The Johnson family had moved valuable items inside their two safes without incident several times before, sending them on a truck during permanent change-of-station travels.
But on the family's latest move from Hurlburt Field, Florida, to F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, last summer, the safes never made it.
And Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Johnson and his wife, Nicky, are not too happy with the indifference they say they've endured from the moving company in trying to track down their missing property.
Inside the safes were some small gold bars, valuable collector's comic books, savings bonds, birth certificates, gemstones bought in Afghanistan, Social Security cards for the Johnsons and their three children, passports, and a number of personal items that can't ever be replaced.
They've been trying to find those items, valued at $34,455, since July. They've filed a police report with local authorities and have tried to track down whether their safes could have been misplaced among the shipments of three other service members whose belongings were with the Johnsons' on trucks or in storage.
Their last hope in that regard was dashed Feb. 12 when their safes were not found to be among the household goods delivered to a Navy commander in Washington.
From the start, Nicky Johnson said, all they heard from the moving company was, "'File a claim, we can't help you, we don't want to help you.' "
She said an Air Force investigator at F.E. Warren did as much as he could, but the incident involved commercial moving companies, whose staff refused to communicate with the Johnsons except through the formal claims process, they said.
The Johnsons contend there should be more of an investigation when items go missing from household goods shipments.
"I'm not just doing this for my family," Nicky Johnson said. "I'm doing it for all the military families going through this. You get so frustrated through the process that you give up. We would have given up if it were just 'things.' But there are things missing that have no monetary value, like the letter my husband's father wrote to him before he died, telling him how proud he was."
Similarly, Christopher Johnson said he can get a replacement for his Bronze Star that was in one of the safes, "but it won't be the one I got when I was in the desert."
They're also worried about identity theft because of their lost personal documents. "Every time we get something from a bank or credit card company, it's automatic fear that the kids' identities have been stolen," Nicky Johnson said.
Their household goods were picked up in Florida on June 13 and delivered to their new home in Wyoming on July 11. They knew the safes were missing that day and immediately took action, contacting the storage company and filing a police report with the Cheyenne Police Department.
Through his contacts with the household goods office on base, Christopher Johnson tracked down the other shipments that had been on the same truck with theirs, or in storage.
He has contacted local locksmiths to warn them about someone looking for help in opening a safe, and he's also visited local pawn shops. Police have put information about the missing items in a national database.
The company in charge of the move, Suddath Van Lines, offered $1,596 to settle the claim, partly because there was no documentation for some of the items, such as the gems and gold.
Nicky Johnson said they didn't list everything in the safes in a separate "high value" inventory list because they didn't want to call attention to the fact that they were in the shipment.
When Christopher Johnson went to the company the day after their goods were delivered, he said an employee told him he couldn't look for his items. "He said, 'We can't find the safes. File a claim and they'll pay you for your gold doubloons.'
"There needs to be more of an investigation, rather than 'just file a claim,'" he said.
He said the storage company and the company in charge of the move pushed him to file a claim, saying that they would then investigate, but "I never got a call from anybody" other than the police detective who was contacted by the military investigator, he said.
Suddath Van Lines has not returned calls from Military Times seeking comment. A company that stored the Johnsons' belongings in its Cheyenne facility referred questions to Suddath.
In general, the moving company should make every reasonable effort to look for missing items in such situations, said Scott Michael, president of American Moving and Storage Co., whose member companies are involved in household goods moves, including military moves.
"If a valuable is missing, they need to investigate, Michael said. "The hard part is, you run out of places to look."
Still, he said, the company should at least "try to examine what they could do to improve their processes for the next customers."
The Johnsons' case "has been coded as inactive," said Dan Long, spokesman for the Cheyenne Police Department. "We've tracked down all the leads in Cheyenne. We're not sure whether the safes had actually arrived in Cheyenne. As far as other jurisdictions, we don't know."
Staffers for the personal property shipping office at F.E. Warren made a "quality assurance visit" to the storage company's warehouse about a week after the delivery of the Johnsons' belongings, a base spokeswoman said.
"After a thorough search and investigation for the missing items by PPSO and F.E. Warren [Security Forces Squadron] personnel, they were unable to locate the missing items," said Capt. Eydie Sakura, spokeswoman for the 90th Missile Wing public affairs office.
The investigation also entailed inspecting the vehicles that the company used for the delivery, she said.
The company that trucked the Johnsons' shipment from Florida to Wyoming also was notified and questioned about the missing high-value items, she said. That's a different agent contracted by Suddath to haul the household goods.
Johnson was advised to submit a claim through the Defense Personal Property system, and to file a claim through the legal office.
"Other than normal damage claims, this loss appears to be an isolated incident and the F.E. Warren PPSO is not aware of any situations like this," Sakura said.
A spokeswoman for the military's Surface Deployment and Distribution Command said Defense Department regulations require the company to initiate tracer action immediately upon learning that items are missing and advise the local military personal property office and the customer in writing of the results within 30 days.
"Every effort will be made to locate missing articles/items before recommending the submission of a claim by the customer," the regulation states.
The military and moving companies advise service members to hand carry valuable items with them, rather than send them with the household goods shipment.
Christopher Johnson said he did consider keeping the valuables with them during the family's trip west, but knew they'd be staying in hotels as they took extra time to drive across country. "We didn't want to have [the valuables] in the car or in hotel rooms," he said.
"I made the wrong choice, but we had done it before with no issues," he said, adding that in hindsight, he would try to move the safes "as best as I could myself."
The family received $4,535 from an insurance claim they filed with USAA, and are working on a claim with the military claims office.
But the family would much rather have its possessions back.
"Even if they paid me exactly what I asked for, I'd still be pursuing this," he said. "Every penny I've gotten is in savings, waiting to pay back" if the items are recovered.