You are currently viewing Military families often have to move every few years.  It’s disruptive and unnecessary, critics say.

Military families often have to move every few years. It’s disruptive and unnecessary, critics say.

The army moves its members around a lot, uprooting many of them to new positions every two or three years and sometimes more often.

The constant displacement brings additional challenges to military families who move with them.

Maria Reed moved six times in the 19 years she was married to an Army first sergeant. She said the first moves were the hardest.

“I was a deer in the headlights,” she said. “Like, ‘What do you mean we’re moving in 30 days? We have to start all over again, our whole lives?’

With two children, Reed said moving involves more than just packing. There are hours of research on neighborhoods, school districts, home floor plans, and other amenities available.

“Then all the paperwork,” Reed said. “Children’s school records, shooting records – same for dogs.”

One of the hardest things for Reed was the reality that she and her family would have to go through the same process a few years later, she said.

“You get to this place and for some weird reason you think you’re done,” said Reed, who now lives near Fort Hood, Texas. “But no, we are a military family, the orders will fall and we will start again.”

Reed said she’s come to embrace the transient nature of her husband’s career, but that doesn’t eliminate the challenges her family and others face when they’re ordered to move.

Having kids in a military family can add an extra set of hurdles to every move, said sociologist Sarah Meadows who studies the health and well-being of service members and their families at the RAND Corporation.

“One is the education part, and the other is the medical part,” Meadows said. “You have to find new doctors, you have to find new schools.”

And the challenges can be magnified for families with children who need specific school accommodations or additional medical care, Meadows said.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘If I go from facility A to facility B, I have this type of care at facility A, where am I going to get care at facility B?’ she says.

It’s a struggle Alicia Steele is familiar with. Her two sons both need specialized medical care. She moved about five times in the 16 years she was married to a pilot now stationed at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis.

The Air Force considers her son’s needs during the moves because they are part of the Army’s exceptional family medical program, Steele said.

“They won’t even give us a mission unless the base we’re going to has checked and thinks there are people in the community who can handle our situation,” she said.

But that didn’t always mean her son’s doctors were nearby, like when her husband was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in northern California.

“People in the community said there was good access to physiotherapy for my son,” she said. “But it turned out that physical therapy was an hour’s drive through California traffic.”

The Steeles now live in a quiet cul-de-sac in O’Fallon, Illinois – much closer to the specialists than his sons need to see. It helped that this was the second time they’d been stationed at Scott, Steele said.

“Here we live a block away. Voluntarily,” she said. “We knew exactly where we wanted to live. My kids already had all their doctors lined up because I already knew them.

Changing schools can also be a daunting challenge for kids from military families — both because of the administrative and academic aspect of credit transfer and because of the emotional aspect, Reed said.

“It’s about friendships,” she said. “I have my best friend, and now we have to leave. It’s really hard on the kids.”

The military has taken a few steps to try to reduce the challenge associated with frequent moves. The military has a high school stabilization program, which delays a family’s move until their child graduates.

Reed and her husband first applied for this program for their daughter, then for their son. The Army approved both requests, extending Reed’s family’s stay at Fort Hood beyond five years.

“We were so lucky,” Reed said. “It’s a huge boon academically and socially.”

But that has its drawbacks, she added.

“We knew when we got high school stabilization for my daughter that my husband was going on an unaccompanied tour of Korea,” Reed said. “It’s kind of a compromise.”

Steele’s family made a similar compromise. They decided that only her husband would leave O’Fallon the next time the Air Force orders them to move, she said.

“It’s what’s best for our kids,” Steele explained. “My husband made the decision to serve, and we knew from the start that it would require sacrifice. We just try to make the least amount of sacrifices for our children because they didn’t choose to sacrifice.

Frequent and sometimes sudden moves can also disrupt a military family’s finances, said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO and founder of Blue Star Families, a nonprofit that supports military and veteran families. She said that’s largely because military spouses who move around a lot can struggle to find and keep solid jobs.

“The military doesn’t have enough income to support a full family,” Roth-Douquet said. “Just like other Americans, we tend to need a dual income. But it’s hard to keep that second income as you move again and again.”

20% of military spouses are unemployed and 63% report being underemployed, according to the Blue Star Families 2021 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Full Report.

Some states have moved to address by make it easier for military spouses to obtain professional licenses. These programs can help, but miss the root cause of military spouse unemployment and underemployment, Roth-Douquet said.

“The real reasons have to do with these multiple moves,” she said.

They can put military spouses at a disadvantage when applying for jobs because employers may see someone who won’t be around for a long time.

“There are questions when I was at an interview: ‘How long do you plan to be here?’ Reed recalls. “Are they really going to invest in me knowing that we will only be here for 24 months?”

Reed noticed new efforts to help military spouses identify remote-friendly jobs, especially after the pandemic showed people can work effectively from home. But she added that many military spouses like her have given up on traditional professional careers.

“I look at my husband, and when he’s done with his military service, he’ll still be a veteran, be 20, retire, have all of that,” she said. “I don’t because I had to do several different jobs.”

Reed said she’s grateful her family has stayed at Fort Hood for the past five years. She said longer stays would make life easier for many military families like hers.

Roth-Douquet agreed, adding that the military could also help by giving families more advance notice of when and where they will be moving.

“People often move with less than a month’s notice, sometimes with several days’ notice. It’s extremely disruptive,” Roth-Douquet said. “If we don’t have an emergency, there’s no reason why we can’t do a better job planning six months, nine months.”

Giving families more control over their moves would also be helpful, especially for military families of color, she said. Blue Star Families released a study earlier this year documenting how Fear of racism in military towns can weigh on the career choices military members of color make.

“We just want parity,” Roth-Douquet said. “If you can choose where you live and feel comfortable in your community, service members should also be able to be comfortable and safe in their community.”

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.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

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