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Longer tours, fewer moves loom for troops

PCS cuts could shake up thousands of careers

Jul. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Air Force Lt. Col. Ted Roberts and his family recently completed their seventh PCS move, buying a house — and hoping to settle down — near Naval Station Norfolk, Va.
Air Force Lt. Col. Ted Roberts and his family recently completed their seventh PCS move, buying a house — and hoping to settle down — near Naval Station Norfolk, Va. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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Air Force Lt. Col. Ted Roberts and his family recently completed their seventh PCS move, buying a house — and hoping to settle down — near Naval Station Norfolk, Va. (GovMedia)

Congress is ratcheting up pressure on the Pentagon to save money on permanent change-of-station moves, a change that could have a far-reaching impact on military life, careers and culture.

Congress is ratcheting up pressure on the Pentagon to save money on permanent change-of-station moves, a change that could have a far-reaching impact on military life, careers and culture.

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Congress is ratcheting up pressure on the Pentagon to save money on permanent change-of-station moves, a change that could have a far-reaching impact on military life, careers and culture.

Individual troops who know all too well the hassles of PCS moves — whether to buy or sell a house, where the kids will go to school, whether a spouse can find work — may welcome the prospect of fewer moves and longer tours.

But for the military at large, altering the timeline for typical assignments could bring fundamental and unprecedented revisions to the way careers progress, the way leaders are selected and the way units are managed.

It’s the latest sweeping change on the horizon for military life since a new round of budget cuts kicked in on March 1. Congress is targeting the nearly $4 billion the Defense Department spends each year on PCS moves as a rare bit of low-hanging fruit in the massive Pentagon budget.

Lawmakers see that money as a way to control spending in military personnel accounts without triggering a massive fight over politically sensitive compensation programs such as basic pay, health care and retirement benefits.

“We’ve had our eye on the PCS costs as a main part of the personnel accounts beyond salary,” said one Capitol Hill staffer familiar with the defense budget process.

Lawmakers have reached agreement to cut the services’ 2014 budgets for PCS moves by about 5 percent, or $150 million. Those cuts will target PCS funding from one permanent station to the next and will exclude the budget for moving new recruits into service and ushering separating service members out.

The cut was included in both the House version of the 2014 defense appropriations bill and also the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2104 defense authorization bill, making it extremely likely to become law later this year.

So far, PCS funding has been largely unaffected by the across-the-board defense spending cuts known as sequestration because it is technically “personnel” money that was exempted.

Neither piece of legislation specifies how the services should achieve those savings, and it’s unclear how the services would proceed. They could extend tours, which would result in fewer moves each year. They could find new ways to offer back-to-back assignments in the same geographical location. Or they could try to squeeze savings from the budget by reducing allowances or moving fees, or through other so-called efficiencies.

Those details may be coming soon. The House defense funding bill passed in June states that “potential cost savings could be found in the PCS program” and orders the Pentagon “to conduct a review of the PCS program to identify potential efficiencies and to submit a report to the congressional defense committees on its findings.” That report is due in September.

Upending the system

Significantly scaling back PCS moves could usher in big changes to the military profession, experts say. It may require identifying a select group of people who will be groomed for leadership positions and placed on a strategic career track that actually needs frequent moves to cultivate a broad base of experience, while other troops — wrench-turners or middle managers — could have fewer jobs for longer tours over the course of a career.

In fact, for many highly technical jobs or midlevel operational positions, frequent moves not only may be unnecessary, they could even be detrimental to overall readiness.

“One could imagine an alternative where some people are on that leadership track and move every three years, and other people, maybe they should be only moving every five to six years,” said Beth Asch, a military personnel expert with the Rand Corp. think tank.

“That would be a fundamental change. The military doesn’t want to go in that kind of direction. They want everybody to have the same opportunity to achieve the top” positions.

The military moves nearly 300,000 troops and their families each year, or more than 20 percent of the entire active-duty force — and that’s only for active-duty members moving from one assignment to another; that figure does not include travel costs for new recruits and separating troops.

On average, each move costs about $12,000, according to the services’ budget documents.

The services have a habit of overspending on PCS money. During the past several years, the Government Accountability Office has cited the Defense Department several times for violating the 1982 Antideficiency Act by spending more money on moving costs than Congress authorized.

The services say PCS money is exceptionally hard to track because of the long lag time between the first issue of PCS orders to the time when the Defense Finance and Accounting Agency pays out the final per diem and other moving-related expenses filed by individual troops.

“PCS money is notoriously hard to account for. We’re sympathetic to that, but at the same time it’s their responsibility to manage the accounts,” the congressional staffer said.

'Big money'

Pressure to reduce military spending across the board has intensified in recent months, particularly since March when Congress failed to avert the sequestration cuts that will shave about 10 percent off most military budget accounts next fiscal year.

That is helping to bring increased scrutiny to the $4 billion tab specifically for PCS moves, according to budget experts both in and outside DoD.

An internal Pentagon study of personnel costs found that reserve troops actually cost taxpayers less even when they are fully mobilized compared with active-duty troops, in large part because the active-component troops make costly PCS moves every two to three years.

Some budget experts in Washington say some PCS moves may be an unnecessary expense.

“That’s big money,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who said the military could potentially save millions if it allowed troops to stay put for longer tours.

But that would require the military to identify some troops or career fields that do not require moving every three years, on average.

“There are some jobs in the military that benefit from people getting moved around a lot — if you’re going to be the commander of an armor brigade combat team, then OK, you need to move around a lot so you’ve served in a variety of different positions,” Harrison said.

“But what about the vast majority of jobs in the military that aren’t really like that? The vast majority of people are not going to reach that high rank — and we don’t need them to.”

The services may be able to locate savings in the actual moving process by using less expensive moving companies or reducing per diem payments or “dislocation allowances” provided to troops. But experts agree that the most obvious way to cut PCS costs is to simply move troops less often, with one option being to extend everyone’s tours incrementally, to slow down the entire military’s churn of constant reassignments that trigger PCS moves.

For troops, fewer moves means longer tours, more stability for kids to go to school and for spouses to find jobs.

But for the military, fewer moves means less flexibility for personnel detailers and human resource officials who have to fill hundreds of thousands of billets each year. And many military officials firmly believe that moving frequently gives troops more experience, a broader understanding of their career field and ultimately improves readiness.

Slowing down the turnover across the force is an idea that the services have periodically wrestled with for years. But it’s gotten little traction because most military career progression tracks are built on the assumption of moving every three years, Asch said.

“Once again, the services are thinking about having longer tours in a location. They do this every so often, but they quickly realize ‘Oh, that’s a problem because everyone can’t check all the boxes they need to by year 20.’ So it becomes problematic,” she said.

Beyond the cost of PCS moves, frequent changes in assignments have other drawbacks. “Officers have to check so many boxes and they have to pass through so many jobs that they don’t spend enough time in any given assignment,” Asch said. “They might have a year and a half in a job before they start training the next person.”

She sees that a problem for several reasons. For one thing, “they don’t have enough time to necessarily learn and be productive on that job. There are some things you can’t pick up on a dime,” she said.

“There are also some performance incentives, in that you only want to do things in the job that will have short-term outcomes so you can get credit for them. There’s not much incentive to set in motion any long-term things that the next guy is going to take credit for,” she said.

Creating divergent career tracks that require more or less frequent moves might result in a two-tiered professional world where some troops are tapped early on as future stars, while others are moved into careers that, while productive and essential to the mission, will not lead to the Pentagon’s E-ring.

Multiple career tracks are common in the private sector, where many corporations separate future managers from those with technical skills that will ultimately lead to highly specialized expertise. But in the military, that might be a jarring transition, Asch said.

“I think the culture of the military [is such that] they don’t like to explicitly call out that there could be differences in the quality of people, that some people are more on a leadership track than others,” she said. “The current system is very much based on the notion that anybody can become the chief of staff.”

Putting down roots

Another way to save money on PCS moves is to give more troops back-to-back assignments in the same geographic location, know as “homesteading.”

Several services say they’ve been encouraging such geographical stability in an effort to save money. For example, the Army recently extended the average enlisted stateside assignment to as long as 48 months, up from the previous standard of 30 months.

The Air Force in 2006 extended its standard time-on-station requirement to 48 months from 36 months and allows enlisted airmen and officers in paygrades O-5 and below to request back-to-back assignments in place and agree to forgo moving allowances.

But PCS moves are driven by requirements — the number of locations where airmen must be assigned — and the Air Force currently has more requirements than airmen, said Lt. Col. Jason Knight, deputy chief of the military force policy division.

That “requires us to move airmen more frequently to ensure no one requirement sits ‘empty’ for a disproportionate amount of time,” Knight said.

And that’s happening just as Congress is poised to squeeze the PCS budget. “We will manage the reduced funds by more carefully prioritizing our moves,” on the understanding that readiness may be affected “if we can’t afford to move the right airman to the right location at the right time,” she said.

The Navy rotates sailors and officer between sea and shore assignments and allows sailors to request specific geographical locations.

But when making decisions about assignments, ensuring each job is filled with a qualified sailor is the “the primary consideration. Homebasing is a secondary consideration,” said Cmdr. Kathy Kesler, a spokeswoman for the chief of naval personnel.

The Marine Corps has stepped up effort to reduce moving costs in recent years. In 2011, more than 30 percent of all PCS moves in the Corps involved either reassignment to the same base or to an area less than 50 miles away, spokeswoman Maj. Shawn Haney said.

“PCS costs are a major consideration when selecting a Marine for an assignment and every effort is made to minimize expenditure of PCS funds,” Haney said.

For many troops, options for homesteading seem rare.

“You put your request in and you kind of say you want to stay in the area. It kind of gives you the illusion of some control, but I don’t feel like I really have it,” Air Force Lt. Col. Ted Roberts said.

'We're done'

Roberts recently completed his seventh, and potentially last, PCS move.

His family — wife, three children, two cats and a dog — spent this past Christmas morning checking in for a temporary stay at the lodge at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. They had just spent days driving across the Midwest from his previous post at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Roberts enjoys his job as a space and missile officer. But he’ll soon pass the 20-year threshold for retirement eligibility and his family has grown tired of the frequent moves. Several years ago, he tried to get back-to-back assignments in Colorado, but that request went nowhere.

He now plans to stay in Norfolk as long as possible and said when he gets new PCS orders, he’ll think twice before accepting them.

“My family’s gotten to the point where they’ve said, ‘We’re done, we don’t want to move any more,’ ” he said. “We bought a house here. If the military tells us we have to move, we’re going to have a big decision to make.”

Roberts’ story is a common one. The first few PCS moves in a service member’s career rarely create morale problems. Many younger troops do not have families yet, and those who do accept moving every few years as part of military life, sometimes even embracing the adventure of living in new and sometimes exotic locales.

But in the latter half of a military career, troops have kids in school, and their spouses are wary of giving up their current jobs for the uncertainty of yet another move. Some opt to spend their final one or two tours as “geographic bachelors” while their spouses and children settle down elsewhere.

“A lot of time, it’s at the 16- or 17-year mark [when] the wife says, ‘When you’re done playing Army, come back home and I’ll be here,’ ” said Army Col. Mark Bower, a radiologist stationed in San Antonio.

“So you lose people who might have gone past 20 maybe on to 30 — your real experience — because the spouse basically says ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ ”

For some troops, PCS moves can put a big hit on personal finances, especially later in a career, when home ownership is more common.

Navy Senior Chief George Marsinko, who is winding down his career with the Navy, recently moved from San Diego to Millington, Tenn. He has had no luck selling his home in southern California, so he rents it and takes a loss of about $250 each month. “Bottom line, money out of our pockets,” he said.

Virtually every longtime service member with a family can tell a story about how PCS moves disrupted their family life.

Army Maj. Jeffrey Hernandez, a logistics officer, just made his fourth PCS move in five years. His wife, after working for several years in the family readiness office at Fort Hood, Texas, was unable to find work, forcing the family to cut back on things like dance classes for their 15-year-old daughter.

“We had to tell her, ‘Mom doesn’t have a job yet, so we’re going to have to use a bit of savings to help offset that,’ ” Hernandez said. “It’s hard on the kids. They don’t always understand why they are moving and have to make new friends.”

Nevertheless, Hernandez, like many other troops, acknowledges the benefit of the PCS moves in improving his training and expertise. He left the relative comfort of back-to-back assignments at Fort Hood to spend a year in San Antonio on a “training with industry” assignment working in civilian clothes at a food distribution company. From there he went to Quartermaster School at Fort Lee, Va., for one year, followed by a one-year assignment at Fort Benning, Ga.

“I welcomed the opportunity,” Hernandez said. “I said to myself, ‘What do I need to do to make me more competitive?’ If I just went down the road and did another staff job, that wasn’t really going to benefit me. Those assignments or those moves will hopefully prove competitive down the road.”

Yet other troops say back-to-back assignments can be just as helpful for a career. Army Sgt. 1st Class Forrest Parks spent nearly eight years in Germany and moved up from a junior noncommissioned officer in charge of a squad to a senior NCO overseeing dozens of soldiers in a platoon-sized unit.

“That back-to-back assignment helped my career immensely,” Parks said. “I felt that the training we did was important and the deployments we went on were making a difference. I was able to hone my skills both as a mortarman and as a leader during my time there.”

One Army sergeant noted that any shift toward longer tours and fewer moves is good news only for troops who are happy in their current assignments. “What if you’re stuck in a miserable job with the [worst] command in the history of the world?” said the sergeant, who asked that his name not be used.

“At least the way it is now, soldiers in really bad assignments have some semblance of hope to get out of there in a few years.”

Staff writer Jeff Schogol contributed to this story.

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