with mold affecting moving is apparently not being tracked, so information was not available about how many military families have faced the issue. U.S. Transportation Command officials said the issue has not been raised at their level. But families said their local personal property officials have been working with them to help them get the situation resolved and get their household goods moved.
“This is about to get bigger, because the moving companies won’t wrap up and put furniture on their trucks if there’s visible mold on it,” said Crystal Cornwall, executive director of the Safe Military Housing Initiative.
“Where does this leave military families?" she asked. "DoD is not looking ahead to the bigger, broader, macro picture.”
Whose responsibility is it?
“My heart sank. I was in a panic,” said Becky Vinales, remembering the day they got the call from the government Joint Personal Property Shipment Office, or JPPSO, that their moving company had backed out of their move because of the mold. The personal property offices are the government liaisons between service members and the moving companies.
She said she understands why the moving company wouldn’t want the liability of moving the household goods, which could possibly contaminate other shipments, too. And the moving company didn’t cause the problem, she notes.
According to TRANSCOM, if mold is identified before household goods are packed or picked up, it’s the responsibility of the resident to have a mold remediation firm inspect and clean up the property. The families interviewed by Military Times said their privatized housing companies have been arranging for and paying for remediating the mold on their property, although the families aren’t necessarily satisfied with the results.
And according to TRANSCOM, if mold is identified at delivery, the remediation is the responsibility of the moving company.
“We instruct the movers, that if they identify something that appears to be mold, not to load it, because we could end up with significant liability for home cleaning or medical issues caused by that and we didn’t do anything to cause the mold to begin with,” said Scott Kelly, president of Suddath Government Services, a moving company that does a lot of military move business.
“We also risk contaminating other people’s shipments,” he said.
It could cost $20,000 to $30,000, Kelly said, to get rid of mold contaminating a large shipment of household goods.
Kelly said the company has a claims manager who has become “quite knowledgeable on the subject of mold over the last couple of years, because it does seem more prevalent. I don’t know the reason for it. I’m not suggesting it’s military housing causing it, because I could not say one way or the other.”
At Randolph AFB, the environmental team can conduct a pre-move inspection six to eight weeks before move-out, working directly with the personal property office and Hunt Military Communities officials, according to a statement from the installation. “Our participation allows families to have peace of mind that standards are met, or, solicit expert advice if cleaning is needed.”
The issue is not common at Randolph, officials said. “With 34 homes scheduled for summer move out, and only two [of those 34] having issues of visible mold, it is an uncommon occurrence. Even so, our team is driven to provide families assurances that their household goods are ready for transport.”
When Barbara High-Daniels saw her move stopped in mid-loading, with her household goods being removed from the moving van because of the mold issues, she said, “Out of this entire situation, it was probably rock bottom.”
The stress, the Texas heat became too much. “I lost it,” she said. She called their point of contact in the Randolph AFB management office for their housing company, Hunt Military Communities.
She said the government’s personal property officials, and Hunt officials came to the house. “Nobody knew whose responsibility it was.”
Hunt Military Communities “takes the safety and security of our residents extremely seriously,” said Cindy Gersch, spokeswoman for the company. “As with every situation, we responded quickly and are working closely with the family to ensure their home and items are safe and healthy.”
Defense Department spokeswoman Heather Babb referred to the general procedures in place for damage to household goods: “Service members who experience damage to personal property in their homes, whether on or off base, are encouraged to request assistance from their installation’s government housing office.”
Families were upfront about the mold
Barbara High-Daniels said she had told the moving company during the pre-move survey that she and her husband were moving because of the mold.
Vinales said, she, too was upfront with the movers about the mold when they did the pre-move survey. She explained that she and her husband were getting rid of all their mattresses and other items with porous, mold-friendly surfaces, such as couches and chairs, and those items wouldn’t be moved. JPPSO personnel “reassured me that I did the right thing in telling them about the mold,” she said.
“As military families, we have to have integrity and be honest,” she said.
JPPSO personnel have been proactive and supportive, Vinales said. “If it weren’t for them, I think our stuff would be out on a curb by now.”
The JPPSO personnel kept in contact with them. “They said it’s the peak season, and it’s hard to get movers,” she said, “but they completely followed through, and they got us a mover.”
Those personal property officials also notified their counterparts in Hawaii that they will need to do a quality assurance inspection when their household goods arrive, to check for mold, she said.
Their privatized housing company, Hunt Military Communities, had begun mold remediation in their house, Vinales said, before the first movers were originally scheduled to arrive. During that time, the family chose to stay in their RV, to make the time before they moved more fun for their kids, while also living in a comfortable, familiar place. Hunt officials had offered to pay for them to stay in a hotel.
After the remediation, Hunt provided a report from their mold assessor saying that it was okay to move the Vinales’ household goods. But there was a close call the day before the new movers were to start packing, when Vinales and her husband found more mold. “There were 10 vehicles at our home until late that night,” she said.
That included key Air Force leaders at the base who, along with Hunt housing officials, were helping the mold remediation company clean the Vinales’ furniture.
On June 24, more than three weeks after their furniture was removed from the moving truck, the Daniels got clearance from Hunt’s mold assessor following more remediation, and they are in the process of working with the JPPSO to get their move rescheduled.
What happens at the other end?
At least one military family has found that the mold moved with them. Florida Attorney Natalie Khawam said one military family who had moved from MacDill Air Force Base to a new duty station contacted her to say that when their belongings were delivered to their new house, they were covered in mold. Family members are getting sicker. Two mold remediations had been completed on the house and the contents before the family moved, Khawam said.
Becky Vinales said their shipment was loaded on June 15, and is on the way to Hawaii.
The fact that the JPPSO notified their counterpart in Hawaii about the shipment is good, Vinales, said, “but I don’t know what that means. ….
“I don’t know what’s going to happen at the other end. My fear is that we’re going to open up the crates to a petrie dish. All we can do as a family is have our pictures and irreplaceable items, and leave the rest to God at this point.”
Vinales said they bought large plastic containers for those family photos and other irreplaceable items.
The fact that they’re moving outside the continental U.S. “has probably been the hardest part,” she said, getting emotional. “We can’t just pick and choose and put it on a truck and move ourselves. We’re stuck,” she said. “You get to a point where you have to almost tell yourself and accept that you may not have this stuff any more. It took a lot of time to get to that point.. .
“It feels like your house has caught on fire with no homeowners or renters insurance. It’s just a loss,” Vinales said.
Since the mold was through the heating and air conditioning system, USAA doesn’t cover for the loss due to mold damage, she said.
“Here we are in our 40s, starting over, buying furniture for our family, moving OCONUS,” Vinales said.
Hunt has offered them a settlement for the replacement of their household goods, but she and her husband don’t believe the offer comes close to what their household goods was worth, Vinales said. Some of the items looked “really good” after the cleaning, but others were damaged, she said. So they are now in the process of working through the military claims office. But since they are an Army family living on a joint base where the Air Force is the lead agency, they are still sorting out whether they need to file a claim with the Army claims office or the Air Force claims office.
Samantha Keller and her Marine Corps husband are also in disagreement with their privatized housing landlord. They never got to the point of scheduling a moving company, because they think their household goods are so contaminated with mold, they don’t want to move them to their new house near Camp Pendleton. They believe the mold in their house at Monterey affected their children’s health, especially their infant daughter, she said. They also contend the mold contaminated their household goods. So aside from their vital documents they retrieved, they didn’t take any items with them when her husband was transferred to Camp Pendleton.
“We told them to trash it. We couldn’t chance it for our children,” she said. They’ve started replacing some of their necessary items, such as mattresses.
Their housing company “said our stuff is fine. We’ve told them no, and that’s where we’re at,” Keller said.
“That’s where the dispute resolution piece comes in,” said Ron Hansen, president of Michaels Management Services, which operates the housing where the Kellers lived at Monterey. “There has to be a third party the resident trusts – that both sides trust – who listens and comes to a resolution we can live with,” he said.
A dispute resolution process is one element the military services are working on to address the problems that have come up as military families complained about issues of mold, water leaks, vermin and other problems in their homes.
Becky Vinales said she is concerned about how these situations are affecting other military families.
“If this is happening to a field grade officer, I can only imagine what’s happening to the young enlisted families. I know we will make it through this. We will live with less. We have each other, and that’s the most important thing,” she said.
“But these families that don’t have the income to bounce back…. My heart goes out to them.”
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.