The Pentagon is planning to hire a single private company to oversee the moving process for military families. The current system is plagued by delays, lost shipments, theft, and a lack of accountability.
When the Army transferred Spc. Christopher Cacho from Kentucky to Virginia last summer, his wife knew almost immediately that the process of moving their household would not go smoothly.
The Army made arrangements for the move, but the company it paid to pack up the Cacho's possessions showed up days late. Then, the workers did a careless job.
"The corners of the boxes were bulging," Andrea Cacho recalled. "My husband's a medic, so we only had medical tape in the house. But I put medical tape on top of their packing tape because it was just not sticking to the boxes."
The poorly sealed boxes turned out to be just one part of the Cachos' bungled move. After their shipment left Kentucky, months went by before it reached their new home at Fort Belvoir, Va., a trip that normally takes about ten hours by car. The items changed hands repeatedly, with four companies packing, trucking, and warehousing them.
By the time the boxes finally arrived, many items were missing or damaged - a loss Cacho estimates at about $4,000.
"Every box was smashed," she said. "There was water damage. There was mold. Glass. Our wedding photo, our TV, everything was shattered. It just felt like we took a total loss. One aspect of the move proved especially challenging for the Cachos. Their eldest daughter's bedroom furniture was largely destroyed in route, which made it hard for to adjust to her new environment. "She was having a really hard time with the move," Cacho said. "She has special needs....So it was honestly very stressful seeing the condition of her things."
Calls For Change
Military families have long complained about the poor quality of their moves. Last August, one spouse circulated a Change.org petition pushing Congress to hold moving companies more accountable. It went viral, gathering more than 100,000 signatures in just a few weeks.
That's part of the reason the military began to re-think its approach to moving service members' household possessions.
Gen. Stephen Lyons heads U.S. Transportation Command, or TRANSCOM, the part of the Defense Department responsible for household moves. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, he said there are too many offices involved, making it difficult for the military to manage movers and hold them accountable.
"Today, if you were to look at the way we manage this department: completely diffuse, completely decentralized," he said. "Every service is running their own thing. There's no enterprise approach. A carrier can be suspended over here and working over here."
42 regional military offices are responsible for contracting with moving companies. Each household move is contracted individually, with approximately 450,000 military moves taking place every year.
Now TRANSCOM wants to hire what it calls a "single move manager" by the summer of 2021. It would be a private company that would build networks within the moving industry and oversee contracting. The Canadian and UK militaries already rely on programs like it.
Rear Adm. Pete Clarke of TRANSCOM said the current system is so complex and over-regulated that movers often don't want to take part. He said that's led to a shortage of quality movers during peak seasons.
"The primary premise is that the single-move manager, who will be an industry expert, will remove the barriers for entry," Clarke said.
Skepticism from military families
While advocates for military families appreciate the new Pentagon's interest in reforming the moving process, some question whether the single-move manager will help.
"It seems like the most common complaint that we're hearing is a quality issue: lack of quality assurance inspectors, too few transportation providers, a lot of broken items, and that the claims process is overly burdensome," said Kelly Hruska of the National Military Family Association. "So I'm not exactly sure how outsourcing the management of the move piece is going to solve all of the other problems."
Hruska said TRANSCOM has already made some small but important changes to the move process, such as hiring additional quality assurance employees, increasing crated shipments, and making more mover accountability metrics available to families. She argued that TRANSCOM wait for those changes to shake out before making even bigger shifts.
Megan Harless, an Army spouse who authored the Change.org petition, echoed those concerns. She said the military has offered alarmingly few specifics about a program that is supposed to start soon.
"I've been hearing a lot that this is going to be a great plan, that it's going to solve all the problems. But there's been very little evidence to show that it really is," Harless explained. "So any type of study, market research, even just a cost analysis plan done on it to see what is going to happen ... would be beneficial."
The single-move manager system is still in its infancy. In June, the Defense Department plans to get bids from moving and logistics companies , and will then determine whether the single-move manager concept is cost-effective and technically feasible.
Andrea Cacho said the stakes are high for fixing the problem, because bad moves have already started to affect the military's mission.
"I know multiple people who were like, 'We're just going to get out of the military after this term because of the move,'" Cacho said. "So then you're losing your soldiers."
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.