On the wall behind the bathroom door, marked in neat lines, were the heights of my children at different ages. Any parent would recognize this proud growth tracker. We had moved into the house when my oldest was only 8 months old. My 2 sons were born while we lived there. This was the only growth chart I had used for all 3 children. The names and dates and pencil lines marked not just their heights, but the growth of our family. And now I had to paint over this treasured keepsake.
Why? Because we were moving. After just 3 years at that house, our time was up, and the military was moving us to a new duty station. This time, it was to another country.
My husband has lived at 5 different duty stations during the past 15 years. I have been with him at 4 of them. That’s pretty standard for most military families. It is an accepted fact of military life that we will relocate every few years, sometimes all the way across the US, or even overseas.
But have you ever stopped to ask why?
Why must military families move so often?
We are told that military members need to move to develop their skills and complete different training requirements. The military wants troops to train in a range of skills. But in the modern digital age, that doesn’t make much sense. Instead of training every service member in every environment, we have special forces and unique equipment to carry out particular tasks. Service members can attend schools, or deploy to peaceful nations to train in new environments. Their families don’t need to relocate for short-term training. Learning infantry skills, or piloting skills, or administrative skills, doesn’t change between the East Coast and the West Coast.
Frequent moves cost the government billions
In recent years, Congress has complained about the high cost of military family benefits . They have studied the cost of PCS moves, where the entire family relocates with their service member. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), costs have risen 13% since 2001, and now total more than $4.3 billion per year. Moving costs vary for different branches and between enlisted and officer families. The average cost to the government per move is around $6,700.
Moving wastes money AND time
When my husband’s unit returned from their last deployment, 75% of the service members left the unit to work somewhere else—either another unit, or they left the military completely. Those spaces must be filled before the next deployment. For the next year, new people will join the unit, train together, and get to know each other so that they can deploy again. Not only does this require a lot more time and effort from those who remain with the unit, but it is challenging for their families too! I spent the last deployment making new friends and investing time and energy into finding deployment buddies. Now most of them are leaving. Even though I am staying, I need to do it all over again for the next deployment. It is… exhausting.
Frequent moves are not a good business practice
A civilian company would never operate this way. Corporate business practices don’t move leaders once they have learned a skill. They don’t move until they are ready to take on a new position, such as a regional director, or an employee in the corporate office. Typically, you keep leaders in place, so they can train others and build a cohesive team. Staying put is better for families too. Since teamwork is inherent to the military, why don’t they follow more logical business practices?
Here’s the real reason the military moves so much:
The real answer: emotional detachment. It is because the military is centered on teamwork that they cannot follow efficient business practices. Teamwork creates emotional attachment. Being emotionally attached makes it a lot harder to lose a life on the battlefield. So, to prevent emotional attachment, the military invests over $4 billion every year into relocating troops and families.
Is the investment worth it?
I can understand the value of this. After all, I was the one who was emotionally attached to my children’s growth chart on the wall, which I had used for less than 3 years. I’m just not convinced that the strategy of frequent moves is working. Will you be less emotionally attached to someone you have known for a year than to someone you have worked with for 5 years? Losing a friend in combat is horrible, no matter how long you have known them. On the other hand, no one can weigh the cost of emotional detachment in combat. So maybe the $4 billion is a good investment. Moving often is harder on military families, but if it is truly better for the troops, then that is one more sacrifice I am willing to make for my service member.