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The Military’s Travel Ban Leaves Some Families in a Financial Crunch

2020-05-19 17:20:16
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Maureen Elias expected her family’s final move with the military to come as a relief. She and her husband, Dustin, purchased a house in Oakton, Va., where the Army was transferring them from California for Dustin’s final assignment as he neared the end of his 20-year career. They expected to be on the East Coast by April 1, just in time to close on their dream home.

But the novel coronavirus had other plans for the Elias family, as the Defense Department first paused all international travel for service members and their families, and then expanded that order to movements within the United States. The Eliases were now in California indefinitely, stuck paying $3,700 a month for a rental home near Los Angeles and a $4,500 mortgage for a house that stood empty on the other side of the country. The Army did not offer them any financial support. “It’s like, killing me inside,” Maureen Elias, 42, said. “Here I have this big beautiful home I can’t wait to move into and I don’t know when that can even happen.”

The Elias family’s situation is one of thousands resulting from travel freezes ordered by the Department of Defense that have created enormous financial hardship for some families and even split others up. The Pentagon announced the first restrictions in March and extended them through at least the end of June for all service members and their families scheduled to move to new duty stations, permanent or temporary — upending a system that moves its people to different bases around the world every couple of years. On Friday, a Pentagon spokesman said that Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was reviewing the freeze order every 15 days and had made no decision to change the current policy.

The military arranges roughly 400,000 personal property shipments a year, with 40 percent of them happening between mid-May and late August, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. The majority of moves being approved now, as the peak moving season begins, require a waiver signed by a senior commander.

While the restrictions are meant to prevent the spread of the virus, they have also created complications for those who sold homes, ended leases or even had their belongings collected before the freeze was enforced. The Defense Department has left it to one-star admirals and generals to decide whether service members and their families can receive waivers to bypass the stop-movement order, but advocates say that operational commanders have not issued clear guidance on what conditions would permit such a waiver. On May 6, an official from United States Transportation Command, the department overseeing the transfer of service members’ personal property from one assignment to the next, said more than 30,000 moves had been approved, with both military family members and movers required to wear personal protective equipment as their household goods were packed up, in strict compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“The leadership at the Department of Defense and the services have given on-the-ground commanders a lot of latitude,” said Kelly Hruska of the National Military Family Association, a nonprofit based in Northern Virginia. “I can see where they think that’s helpful, but then you have things applied inconsistently even in the same service.”

Hruska said her organization had gotten calls from families who were stuck in place, unable to obtain the necessary waivers to move as planned, even as parts of the country were beginning to open up. Another stumbling block has been the State Department, which largely shut down passport offices — even for the “no fee” passports that military dependents need to travel to new duty stations overseas.

Hruska said one Army spouse who came to her organization recently for help was trying to move from the United States to Europe with her husband and two young children, but her family’s passports had not been issued, even though she applied in February. She has been unable to get any answers from the State Department, save for the department’s website, which does not offer any specific information on the delay for people waiting for their passports. A State Department official said that they were supporting military families by issuing no-fee passports to Department of Defense dependents “as resources and safety measures allow.”

For Elias, the financial burden of paying for two homes led to a breaking point. She decided to move her family herself, using a commercial service, even though she had not obtained a waiver from the Army to do so. She paid $9,000 for a shipping container to carry all of her family’s belongings to Virginia, and she hoped the Army would reimburse her for what the service calls a “do it yourself” move — which the armed services normally do — though she didn’t obtain permission ahead of time.

Congress recently passed legislation that would allow Elias to defer some payments on her mortgage, which she received through the Department of Veterans Affairs home loan program, but there is no guidance on when and how those would need to be repaid — even though she has researched the question extensively online. “I work in the policy space and even I can’t figure it out,” said Elias, who works for a veterans service organization in Washington.

“Repaying just one month of mortgage at $4,500 is one thing,” Elias said. “But if we ended up needing to defer six months of payments and then pay that back all at once, that’s the equivalent of buying a nice new car.”

“It’s just not really feasible or logical,” she added.

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