The Pentagon is grappling with how to start the summer permanent change of station season — when roughly a quarter of a million military moves occur — while protecting the force from the spread of COVID-19.
The military’s busy move season starts after Memorial Day — about when the Pentagon’s current stop movement order is scheduled to expire. As of now, nearly all military moves are on hold as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the virus.
The Pentagon’s leadership is consulting with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in trying to determine when Transportation Command can reopen to start processing PCS moves, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said during a virtual town hall with Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
“What we’re trying to figure now is what are the key dates by which we have to consider opening up the system again for PCS moves. Some of the priorities that we are focused on are probably those first families with school-age kids,” Esper said. “We know that you need to get to your next assignment and get the kids in school. I know that’s a particular concern.”
The Pentagon is just weeks away from when the earliest PCS moves were supposed to start. Each year, the U.S. Transportation Command moves about 430,000 active duty service members and their families to new duty stations – including domestic and overseas moves. Roughly 60 percent of these moves occur during summer, so families can be settled before the school year starts.
“I would add that first, it is probably too early to tell with any sort of definitive guidance as to what the summer will bring,” said Milley said.
The goal is to open up PCS moves during the summer, but Milley said this would only happen if the spread of COVID-19 is contained and medical professionals determine the moves can be accomplished safely.
“The very first priority is the health of the soldier, sailor airmen the marine and the family member, the child. We don’t want to do anything that places the health and welfare of our force at risk,” Milley said. “So, if that means further delay, that means further delay. We will work through that as the summer months come. We are very sensitive to that in terms of children.”
However, the Pentagon can’t just decide to prioritize moving families with school-age children, Esper said. PCS moves scheduled for the spring are currently on hold and these military members still need to move. The Pentagon also has to evaluate the risk of moving personnel and families when different regions are reporting different COVID-19 infection rates. International moves have to consider regulations imposed by foreign governments.
“So we’re trying to consider all of those factors,” Esper said. “It involves the services, the joint staff and of course Transportation Command because Transportation Command organizes the movers and packers.”
Transportation Command must ensure the moving companies contracted to pack, move and unpack the service members can handle the summer surge. These companies have also been dealing with how the spread of COVID-19 has limited their business and affected their workforce.
The military is also working with moving companies to develop a plan to ensure the movers and the military personnel are protected. Esper said some ideas include performing medical screenings on all moving crew personnel before they arrive on a base or at private residences and requiring the use of face coverings.
“We know there is a date out there by which we must decide and determine if we’re going have people either people get their kids in school, get to their next assignment, get to the next professional schooling, whatever the case may be,” Esper said.