Military moves are challenging for service members, AND their families. 

I was crying in the kids’ bathroom. Not because of the unusual shade of yellow that I was painting on the wall. Not because of the fumes in the small space. I was crying because of what I was painting over.

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?

It's a fact of military life that families move every few years. But why? Share on X

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.

military moves mean packing up teh entire house and sending the family to a new city or state

Frequent military 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.

Military moves waste 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.

The real reason the military moves so often is emotional detachment. #milspouse Share on X

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 military moves is working for service members.

Will you be less emotionally attached to someone you have known for a year than to someone you have worked with for five 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.

Then there’s the issue of recruitment and retention, which the military has been struggling with in recent years. The saying goes that you “recruit the service member, retain the family.” As families have become increasingly vocal about the challenges of frequent military moves impacting spouse careers, family finances, and medical care for family members, it may be time to re-evaluate this costly practice.

What do you think? Should the military do PCS moves less often? Are they worth the investment?

22 Comments

  1. Kaley

    Well that’s depressing…
    I mean, I understand the practicality of the principle, but their underlying assumption that emotional attachment takes a long amount of time isn’t true. It can take just a few days or weeks, so if that was really their purpose, there would never be a home for our military. ☹️

    Reply
    • Lizann

      I know, it’s a sad part of life for the service members and their families, too! I wish there was a better way to handle it without uprooting everyone constantly.

      Reply
      • Jan Atkins

        Children who were born into a military family learn to “adjust” to the “life-style” of how it works! The Dad (or the Mom) decide this is their source of income and dedication, and the family ADJUSTS! If not they are spoiled and haven’t learned the value of love and dedication.
        The Army is one of the military which has “movement of the families” as their requirement and or lifestyle.
        The other services don’t. Navy, Marine Corps have families that generally stay put while the husband goes to exercises, year to two year dedications while wife and kids either go home to grandparents or find a central place where the Dad can come and go.

        Reply
        • Lizann

          This is… not accurate. All military branches currently require entire families to relocate during PCS moves. The average military family moves every 2.5 years. Yes, families adjust to the lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean their sacrifices come easily. Moving and adjusting takes a toll on everyone, especially as the years and the number of moves pile up.

          Yes, there are still families who choose not to move with the service member. This most often occurs when the service member has orders less than a year, when the spouse has a solid job at the current location, or when the family decides it is important to stabilize the kids in school. While many families choose this “geo-bachelor” option at some point during their military journey, it is not the norm or the majority.

          Reply
      • Glen Hobson

        I was born Ft. Benning in 58, by the time my Dad retired in 69 I lived in 8 different places 2 of which were France and Germany

        Reply
    • Lizann

      But thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! I appreciate it!

      Reply
  2. Rich B

    The reason that the army moves so often is a direct result of the civil war. The US government did not want soldiers to have loyalty to their home state, but rather to the federal government. I am an army brat and I serve not, when asked where I am from I say “I’m an army brat”, which means I am from no where and every where. This may sound silly in the modern era, but think about the current political climate, do you want members of the army to be loyal to a state, where they “could” be called to quell a rebellion. Its a sad fact, but it is necessary.

    Reply
    • Lizann

      That’s an interesting perspective too! It makes sense though, from a legal perspective. The majority of new recruits already come from about 5 states.

      Reply
    • daniel whorton

      The families also experience the detachment. Its heartbreaking. I was a military kid and it still hurts. Some people are more able to over come the adversity. I got over it because I had to. Its child abuse. Weird nasty emotional abuse.

      Reply
      • Lina

        Agreed! The lifestyle may be fine for some kids, for others, it’s cruel. But people then justify it as “character growth” without stopping to consider how the kids must really feel.

        Reply
      • Nope nope

        As a child, I was never given a choice to sacrifice natural emotional attachment growth for my father…if an adult want to choose it that’s one thing. Forcing children to go through it is another.

        Reply
      • Susan Tryggvason

        Daniel I agree 100%!I am a military child (Air Force) it is child abuse. I still have problems making & keeping friends…I’m 68

        Reply
    • Carla Lichter

      I was also a military brat. There were no wars then, it was the 1950’s. My father was fairly high ranking and his job was as deputy base commander. The longest we stayed anywhere was two years, so my Dad would have to learn how things were done at the new military base, which was always different from the last ones for a variety of reasons, including different methodology and personalities. This a ridiculously inefficient and costly way to run a business, which the military is in many ways. They would be out of business if they didn’t have never ending funding by taxpayers. I still struggle with trying to continue a relationship past the one or two year mark when things get more complicated and you have to learn how to make those relationships more substantial. Lose lose situations for children, spouses, and everything the military is supposed to stand for in this country.

      Reply
  3. Faye

    Buuuut wouldn’t being more attached to the people you serve with help you to trust them more? And wouldn’t that make you more successful in combat as a group? And wouldn’t you fight harder to protect people in your combat group if you knew and cared about them? Isn’t this the premise of those crazy-skilled elite military strike forces who train together? “Detachment” might be useful for commanders. I suspect it’s easier to send someone to his death if you don’t know him that well. But, frankly, I’m not sure that’s something we want to make easier for commanders. Sending people to their death is certainly sometimes necessary. It should never be easy. Sorry, military. You don’t get a pass on the frequent moves from me. They make no sense and do more harm than good.

    Reply
  4. Jackson

    Do officers move just as much as enlisted. Specifically would a pilot move a lot compared to an infantryman?

    Reply
    • Lizann

      It varies depending on branch and their specific job. At higher ranks, some officers move every 18 months years as they complete specialty schools or do command leadership positions.
      Pilots depend on the aircraft assignments. If they fly a particular plane only found at 2 bases, they aren’t likely to move much. For more common aircraft, they would be on the typical 3 year rotation until they became a pilot instructor.

      Reply
    • Jessica Carrion

      Officers move more often than enlisted! We served 23 years in the USN and daughter is married to a CG pilot and generally officers move every 2 years we moved 3-4 years.

      Reply
    • Rita M Hodges

      One thing that can be bad is if you move and you’re grateful that you moved because your base commander or your company Commander whoever it was was a total jerk to you and treat you like crap is trying to force you out of the military now you get moved and what happens they move that jerk right to your base back in charge of you where they continue to make your life hell and your spouse’s life hell when you’re deployed. I have personally seen this happen and I think one of the things is you should never become an officer directly out of basic training or AIT people who come up through the ranks have a lot more respect for the unlisted and non-coms I too have seen that. I’ve actually spoken to some officers who agreed with me that somebody should have to spend at least one enlistment minimum as an enlisted so that they learn to respect for the troops.

      Reply
  5. Stephen Ryan

    Typically, a military family moves every two to three years. However, depending on the specific nature of the military member’s job in the family, moves can be more frequent. A member can be relocated to another part of the country (CONUS) or overseas (OCONUS). Regardless of where a family is relocated, constantly moving is tough.

    Reply
  6. Richard

    I was a military brat. Wasn’t bad when I was young but moving in the middle of middle school and high school destroyed me mentally. I’m 33 years old now and time doesn’t heal those wounds. At least not for me. It’s as if every 2-3 years my friends all just up and died on me. I had to readjust to new locations and make new friends just to move again as soon as I became comfortable. Destabilizing a child’s life that often just isn’t right. It’s so messed up. I have been depressed and suicidal ever since I was 16 (our last move). I live in the past. No amount of therapy or meds help me. I want my old life back, I want to finish my story. F*** the military, they don’t care at all for the families. They gave me good years but they took it all away from me. No one cared at all how I felt, no one considered how it would effect me long term. I will never feel whole again.

    Just thought I’d share for anyone else who feels the same way. You’re not alone.

    Reply
    • Lizann

      That is so difficult. Some military kids have good experiences, but many–like you– find the constant moves extremely difficult and destabilizing. Thank you for sharing so others won’t feel alone.

      Reply
      • Richard

        I just want to say thank you for this article and thank you for approving my post. I read it a while ago but have waited a long time to leave a comment. I just want other people who have had a similar experience to me as a result of moving as a military child to know they aren’t alone and it’s okay to feel the way they do. I hope the military can take the mental health of children and spouses into account in the future. Thank you letting me share my experience.

        Reply

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