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Some military families sleep in cars between moves. We owe them more.

The financial hardship is compounded by the stress on family stability as children change schools, spouses leave jobs and everyone leaves friends.
A soldier at home with child seen from the back.
Military families are not getting enough financial assistance in coping with the cost of constant moves. Anchiy / Getty Images

On Veterans Day, we commemorate the sacrifice of members of our armed forces who left their communities behind to serve our nation. Every day of the year on the homefront, however, active-duty military families leave behind neighbors and local ties to little fanfare as they relocate to other bases. This form of sacrifice also deserves to be honored — and adequately supported.

Right now, military families are not getting enough financial assistance in coping with the cost of constant moves. The situation is particularly dire given the turmoil in the housing market and the challenge of finding affordable places to live. The Pentagon has begun to take some steps in alleviating the burden, but much more needs to be done — and not only by the Defense Department. 

On average, active-duty service members report 2.6 relocations during their time in service. I personally moved nine times in a 16-year period.

My organization, Blue Star Families, and others like us have heard many stories of desperation. The Lacey Veterans Services Hub in Washington state told us that it has helped several families living in their cars or in tents because of a lack of housing after a relocation. A recent survey we conducted also received responses from military families saying they had to sleep in their cars or watch their savings be wiped out paying for hotels during moves. 

The financial hardship is compounded by moving again and again, as is family stability in general — children must change schools, spouses must leave jobs and the whole family must leave friends behind. The Defense Department has reported that one-third of military service members experience a relocation every year and that, on average, active-duty service members report 2.6 relocations during their time in service. I personally moved nine times in a 16-year period. 

I get it — if moves support the military mission, that’s reasonable. What isn’t reasonable is that military families are currently facing crippling costs — over $6,000 in unreimbursed costs on average in the first year alone, according to respondents in our new survey. Another study found that 61% of military families are paying more than they can comfortably afford for housing. Making matters worse, military spouses can lose their jobs with each move, pushing household income down even further. 

With the military overburdened and recruiting suffering, it is neither right nor wise to impose what is essentially a tax on military families for merely following orders and serving their country. Relocations already undermine retention goals, as shorter tours at duty stations have been associated with a decreased likelihood of staying in the military and making the military a career. Military family readiness is directly linked to mission readiness.

Since military families move on government orders, they do not have the option of choosing less expensive regions or staying put. As a consequence, they face a trifecta of costs.

First, moving families often need time to find a rental, buy a home or get off the waitlist for military-provided housing, so they frequently have to pay exorbitant sums to stay at a hotel or other temporary housing.

Then, of course, comes the cost of housing itself. Today, most military families don’t live on bases; those who live off-base receive a government allotment intended to pay all but 5% of costs — calculated to be $74-$168 per month in 2022. In reality, that’s not even close to 5%. Safe housing in decent school districts costs more than the military allots per month, according to our survey findings.   

The third financial hit comes from move-in costs. Maybe it’s fees for electricity, internet or one-time housing costs like curtains that fit the new home’s windows; at any rate, these costs are hardly optional. 

Some in the government have acknowledged that there’s a problem, and that’s good. A new Pentagon effort addressing the housing-market turmoil just took effect, and that’s helped families by increasing allowances for stays in temporary housing, increasing housing allowances in some areas and reviewing how housing allowances are calculated, among other measures.  But the increased reimbursement for temporary housing for up to 14 days (aside from those in a specified Military Housing Area with a housing shortage, which get more) is still short of the 20 days survey respondents told us, on average, they need.

The Department of Defense can do more by restoring the allotment for families living off-base to a 100% reimbursement of costs. For a low cost, it can also improve the relocation process. Adjustments to relocation or housing allotments should occur in advance of the peak times for relocation, and families should receive more advance notice of moves. More than half of military family respondents received their relocation orders just two months before they must report to a new duty station. 

Supporting our military families shouldn’t fall solely to the Defense Department, however. Military families are part of our communities, and they need our support. Local leaders can help by creating tax incentives for landlords to lease safe, affordable housing to military families and encouraging the development of local extended-stay residence hotels. Even smaller steps, such as encouraging landlords to lease to military families with pets if the family can provide a reference from a previous landlord, can be part of the solution to this crisis. 

It is neither fair nor sufficient for an all-volunteer force to shoulder these expenses alone. Veterans Day is a good time to start bearing these costs together.