Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com writing about military families.
In July 2023, the Air Force let airmen and families know it was running low on funds. The shortfall meant a halt to some bonuses and the sudden pause of some anticipated orders for troops, Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves, that would uproot families.
Though the Air Force's hold publicized a potential disruption to military families, those families have always known that having orders in hand doesn't mean a thing until the moving trucks arrive.
Delays to military orders are an anticipated part of military life. Orders can be stalled or changed for any number of reasons -- COVID, a failed overseas medical screening, or a congressional hold like the one currently at play at the hands of Sen.Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. Military families are expected to roll with the delays.
When Candice Day, a realtor and Army spouse, heard her husband was getting orders in 2015 to move from Washington state to Virginia for a seven-month training without information telling them where they would be assigned after the training ended, they had a tough decision to make: Move knowing they might need to return to Washington in a few months, or stay and split the family while awaiting more details. The Days decided to stay together and hoped follow-on orders would be issued soon.
"Every effort he made to find out information got delayed until he was two weeks from graduation, and he still didn't know where we were going to move," Day said.
When they finally were told they were moving back to Washington, they were met with another hurdle.
"They said, 'It's too late for you to [schedule a move]," Day recalled. "'You should have done it six weeks ago. Now, you have to do a self-DITY [Do It Yourself] move.' So, there I was. In the middle of dealing with a one-year-old baby who had an ear infection, a three-year-old, in finals week of my semester of my MBA, by myself, paying people that I didn't know to come into my house to help me pack stuff and then loading it all into a trailer and having to drive from Montana to Washington."
According to the Government Accountability Office, the United States military is the "single largest customer in the nation's personal property moving and storage industry, representing about 15% of all domestic and international moves." Forty percent of those roughly 400,000 military moves happen during the summer, when kids are between school years and the disruption might be ever so slightly lessened for families.
Delays to orders create bottlenecks. When orders do not arrive with enough lead time to schedule a move with a transportation office, many families are forced to perform a DITY move like Day, a reimbursable move that can come with many unforeseen financial and emotional costs.
"A few days before Oct. 14, they were like, 'Here's your soft orders,'" said Sarah Tatum, whose husband serves on active-duty orders in the Navy Reserve. His report date was just six days later, on Oct. 20. "So, on Oct. 14 when we were packing up the U-Haul to move up there, we got the [official] orders on the day. … I had essentially quit my job without knowing that we were actually going to have the hardcopy orders.
"The amount of stress that came up from it is just ridiculous," Tatum added.
Waiting for orders to be issued is just one part of the process. Once they are received, the hurdle of figuring out logistics comes into focus.
"When [military families] get orders that are delayed or that are issued late, it really cuts down on that planning ability for a family," said Megan Harless, Army veteran and spouse and founder of PCS Like a Pro. "Do they just go ahead and rent someplace short term? Do they prep that out-of-pocket expense for the extra lodging and what all goes into it? Yes, that's just one piece of it."
Because the military lifestyle can be destabilizing, Harless believes this pre-planning helps families feel ownership over their relocation.
"If it's just a single soldier or, maybe, a couple with either no kids or maybe young kids that aren't in school, [short notice] is not such a big deal," said Harless. "But when we start looking at bigger families or the spouses working outside of the home where we get school-aged children or we have children with, you know, with medical needs, 30 days may not be enough time for them to get their house on the market, to figure out a school system to get their medical records transferred over."
The first decision for many military families is finding a new place to live and moving out of their current location. Only one-third of military families live in military housing, subjecting many to the ups and downs of the civilian housing market.
"Many people said they were forced into buying a house because there was no military housing and civilian rentals were the same price or more than a mortgage payment would be," said Dr. Jessica Strong, senior director of applied research for Blue Star Families. Although the organization's Relocation Pulse Check from Fall 2022 did not specifically ask about when families received orders for their next duty station or why they chose their current living arrangement, open-ended responses provided additional insights from military families.
"Many talked about the long military housing waitlists and the limited and expensive civilian housing market, making purchasing the most reasonable choice for them," Strong said. "They then had difficulty purchasing because of the VA loan requirements."
The Benefits of Early Orders
Alternatively, there may be a benefit to receiving orders early. Michelle Bowler's husband is in the Army Chaplain Corps and recently received orders earlier than anticipated.
"Because we had the orders so early, I was able to get on the housing waitlist very early. And I think that's why we got into housing so quickly," said Bowler.
Receiving orders early is not always a benefit, as orders issued too early risk being changed, negating the benefits of early planning. And that is precisely what happened to the Bowler family. Thankfully, the change impacted only their arrival date, not the location of where they were going.
"I had time to go ask people and to go research and to read about 20 people's different experiences so that I could piece together how it all works," said Bowler. "It doesn't seem fair to me to expect people to quickly learn it at the drop of the hat. It is life-consuming."
While there may not be much research that examines the impacts of receiving timely orders, Blue Star Families' 2019 Military Family Lifestyle Survey indicated that "those who received orders more than two months in advance had a greater sense of belonging to the community than those who had 'short notice' orders," said Strong.
While military families know that the unexpected is part of this life, they yearn for pockets of predictability and seek to build community and consistency as they wait for the next set of orders.
The Army may have a solution. Despite glitches upon its release, the Integrated Personnel and Pay System-Army (IPPS-A) is an online human resources tool that may make previously mysterious processes more transparent.
"It has the capability to track changes to orders," said Col. Rebekah Lust, director of the Functional Management Division for IPPS-A. In addition to tracking when orders are canceled or changed, IPPS-A can also track how much lead time a service member is given between the day they receive orders and their report date. This reporting could make it easier for military leaders to identify bottlenecks and instances when it is unable to meet its goal of issuing orders 120 days in advance.
The underlying problem with not receiving timely orders is one of control. Military families do not feel in control of many aspects of their lives. The families I spoke to simply wanted to make informed choices about their future to mitigate their own struggles as they go from place to place. But when their ability to make informed decisions is taken away, they stop feeling like an active participant in the military lifestyle and begin to feel like its victim.
"While it might feel protective to live one's life expecting the worst will happen, research shows that this isn't the case," said Dr. Mollie Marti, social psychologist, resilience researcher & CEO of Worldmaker International. "Military families undoubtedly carry a high level of demands with repeated exposure to life-altering situations."
For military families like the Bowlers, being able to research their decisions in advance increased the resources at their disposal and improved their quality of life upon arrival at their new location.
"It changes how you live your day-to-day life because you don't know how long you're going to be somewhere. You don't know how to schedule anything because in a week everything could change," said Bowler, who is also the founder of the website The Waiting Warriors. She and her online community acknowledge that there may not be an easy button to make moving easier, but orders might be the key to easing some hardships. "The minimum acceptable time should be three months, not three weeks."
-- In addition to her reporting, Jennifer Barnhill is also the chief operating officer and lead researcher for Partners in PROMISE, editor-in-chief of the National Military Spouse Network Day of Advocacy Steering Committee, and the military spouse liaison on The League of Wives Memorial Project.