Moving moments: The challenges of a PCS
For many parents, summer break means planning out-of-school activities with the kids, such as pool days, barbecues, reunions and family vacations. For years, my own little family has made the trip to Massachusetts to spend a few days with relatives at the beach. This year, however, our summer will focus on a much less fun and relaxing activity, one that thousands of U.S. military families like mine undertake annually: unpacking.
That’s because my family was recently assigned to a new military base — hundreds of miles from our home in Washington, D.C., where both my children were born and my professional identity began to take shape. While I’m told that nearly 650,000 permanent change of station, or PCS, moves happen each year, the process still can feel lonely and complicated.
Particularly around July 4, Americans’ conversations turn to the sacrifices made for our freedom by members of the military. Yet the families of these troops — the wives, husbands, children and others behind the scenes of service to this country — are not often mentioned. Their very real challenges tend to be overlooked: coping with the extended absence of a parent or spouse, facing daily worries about a family member’s safety and supporting loved ones through the aftereffects of traumatic combat experiences.
Frequent relocations are one sacrifice with an especially big impact on military families. It’s true that these moves can offer a fresh start, a chance to explore a new area and a great excuse to clean out the infamous junk drawer. But they also include the emotional strain of uprooting your family — not to mention the financial burden that can persist long after the final box is unpacked.
Having found limited data on the needs of military families, my team at the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) recently conducted a survey of military and veteran families. We asked the 5,650 respondents nationwide and overseas about their distinct challenges and the types of support they would find most helpful. Because MFAN’s mission is to be a voice for military families, the survey results will help inform our programming in practical and social support areas.
On the topic of duty-related moves, nearly 80 percent of respondents said these relocations put a high stress on their finances. Overall, 19 percent cited insufficient income as a top reason for not building any savings, and 15 percent reported having trouble getting enough food. Finances are tough for many military families, and frequent moves are a contributing factor.
Yet money is only part of the cost of starting over in a new town, as anyone — military or civilian — who has navigated a move can tell you. The difference for military families is quantity: More than half (54 percent) of survey respondents moved at least once in the past two years due to military orders, and nearly a third (31 percent) moved more than five times. That’s five times they had to fill out change-of-address forms, learn their way around a new town, make new friends, find new baby sitters — and for many, find a new job. (MFAN is hopeful that a pair of bills in Congress, the Military Spouse Employment Act and the Jobs and Childcare for Military Families Act, will make it easier for “milspouses” to transition to new employment and new child care after a PCS.)
Given these challenges, it’s perhaps not surprising that 43 percent of families surveyed have made the difficult decision to live apart when the servicemember is assigned to a new duty station, mostly for the kids’ education or the milspouse’s career. Being away from the person you love (and the other carpool driver, rule enforcer and fun-maker in your family) is very stressful and can challenge anyone’s resilience.
But staying resilient is a huge part of a military family’s job. We may never wear the uniform or go into combat, but we certainly pay our dues in other ways. We chose this life, and we live it with pride. I am honored to work with MFAN to make life a little easier for military families through online resources and a support network.
As my family makes the bittersweet transition from D.C. this summer, I’ll take comfort in the fact that we are not alone in this experience, and that it’s all part of the important role played by military families in keeping America safe. Plus, I’ve learned how important it is to build a little fun into each move: taking breaks for silliness, embracing the craziness and plotting our next adventures. I don’t know how long we’ll stay in our new town, but I do know that whatever I learn in this PCS process can and should be shared with other military families to make our community — and our nation — stronger.
Shannon Razsadin is executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN), a nonprofit that aims to connect military families with the resources they need to thrive.