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Military families often have to move every few years. Critics say it's disruptive and unnecessary

Alicia Steele sits on a couch behind her son's golden retriever service dog, Buckeye, in their home in O'Fallon, IL near Scott Air Force Base on Feb. 11, 2022. Steele has moved five times in the 16 years she's been married to her husband, a pilot in the Air Force.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Alicia Steele sits with her son's service dog, Buckeye, in their home in O'Fallon, Illinois near Scott Air Force Base in February. Steele has moved five times in the 16 years she's been married to her husband, a pilot in the Air Force.

The military moves its members around a lot, uprooting many of them to new posts every two to three years and sometimes more often.

The constant shuffling brings extra challenges for military families who move alongside those enlisted.

Maria Reed has relocated six times in the 19 years she’s been married to an Army first sergeant. She said the first few moves were the hardest.

“I was deer in the headlights,” she said. “Like, ‘What do you mean we’re moving in 30 days? We have to start all over, our whole life?’”

With two children, Reed said moving involves much more than just packing. There are hours of research into neighborhoods, school districts, home floor plans, and other available amenities.

“Then all the paperwork,” Reed said. “Kids' school records, shot records - same for the dogs.”

One of the most challenging things for Reed was the reality that she and her family would have to go through the same process a few years later, she said.

“You get to that location and for some strange reason, you think you’re done,” said Reed, who's now living near Fort Hood, Texas. “But no, we’re a military family, the orders are going to come down, and we’re going to do this again.”

Reed said she’s come to embrace the transient nature of her husband’s career, but that doesn’t eliminate the challenges her family and others face when they get orders to move.

New schools, new doctors, new obstacles

Having children in a military family can add an additional set of obstacles with every move, said Sarah Meadows, a sociologist who studies the health and well-being of service members and their families at the RAND Corporation.

“One is the education piece, and the other is the medical piece,” Meadows said. “You have to find new doctors, you have to find new schools.”

And the challenges can be amplified for families with children who need specific accommodations at school or additional medical care, Meadows said.

“You have to think about, ‘If I’m going from installation A to installation B, I have that kind of care at installation A, where am I going to get care at Installation B?” she said.

It’s a struggle Alicia Steele is familiar with. Her two sons both require specialized medical care. She’s moved about five times in the 16 years she’s been married to a pilot now stationed at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis.

The Air Force does consider her son’s needs during moves because they're in the military’s exceptional family medical program, Steele said.

“They won't even give us an assignment unless the base we’ll be going to has checked and believes there are people in the community that can handle our situation,” she said.

But that hasn’t always meant her son’s doctors are nearby, like when her husband was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in northern California.

“People in the community said there was good access to physical therapy for my son,” she said. “But it turned out that physical therapy was an hour away through California traffic.”

The Steeles now live on a quiet cul-de-sac in O’Fallon, Illinois - much closer to specialists her sons need to see. It helped that this is the second time they’ve been stationed at Scott, Steele said.

“Here we live one block away. Purposefully,” she said. “We knew exactly where we wanted to live. My kids already had all their doctors lined up because I already knew them.”

Changing schools also can be a significant challenge for the children in military families - both because of the administrative and academic side of transferring credits, and because of the emotional side, Reed said.

“It’s about friendships,” she said. “I have my best friend, and now we have to leave. It’s really hard on the kids.”

'They didn’t choose the sacrifice'

The military has taken a few steps to try to lessen the challenge associated with frequent moves. The Army has a high school stabilization program, which delays a family's move until their child graduates.

Reed and her husband applied for that program first for their daughter and again for their son. The Army approved both applications, extending Reed’s family’s stay at Fort Hood beyond five years.

“We were so lucky,” Reed said. “It’s such a huge blessing academically and socially.”

But it does come with its downside, she added.

“We knew when we got high school stabilization for my daughter that my husband was going to do an unaccompanied tour in Korea,” Reed said. “It’s kind of the trade off.”

Steele’s family made a similar compromise. They decided only her husband will move from O’Fallon the next time the Air Force orders them to relocate, she said.

“It’s what’s best for our kids,” Steele explained. “My husband made that decision to serve, and we knew all along that would require sacrifices. We’re just trying to make the least amount of sacrifice for our kids because they didn’t choose the sacrifice.”

Frequent moves can derail spouses' careers

Frequent and sometimes sudden moves can also disrupt a military family's finances, said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO and founder of Blue Star Families, a non-profit that supports military and veteran families. She said that's largely because military spouses who move around a lot can struggle to find and retain solid employment.

“Military people don’t have enough income to generally support a full family by themselves,” Roth-Douquet said. “Just like other Americans we tend to need dual incomes. But it is hard to keep that second income as you move over and over again.”

20% of military spouses are unemployed, and 63% report being underemployed, according to the 2021 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report from Blue Star Families.

Some states have moved to address that by making it easier for military spouses to get professional licenses. Those programs can help, but miss the root cause of unemployment and underemployment for military spouses, Roth-Douquet said.

“The real reasons have to do with those multiple moves,” she said.

They can put military spouses at a disadvantage when applying for jobs because employers may see someone who won’t be around for a long time.

“There are questions when I was at an interview: ‘How long are you planning on being here?’” Reed recalled. “Are they really going to invest in me knowing that we’re only going to be here for 24 months?”

Reed has noticed some new efforts to help military spouses identify remote friendly jobs, especially after the pandemic showed people can effectively work from home. But she added that many military spouses like her have given up traditional professional careers.

“I look at my husband, and when he’s done with his military service, he’s always going to be a veteran, done 20 years, retire, have all that,” she said. “I don’t because I’ve had to do multiple different jobs.”

Possible solutions: more notice, more control

Reed said she’s grateful her family has stayed put at Fort Hood for the past five years. She said longer stays would make life easier for many military families like hers.

Roth-Douquet agreed, adding the military could also help by giving families more notice of when and where they’re going to move.

“People are often moving with less than a month’s notice, sometimes with days’ notice. That’s enormously disruptive,” Roth-Douquet said. “If we don’t have an emergency going on, there is no reason why we can’t do a better job planning six months, nine months.”

Giving families more control over their moves would also help, especially for military families of color, she said. Blue Star Families released a study earlier this year documenting how fear of racism in military towns can weigh on the career choices service members of color make.

“We just want parity,” Roth-Douquet said. “If you get to choose where you live and you get to be comfortable in your community, military people should be able to be comfortable and safe in their communities, too.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.