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Frozen In Place: Some Military Families Have Waited Months To Move To New Homes

Navy spouse Kellie Kopec lived in an RV with her husband and seven month old daughter as they waited for a waiver that would allow them to complete their move from California to Virginia.
Andrea Dukleth
Navy spouse Kellie Kopec lived in an RV with her husband and seven month old daughter as they waited for a waiver that would allow them to complete their move from California to Virginia.

The military issued a "stop movement" order in March in response to the pandemic. While the ban has been loosened, some service members and their families still can't relocate to new bases.

Adaptability is a part of Navy life. For Kiley McPheron and her family, that meant moving from a house in a Southern California neighborhood to an RV at a campground in the Laguna mountains outside San Diego.

"It has been difficult. There have been a lot of times when you have to tell yourself this is only temporary," McPheron said. "This is not forever. Tomorrow is a new day."

The McPherons sold their home earlier this year when the Navy ordered her husband to transfer to Maryland. They were forced to move out of the house in July, but by then the Navy had put the transfer on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With two dogs, two young children, and no place to live, their best option was to buy an RV and search for campgrounds. The one they found is about an hour away from where her husband works at Naval Base Coronado, California.

"Some places are just booked because most people make these plans months and years in advance, and we are trying to do it last minute," she said.

The McPheron family is one of thousands caught up in the military's stop movement order, which the Department of Defense put in place in March. The Pentagon began loosening the restrictions in July, but many families are still frozen in place.

About 40% of the 230 U.S. military installations worldwide have reopened. Those bases met requirements like having fewer COVID-19 cases for at least 14 days. Bases also have to have certain basic necessities up and running.

"They have to have essential services like child care," said Capt. Derek Trinque, assistant commander of Navy Personnel. "There can't be a local travel restriction."

Families also need to have access to movers who can follow military guidelines. As they move, families are subject to inspection to make sure people are wearing masks and following social distancing, Trinque said.

All of the Navy bases in San Diego are still on the red list, meaning they aren't open for normal travel, though the Navy is making exceptions for individual sailors.

"We have a waiver process," Trinque said. "We were able to get sailors moved because they had a hardship or because they were essential to the mission of the new command."

Waivers have helped dramatically clear the backlog of service members stuck in place. The Navy originally expected it would take until sometime next year to move the nearly 24,000 waiting families. Now, it expects to have the rest of those families at their new bases by November.

The number of cases of coronavirus in the military plateaued in August, though COVID-19 cases had been surging through July, even as the Navy was pushing to get more sailors moving.

The Navy is convinced it's operating safely, Trinque said.

"Because we are taking the steps to keep people safe, I believe it is allowing us to make these moves," he said. "Whereas before, 'everybody stop moving' really was the right answer."

Still, determining why one base is open to travel and another is closed can be confusing for military families. In San Diego, for instance, the Navy bases and the Marines' West Coast boot camp are still red-flagged, but another Marine installation - Camp Pendleton - is not.

"Nobody seemed to really know what information to give us or what advice to give us," said Kellie Kopec, another Navy spouse.  "It was a lot of hurry up and wait."

Like the McPherons, the Kopecs also bought an RV when they needed a place to live after they sold their San Diego house. After a delay, they finally got a waiver allowing them to move cross-country to Virginia with their seven month old child.

Speaking from their RV as they drove to the east coast, Kopec said the Navy should assign affected families to a specific person who keep them up to date about delayed moves and possible waivers.

"Something that would be incredibly helpful and beneficial to a future pandemic or other extreme situation would be to allow for case management in this," she said.

The Kopecs will be required to self isolate for 14 days at their new base. The RV will make that easier, while other families wait for their turns to hit the road.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Military and Veterans Reporter, Norfolk, Virginia
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