Photo illustration: DashParham/staff; Johnny Saldivar/USAF; Matthew W. Jackson
Photo Caption & Credits

Move Out!

Oct. 1, 2020

Relocating is hard for everyone, but for service members, it’s a way of life. COVID-19 challenged even the pros.

Packing up and moving was hard under normal circumstances. Then came the coronavirus.

For thousands of Air Force families, routine relocations in 2020 became a series of decisions that could separate Airmen from their spouses and kids, upend career moves, and interfere with unit cohesion and everyday work.

“It’s like a house of cards—you pull one card out at the wrong place, and your entire house falls. We just threw the cards away,” Col. Jennifer Allee, the Air Force’s military force policy division chief, said of revamping relocation policy during the pandemic. “When you put your weapon on and you deploy, … it was almost that kind of feeling, working this policy.”

More than 30,000 Airmen and their families moved between March and mid-August, during what is already the busiest time of year for permanent changes of station (PCS) around the world.

It’s like a house of cards—you pull one card out at the wrong place, and your entire house falls. We just threw the cards away.

Col. Jennifer Allee, the Air Force’s military force policy division chief

Delays and health precautions are stretching that hectic summer season into December. It usually ends in September.

Around the end of February, as COVID-19 spread to every continent but Antarctica and the U.S. reported its first coronavirus-related death, the Air Force started thinking about precautions Airmen would need as they started to move en masse. 

There wasn’t much time to prepare, Allee said. Countries around the globe had started to close their borders to halt the virus’s march. The Defense Department (DOD) on March 13 put a 60-day ban on all travel to, from, or through places where COVID-19 was widely taking hold, like China, Iran, South Korea, and most of Europe. By April 1, that encompassed all nonessential international travel.

The global stop-movement order froze foreign and domestic permanent changes of station in place. Some people were left stranded after selling their homes or ending a lease, or without household items that had already shipped to their next destination. Others in limbo had to postpone their plans entirely, or saw their assignments rerouted from overseas to a base in the U.S. instead.

The Department of the Air Force needed to act fast to keep its people pipeline moving.

Moving boxes sit in the old Las Vegas home of Capt. Anthony, logistics flight commander for the 432nd Support Squadron. Anthony was scheduled to PCS from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., before the COVID-19 response began, and had already started the move when policies were enacted, but the Traffic Management Office was able to assist him in getting his home goods shipped despite the flood of changes taking place. USAF/courtesy

“We had people leaving, we still had some form of trainees coming into the Air Force and needing to go to their first duty assignment, and we were going to cause a backlog,” Allee said. “We very quickly had to adapt.”

A task force of about 25 colonels and civilian employees met daily to draw up policy exceptions that would help commanders move people as needed. Each installation posed different considerations, depending on COVID-19 caseload, testing,  hospital capacity, and foreign travel requirements such as a 14-day quarantine period.

Letting commanders decide whether to greenlight a move helped some whose bosses were flexible—but waiting for a decision frustrated others.

“It’s so frustrating to have your whole PCS in the hands of one person, whether or not they thought it was justified,” said Kerri Burrows, an Air Force spouse who moved from South Korea to Texas.

The Air Force’s first priority was allowing anyone leaving the service to separate or retire. The second was bringing new Airmen into basic training. Initially, the service decided to keep those graduates within the U.S. for their first jobs instead of moving them overseas, but now new Airmen are again traveling to foreign posts.

To ease the load on U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees the flow of service members and their belongings around the world, the Air Force started prioritizing who it wanted to move most urgently. That became more critical once DOD began rolling back travel restrictions in early June.

Airmen had options: Some wanted to leave on time, while others chose to move a few months later than originally scheduled. Others asked to stay in place for a year because it better fit their personal or family needs, with regards to schooling or health issues. Some moved to their new job, but temporarily left their families behind.

Airmen overseas saw their tours extended in cases where the service couldn’t get their replacements in, or those already in-country, out. Others had their time abroad cut short. The service tried to consider everyone on a case-by-case basis.

“We did allow Airmen to think about their ‘report no later than’ days, and some people with children opted to move their families over the Christmas holiday, where they felt like their children would have a natural break in school,” Allee said. “We tried to be very accommodating, one, for health and safety reasons, and two, for Airmen to take care of their families and keep them together.”

Summer months saw a wild swing in the number of people allowed to move, from about 500 in June to 13,000 in July once more places were cleared for travel. Around 6,000 to 7,000 people typically PCS, on average, during the Air Force’s busiest months of June, July, and August.

Pressure mounted to find moving companies, airline seats, and housing in time to report to the next job. Airmen could also opt to pack up themselves and drive to their next duty location.

TRANSCOM directed its network of more than 900 moving and storage providers to abide by public health guidelines when helping service members move, by wearing face coverings and shrinking crews to aid in social distancing.

Moving companies must attest that they screened all crew members for illness and equipped them to deal with new hygiene practices before starting to pack or deliver belongings, TRANSCOM spokesman Micheal L. Walton said. 

Air Force spokeswoman Col. Holly Hess, who transferred from Texas to Virginia, said a quality-assurance inspector was present at her home during the move. Her crew wore masks despite the San Antonio heat, and Hess said the process went smoothly.

“There’s an added layer of stress because you don’t want to expose your family, you have these strangers in your house, any of the concerns that I think a mother or any person would have, because there’s a lot of unknowns about the pandemic and about the virus,” Hess said.

Maj. Nate Amsden, commander of Detachment 5 under the Space Force’s 544th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Group, moved from Ohio to Virginia. He was looking forward to a smooth transition after a previous move proved particularly stressful.

The pandemic canceled his plans to see family and friends across the country before house hunting. The family of five, with three children aged 6 and under, briefly panicked when the Air Force approved their move two weeks early. They thought they had only two weeks to find renters for their Ohio property as well as a new home in Virginia. Amsden worried DOD policy would change again and further complicate things.  

“The most stressful thing for my family was the uncertainty of finding a house, because we had planned to go house hunting in April so we could do the door-to-door to door move,” he said. “When those plans were canceled, … it was, OK, when are we going to be able to travel to find a house, or when am I even going to move?”

But Amsden’s group commander was understanding, and granted him more time to find a home and start the new job in mid-June as planned.

A chart shows measures Airmen and their families should take while moving in a COVID-19 environment. Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Friends from work at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, helped pack Amsden’s belongings for ABF Freight to ship to his door in Virginia. He said they felt comfortable enough with each other’s precautions not to wear masks while packing. The kids needed to be out of the way, so sending them to sleep at a friend’s house was a risk they had to take, he said.

“It was kind of like, let’s do the best we can and just hope nothing bad comes out,” Amsden said.

An Airman at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was reassigned to Kansas in the middle of moving from Guam to Italy, home to one of Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.

He and his wife headed to McConnell; their household goods and his vehicle kept going to Italy instead. The Airman said he shipped his belongings in January and received them in mid-August. A TRANSCOM spokesman acknowledged that delay could happen because of misdirected packages, travel restrictions, and other COVID-related shipping issues.

The McConnell Airman said he paid about $5,000 out-of- pocket to buy a new refrigerator, washer and dryer, and other appliances that he could have brought from Guam to Kansas, but ditched them because he thought he was going to Italy. European electrical outlets are incompatible with American appliances without an adapter.

“Imagine rental car expenses, then housing expenses … from kitchenware to the fridge and the washer/dryer and the mattress,” he said. “I can’t imagine for a newer Airman that came to the Air Force, or somebody that’s not in a stable situation financially or something, how that would have affected them. For me, I was able to handle it and incur the few thousand dollars [of] additional expenses in the process.”

He hopes the Air Force might be able to reimburse him through funding from the pot used for people who need to live in hotels while PCSing. He said it’s unfair that he hasn’t been paid back for charges he didn’t expect, but said it ultimately boils down to the military’s culture of “doing more with less.”

“There’s not much you can learn, other than, be ready to live out of a suitcase for however long you need to. For me, it was almost eight months. I can’t say it was bad,” he said. “The only thing that was disappointing to me was the way the financial stuff was handled.”

He’s now working as a training manager, which isn’t his typical career field. It’s the job McConnell had available because they weren’t expecting him, he said. He could be there for up to six years.

For some, shifting travel dates complicated moving company appointments and airline tickets.

Burrows said her family planned to leave in July until her husband was ordered to arrive at training earlier, before the travel freeze ended. The family had trouble figuring out when movers would take their belongings: No one would schedule it for early May as they wanted, so it was pushed to late that month instead.

Kelly Campbell, an Air Force spouse who moved this summer from Okinawa, Japan, to Mountain Home, Idaho, said they needed to find a date when the military flight out of Okinawa could accommodate their two dogs. When that date changed again because of the stop-move order, and the military plane didn’t have space for the dogs, they turned to a pet shipping company that quoted an “astronomical” cost. They and their pets were eventually allowed to fly military air together.

Senior Airman Jason Wade, a cyber target analyst at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, also had to cancel and rebook commercial flights from Italy until he found ones with room to bring his two cats.  

Once in the U.S., Wade felt that receiving 10 days of housing assistance funds during the military’s required 14-day quarantine, or restriction of movement, forced Airmen to work on finding a home instead of being safe.

“We basically didn’t quarantine because we couldn’t,” he said of needing to find housing before the military assistance ran out. “It would make more sense to me if they gave us 14 days [of Temporary Lodging Allowance] for quarantine, and then 10 days [for house hunting] afterward. That’s where I feel like the leadership aspect failed at promoting personnel protection.”

He said the pandemic has also taken a toll on his work schedule. Even though cyber is designated as a mission-essential field, Wade was in limbo between jobs, waiting to leave Italy but lacking the security clearance to start his new position once in Texas.

“I basically haven’t really been working normal shifts for six, seven months now,” he said. “It’s very strange. … I would also like to see my squadron, and COVID is hampering that because I have to get a polygraph to do my job.”

He expected it would take until at least mid-September for his clearance to go through so he could join the other cyber Airmen. In the meantime, he waited for his belongings to arrive in Texas, went for walks, and bought groceries.

“It’s pretty monotonous right now,” he said in August. “There’s training available, but … I don’t have my household goods, and I don’t have my computer.”

Wade noted that because of the pandemic, he hasn’t gotten much help with in-processing at JBSA. The onus is on Airmen to figure out their own issues, like finding a car. He hopes younger Airmen—those coming out of technical school who don’t know the ropes of military moves—aren’t left in the dark. He also worries about people dealing with anxiety and depression during a stressful PCS, particularly while parts of American society are still shut down because of the pandemic.

He recommends service members double-check important dates for aspects such as flights and moving crews, to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible in unusual circumstances.

Despite the Air Force’s effort to ease the moving process, Airmen and their families had mixed reviews of how easy the changing guidelines were to follow. Amsden felt the service lacked a cohesive policy at the top or local levels of the Air Force.

“Every day was new information and new rumors,” Burrows said.

Allee, in the Air Force’s personnel shop, said the service heard those concerns and was working on new guidance to help.

Moving to a new station is stressful in the best of times. These aren’t the best of times. Global travel restrictions meant to limit the spread of COVID-19 made the summer relocation season complicated and even more difficult. Airman 1st Class Kylee Thomas

“We just want the Airmen to be able to have the most up-to-date information at their fingertips as they get ready to move,” she said. “What happens if you get on your plane and you go overseas and suddenly the country you’re landing in doesn’t allow you to come in because you don’t have a piece of paper with a negative test? We don’t want Airmen to get caught up in that.”

The service wants to make sure its installations are working hand in hand with the logistics and medical communities to give people everything they need at a military port or commercial airport.

The Air Force is thinking about what future moves might look like or how much time Airmen will need to complete the process, as well.

“Maybe we don’t have to move the force as often as we originally thought, if we could set up this telework environment,” Allee said. She acknowledged those considerations will be different for people in combat-related jobs compared to those doing administrative staff work.

Walton, the TRANSCOM spokesman, said they are trying to improve the Pentagon’s biggest challenge during the pandemic: communication.

“When we saw delays or other issues with specific shipments, we made phone calls to customers to explain the issue and field their questions. We also tried to improve our help desks and customer service,” he said. The command is assessing whether its policy changes this year worked for families and corporate partners.

“Implementing the stop-movement order brought to focus nuanced interrelationships and challenges, which have always existed, but were not as apparent as they were this year,” Walton said. “The most notable is the linkage with the personnel community. We need to take a broader approach across the department and develop a more integrated and complete approach to delivering information to DOD personnel and their families.”

It’s too early to declare success, he added, as TRANSCOM continues processing higher-than-normal volumes of people and belongings into the fall.

In the meantime, Airmen and their families are adjusting to life in new places.

Burrows’s family in Texas wishes they could go out and meet new people, as in past moves. Usually, they would join as many activities and groups as possible, but making connections with others during a pandemic and “trying to remember people’s names when you can only see their eyes” is not easy, according to Burrows0.

Her daughter started high school without ever seeing the inside of her new school and is now dealing with being the “new kid” in an online classroom.

An Air Force career “has taught us to be very resilient,” Burrows said, but “the virus has kind of sucked the life out of our military life.”