Moving to a new base every few years is among the most taxing requirements military families face. But is all that effort to uproot really necessary?

A new report from a leading advocacy group argues it’s time to give the pace of those moves, known as permanent changes of station, a fresh look.

“We’re seeing PCS as being a big moment that puts people in a situation of vulnerability,” Shannon Razsadin, chief executive officer of the Military Family Advisory Network, told Military Times on Tuesday.

The group’s 2023 Military Family Support Programming Survey, released Wednesday, explored some of the perennial challenges that burden military families. The 109-page report questioned whether changing the frequent shuffle between bases — which military officials argue is necessary to meet operational requirements and fill empty jobs — could affect recurring issues related to financial stability, such as military spouse unemployment, and other concerns such as children’s education.

“Is there a capacity to expand telework to provide more stability?” the report asked. “There is an opportunity to explore the cost savings of less frequent moves, not just for military families, but also for taxpayers.”

The survey drilled into some of the second- and third-order effects of frequent moves, when people struggle with everything from the amount of time spent in temporary lodging to security deposits, extra rent and unreimbursed expenses.

“These things are adding up. When you move every two to three years, and layer on top of that potential gaps in employment, you have this ‘aha’ moment where it’s not surprising that people are having a hard time getting ahead,” Razsadin said.

More than half of the survey’s respondents made a PCS move in the previous two years, the advocacy group said. Those who did were more likely to report poor family well-being than those who hadn’t moved, at 25.7% and 20.3%, respectively, according to the survey.

About 4 in 10 respondents who PCSed in the past two years reported low or very low food security; around half reported it was “difficult or very difficult” to find a place to live.

The MFAN survey, conducted online from Oct. 2 to Dec. 10, 2023, sought to hear from current and former members of the military community. Of the 10,149 participants, 39% said they were active duty spouses, 19% were veterans, and 11% were active duty troops. Seventy-six percent of respondents identified themselves or their spouse as enlisted, whether active duty, retiree or veteran.

The survey isn’t a scientific poll because researchers did not verify the identity of respondents, or conduct a random sample, for instance. The 2023 report is the survey’s fifth iteration since it began in 2014.

Researchers measured family well-being using the Family Health Scale, a research tool of 10 questions that measure factors like relationships, health care, lifestyle, financial health and housing.

Other findings related to PCS moves include:

  • Most respondents reported spending between $500 to $1,000 out of pocket on moving expenses that aren’t reimbursed by the military.
  • 53% of active duty military family respondents say they are paying more than $251 out of pocket each month for rent/mortgage or utilities.
  • 43% said the reimbursement process took one to two months after they moved.
  • 29% reported staying in temporary lodging between 11 to 30 nights during their PCS move; another 21% reported staying in temporary lodging between 31 to 60 nights.
  • 56% of respondents said their household goods were lost or damaged during their most recent move, including retirees and veterans. 70% filed a claim. “Respondents who filed a claim most commonly experienced a financial loss between $500 and $1,000 above the reimbursement for their claim,” according to the report.
  • 46% of respondents said moving has the greatest impact on children and their education, social life, and adjustment to a new location. “It takes a great deal of work to support the children before, during and after a move. The ripple effect is large and long lasting,” said one active duty sailor who responded to the survey.
  • 38% said that moving affects the entire family’s mental health and well-being, “oftentimes causing stress, sadness, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and even adjustment disorder,” according to the report.
  • 30% cited the effects of PCS moves on military spouse employment; 36% of unemployed active duty spouses shared stories of challenges with frequent moves.
  • 11% of respondents cited moving or PCS as a barrier to saving money.
  • 30% of respondents said they had difficulty establishing mental health care in a new location.

“The journey of a military family like yours or mine comes with sacrifices,” said Christine Grady, wife of Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Christopher Grady, during an event Wednesday announcing the results of the survey. “It comes with great rewards.”

Overall, military family well-being has declined since the last MFAN survey in 2021. In the past two years, those reporting poor family well-being increased from 14% in 2021 to 26.5% in 2023. Those who described their well-being as “excellent” fell from 41.3% in 2021 to 27.9% in 2023.

Enlisted families with children — one of the largest groups in the survey — were less likely to report excellent well-being, at 20%.

Razsadin said one of the more disheartening results is the uptick in loneliness reported among military and veteran families, which rose by 5 percentage points to 59% in 2023.

“I found it surprising,” she said. “The last time we fielded the survey was in 2021, in the pandemic. We have to figure out how we can create meaningful connections with people.”

Among the bright spots in the findings, said Gabby L’Esperance, MFAN’s insights director, was the increase in usage of mental health support. Nearly 60% of respondents sought out mental health services in the previous two years, up from 46% in 2021.

Survey results showed that families with poor or moderate well-being were less likely to recommend military life to others, as were enlisted families, veteran families, respondents with children under 18, and those who joined military life in the last 10 years.

Nearly 58% of those surveyed in 2023 would recommend a military career, a 5-percentage-point drop since 2021. Those who recommend military life to others has fallen steadily since 2019, when it stood at 74.5%.

Many said they would recommend military life with a healthy dose of caution, or as short-term service instead of a career.

The advocacy group warned that failing families can have wider repercussions for retention and recruitment — and in turn, military readiness — than on those households alone.

“Ensuring families can thrive in service isn’t just the right thing to do,” the report said. “There are long-term consequences if they don’t.”

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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