Thousands of damage claims expose a ‘fundamentally flawed’ moving system that the Department of Defense hopes to correct by next spring
By Peter Buffo, Sandra Jones, and Jackson Hicks
Originally Published: May 24, 2021
Members of the armed services vow to protect us when they join the military, but their own possessions oftentimes aren’t protected from damage or destruction when they are ordered to move to a new city, state or country.
Dishes are shattered.
Wood furniture is splintered.
Family heirlooms are reduced to rubble.
Some irreplaceable possessions – baby books and photo albums – just simply vanish.
Then the real headaches begin as these families try to reclaim what was lost from the private moving companies hired by the Department of Defense.
Between 2015 and 2019, military members submitted damage claims to moving companies totaling more than $450 million for household items that were damaged, destroyed or lost, according to an InvestigateTV analysis of federal data.
The process to collect for damages is cumbersome, time consuming and largely involves negotiation between the military members or their families and the moving companies.
“We ask our military to do plenty. We shouldn’t ask them to have to deal with the reality of an entire bedroom, your kid’s bedroom that just doesn’t show up at the other end of the move or your grandma’s hutch that is permanently damaged,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “We can’t ask that of them.”
In any given year, the defense department relocates about 400,000 military members and their families, transferring them from one base to another and hiring private companies to move their belongings.
On average, about 30,000 of those moves each year end with a damage claim, InvestigateTV’s analysis shows.
“We acknowledge that DOD families have very reasonable expectations; that their household goods make it from one assignment to the next undamaged,” the defense department wrote in an email statement to InvestigateTV. “We’ll never be able to completely eliminate loss and damage, but we are committed to continually managing the program is such a way that families are made whole when that happens in the course of their shipment.”
Virtually everyone who moves expects a few nicks, scratches or dents.
“You’re not going to have a move where you probably haven’t had something that gets broken along the way,” said Lt. Col. Anthony Taylor, who retired in 2015 after a 26-year career in the Army and Army Reserves.
Taylor moved five times during his service – from Virginia to Minnesota to New York to Hawaii to South Korea and then back to Virginia.
“Moving is just one of those things that no matter how well they try to do it, no matter how much care they try to take, there’s going to be some casualties and a few things are going to get damaged along the way,” Taylor said.
He said that the moving companies don’t pay the full value for damaged or lost household goods. Instead, the replacement value is calculated after depreciation is deducted.
“You don’t get the full value for hardly anything,” he said. “The things that you are able to take with you, that mean a lot to you, take those things yourself. So, that you have at least control/possession of those things. So, that there’s not an opportunity that they could be damaged or lost.”
In 2018, a change.org petition with the hastag #MemoriesSmashed gained so much traction that it caught the attention of elected officials.
“Our military service members and their families already sacrifice so much,” wrote a woman who called herself Military Spouse. “The deployments, holidays missed, birthdays not celebrated, their children’s first moments, training time, and sometimes even their life. Is it so much to ask that moving companies take a little more care in handling our memories? Is it so much to ask our elected officials to step in and protect our services members from the headache and heartache during a PCS (permanent change of station)?”
More than 100,000 people agreed and signed the petition, including Murkowski.
She and several other senators wrote to the commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, called USTRANSCOM, and detailed their concerns about mismanagement and inefficiency.
“Really it’s beyond inefficiency,” Murkowski said in an interview with InvestigateTV. “It is a level of failure that’s simply not acceptable.”
Murkowski said it is not unusual for families to wait six weeks before receiving their household goods during a deployment to her home state of Alaska because the belongings travel by both trucks and ships.
And then some literally have to pick up the pieces.
Between 2015 and 2019, military members filed more than 150,000 damage claims, federal data shows.
“That’s a lot of people that we are stressing out,” she said. “I think accountability there is absolutely a requirement.”
Murkowski said that USTRANSCOM responded to her concerns and vowed to do better.
“I’m going to trust but verify because I don’t want to hear that it’s just TRANSCOM that says it’s good,” Murkowski said. “I want to hear directly from our military families.”
Moving industry: Most moves are successful
While the claim numbers are high and the damage claim amounts number in the millions of dollars, an advocacy group that represents more than 2,000 moving companies said most moves are damage-free.
“I look at it, maybe, in a little different perspective,” said Charles White, president of the International Association of Movers. “Eighty percent of all the moves that we handle for the Department of Defense are damage and loss free.”
He said movers try their best with service member moves but acknowledged that some moves are less than perfect.
“We do the very best that we can to try to protect military members goods, but at times there are things that happen,” White said.
Change moving forward
That Military Spouse’s change.org petition also caught the eye of government watchdogs and is prompting change.
Last year, the defense department’s inspector general released findings from its audit of military moving programs and found troubling results:
• 41% of shipments arrived late
• 20% of all moves resulted in a damage claim.
The inspector general recommended, among other things, that the defense department issue warnings or suspensions to movers that miss delivery dates and to have the military more actively involved in helping families file claims.
In response to the audit, the chief of staff of USTRANSCOM called the personal property moving program ‘fundamentally flawed’ and in need of significant overhaul.
When a member of the Armed Services receives a new station, the move is typically coordinated through the Department of Defense and contracted out to one of hundreds of federally approved moving companies.
To improve the moving system, the defense department last year decided to use a single moving company. But the contract, estimated to be worth $19.9 billion over nine years, was put on hold after two other companies filed complaints about the bidding process.
“Military families are waiting for a new system,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democratic member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But they want it to work. They don’t want to have a new system that continues to put burdens on them as they face this sacrifice of military life of moving here and there.”
The new contract for moving military families is expected to be signed in June but won’t take effect until spring 2022.
For some, it’s too late.
“Every move I’ve had priceless items broken,” one commentor wrote on the change.org petition. “This is move 7 and is the same story.”
Data Cleaning Disclosure
For the purpose of data cleaning and the removal of extreme outliers – such as a $5,000,004,100 acquisition cost listed that was claimed at $2,000 by a DOD employee – InvestigateTV removed less than 0.05% of the FY 2015-2019 moving damage claims records provided by USTRANSCOM.
A DOD employee can claim any amount for damaged or lost property during a permanent change of station. A 2020 OIG audit noted the existence of outliers in claims data, providing examples of these instances which include a $1 million trash can claim (subsequently denied) and a $1 trillion claim which was also denied.
Freedom of Information Act Disclosure
In addition to the FY 2015-2019 claims records, InvestigateTV also filed Freedom of Information Act requests with USTRANSCOM for records pertaining to warehouse inspection reports (DD Form 1812), Letters of Warning/Suspension/Cancellation of Warning (DD Form 1814) and Shipment Evaluation and Inspection records (DD Form 1780) for specific moving companies performing moves for the Department of Defense.
Over a month later, as of the time of this writing, USTRANSCOM hasn’t fulfilled the request for these records.
Complete statement from USTRANSCOM
USTRANSCOM was created to provide global, air, land, and sea transportation to meet national security needs. From their inception, the U.S . Military Services enjoyed near total independence in logistical support and owned and operated their own transportation assets. Following World War II, partial unification of the armed forces (through the creation of the Department of Defense) and the growing interdependence of the Services called into question this arrangement. For four decades, independent commissions, Congressional committees, and defense study panels validated the need for central direction of defense transportation.
On 31 December 1986 Deputy Secretary of Defense William H. Taft IV (February 1984 to April 1989) approved a Joint Chiefs of Staff recommendation to unify Military Airlift Command (now Air Mobility Command), Military Traffic Management Command (now Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command), and Military Sealift Command under a unified transportation command with headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. In addition, the Joint Deployment Agency, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, would be absorbed by the new command. Furthermore, Commander in Chief, Military Airlift Command, would also serve as the commander in chief of the unified transportation command. Finally, on 18 April 1987 President Ronald Reagan ordered the Secretary of Defense to establish a unified transportation command, a directive made possible in part by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which revoked a law prohibiting consolidation of military transportation functions. The purpose was to provide global, air, land, and sea transportation to meet national security needs.
Initially, the command’s mission was to provide global air, sea, and land transportation to meet national security needs in wartime only, with few peacetime responsibilities other than deliberate planning and exercises. Following operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the Secretary of Defense expanded the command’s mission to be the single manager of transportation for the Department of Defense (DOD) in peace and war.
Over the next several years, USTRANSCOM received additional transportation-related responsibilities, including providing common user air refueling and global patient movement. Today, USTRANSCOM exists as a warfighting combatant command to project and sustain military power at a time and place of the nation’s choosing. Powered by dedicated men and women, TRANSCOM underwrites the lethality of the Joint Force, advances American interests around the globe, and provides our nation’s leaders with strategic flexibility to select from multiple options, while creating multiple dilemmas for our adversaries.
Management of the Defense Personal Property Program (DP3) was spread across the command, to include the U.S. Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, a USTRANSCOM component, from 2009 to 2017. In 2018 all functions were consolidated at the headquarters of USTRANSCOM, and in 2019 an independent directorate wholly focused on DP3 was established to integrate the program.
USTRANSCOM administers movement and storage of household goods and personal vehicles through the Defense Personal Property Program (DP3). DP3 currently uses a “tender of service” system for most shipments. A “tender” is a contract to ship, move, or store something. During a designated “open season,” companies can apply for approval to serve as Transportation Service Providers (TSPs) as part of the tender of service program for the shipment of household goods. If accepted into the program, TSPs are allowed to participate in an annual rate filing process, where they submit their rates for the channels they interested in serving (channel = origin and destination pair; ie. Washington DC to San Antonio, TX). If filed rates are accepted by the government, the TSP is listed on a traffic distribution listing for each channel (there are thousands of different channels). When a member receives orders and works with their local transportation office and the Defense Personal Property System, a personal property office awards the tender to a TSP in the program. The specific TSP chosen for a particular Household Goods shipment is based on their filed rates, previous customer satisfaction survey scores and how many shipments they have already been allocated to that TSP for that performance period (there are 4 performance periods per year). This is why filling out Customer Satisfaction Surveys is so important—it helps determine which companies get DOD’s business. The customer also has the ability to request a specific TSP for their move if they want to do so. The selected TSP is responsible for the end to end move; however, the TSP can act through different agents (ie. the mover may arrange with one agent to pack and load the shipment onto a moving truck and a different agent to unload and unpack the shipment) to complete the move. Under the current program, TSPs agree to abide by the business rules of the program, but USTRANSCOM does not have enduring contracts with any of them. Business is awarded on a shipment by shipment basis. The command is in the process of replacing the current household goods tender of service program with a Global Household Goods Contract (GHC). The GHC will fundamentally restructure the government’s relationship with the moving industry. Under the GHC, local transportation offices will issue a task order to a single move manager, who will then manage the move.
The government has the ability to suspend Transportation Service Providers that do not meet the performance requirements of the tender of service program from participation. They will not have shipments awarded to them while suspended. The government also has the option to ban companies from the program entirely. We acknowledge that DOD families have very reasonable expectations; that their household goods make it from one assignment to the next undamaged. We’ll never be able to completely eliminate loss and damage, but we are committed to continually managing the program is such a way that families are made whole when that happens in the course of their shipment. When loss or damage to household goods occur during a move, customers are encouraged to file a claim with their Transportation Service Provider (TSP). Customers have 180 days from their delivery date to notify the TSP of loss or damage. As long as that notification has been made within the 180 days, customers have until 9 months after the delivery date file an itemized claim for every item that was lost or damaged. The TSP has 30 days from when the claim is filed to propose a settlement amount or deny liability for claims under $1,000 and 60 days for claims over $1,000. For repairs, the TSP must hire a repair company within 20 days and have that company inspect the item within 45 days. If customers are not satisfied with the settlement offered by the TSP, they can transfer the claim to the military claims office for their service. The Military Claims Office will then engage with the TSP on behalf of the customer in an effort to reach an agreeable settlement. More information about the claims process can be found at move.mil and on our personal property claims fact sheet. Quality Assurance personnel are available around the world, and customers should contact them with any concerns or frustrations that arise during the move. Customers are encouraged to provide feedback via the customer satisfaction survey on the Defense Personal Property System (DPS), which is the same platform they used to schedule their move. Customers can also reach out to their local personal property office for assistance with any phase of the move. Additionally, each service maintains customer service numbers for their members: Army (800) 521-9959; Navy & Marine Corps (855) 444-6683; Air Force (210) 652-3357; and Coast Guard (833) 551-0887. USTRANSCOM also maintains a 24-hour customer support center which can be reached at (833) MIL-MOVE [645-6683].
Transportation Service Providers (TSPs) are being paid to provide a service to the customer—our focus is on those things industry can do to make the process easier for DOD Families. Our personal property quick reference guide (available on move.mil) outlines what customers should expect from their TSPs, and what responsibilities the customers have when carrying out their move. Some of the things we encourage all customers to do to make their moves easier are to go to the transportation office as soon as they get orders to move, to not sign anything they don’t agree with or understand and to work with their local transportation office on any questions, problems or issues they may have.
Additionally, while vaccination rates increase and some localities relax measures intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Department will retain all Health Protection Protocols established in 2020. These protocols include now-ubiquitous processes such as pre-screening personnel in accordance with CDC guidelines; wearing face coverings; reducing crew sizes to enable social distancing; practicing good hand hygiene; and being equipped to clean commonly-touched surfaces. Moving companies are directed to only accept shipments they are confident can be conducted in a safe manner. Customers also have a responsibility to promote a safe working environment for moving crews by wearing face coverings; reducing the number of family members in the home where possible; and re-scheduling moves if anyone in their home is ill (COVID or otherwise) or has been directed to quarantine. In our communication with customers, we reiterate the decision-authority customers have in the relocation process. Customers are empowered to decide who enters their residence and question moving company personnel on their adherence to Health Protection Protocols. Similarly, we encourage moving crews and drivers to stop the process if they have concerns with a customer’s adherence to health protection protocols.