Have you ever experienced a sight that was so unbelievable you had to question whether it was real? It was moving day and the crew was busy packing out our quarters on Aberdeen Proving Ground. I was at the door checking boxes as they left, when I noticed one of the movers urinating on the side of the house. I cleared my throat loudly and gave him my best “Dude, really?” look. He glanced up and replied, “Sorry, but I’m not paid enough to go inside that bathroom of yours.”

I frowned, stepped back inside the house, and made my way down the hallway to the bathroom. The door was closed, so I knocked. When no one answered, I opened the door and understood immediately the mover’s cryptic reply. The inside of the bathroom was beyond description, an ungodly mix of excrement and vomit that prompted an instantaneous gag reflex. The source of the Chernobyl-like disaster was, as it turned out, passed out in the front yard: a day-hire the moving crew brought along to help pack us out. We called the Transportation office, who brought out a cleaning crew and escorted the inebriated man off the installation.

Normally, an incident like that would be the low point of a moving experience. It wasn’t. By the time our household goods arrived at our next duty station, we’d paid for a missing broiler pan from the oven, all of our electronics were missing, the forks from a forklift had destroyed my vintage comic book collection, and our washer and dryer were crushed. If there was a high point in the move, it was finding the broiler pan – still filled with grease – packed with the dirty dishes that had been in the kitchen sink. Someone had also been kind enough to throw up in one of the boxes, and it didn’t take a detective to guess who.

Many Moves in the military Lead to Lessons Learned

I’d like to say that was our only negative experience during a military move, but it wasn’t. Over the course of 16 moves in 28 years, our experiences spanned the length of the moving spectrum, from generally good to horribly wrong and everywhere in between. Along the way, we learned a lot of lessons, including how to mitigate some of the natural risk that comes with packing up your house every couple of years. No move is going to be perfect, but there’s a lot you can do to ease the pain.

1. Get ready

Every good permanent change of station begins with a plan. Don’t wait for orders to arrive, start preparing early. Military One Source has a good tool for building a moving checklist that will help you get started on the right foot. From there, build out a preparation timeline so you’re not overwhelmed with last minute issues. This allows you to approach a move – which is likely to be a significant event – into manageable, bite-size chunks.

Another major milestone on the PCS “road to war” is ensuring that you set the right tone with your family. Not every assignment is going to take you somewhere you want to go. If you’re unhappy with where the move will take you, venting to your family will only ensure that everyone shares in your unhappiness. For kids, that can be especially problematic. Instead, accentuate the positive. You might not want to go to Fort Drum, but your kids might enjoy operating a government-issued snow blower six months out of the year.

2. Get organized

Every military move is an opportunity to purge yourself of the things you don’t need and to prioritize the things that matter most. Start with a cursory inventory and work to more detail over time. Set aside the things you don’t want or need and plan for a yard sale. Buy some moving boxes in advance and start to pack items that you’d rather not risk damaging or losing. Develop an inventory system and use color codes to speed unloading at your destination. The more organized you are when the moving crew shows up at your door, the more flexible you’ll be to unforeseen challenges along the way.

This is also where your planning starts to yield early dividends. Part of that plan should include some element of a do-it-yourself (DIY) move. There are always going to be items that you need upon arrival at your next duty station, as well as items that you’d feel better moving yourself. You might as well take the steps now to be reimbursed for moving them. Start a file, weigh your vehicles empty, determine what those items are, and save all your receipts (weigh station fees, boxes, packing material, etc.).  You’ll still have some paperwork to do, but a little early organization makes the entire process a lot easier.

3. Get moved

It might seem counterintuitive when the government is paying for your move, but the less time people spend handling your household goods, the better. The best moves are the ones where the moving crew is in and out in a day. The worst ones are when the moving crew shows up at 1800 hours and wants to start working (I actually had a crew pull up to the house at 2100 once, so it happens). This process has always been challenging, and DoD’s TRANSCOM contract drama  hasn’t made it any better. You’re on your own more than ever before, so everything you do to make the process smoother will help to preserve your sanity.

This is also the time to pay particularly close attention to your inventory, and ruthlessly cross-check yours with that of the moving company. Five-fingered discounts are a brutal reality of PCS season. That’s just one more reason why an accurate inventory is so important. The time to discover that your new VR gaming system wasn’t on the mover’s inventory list is not at your arrival station; it’s before they pull away with their truck – and your household goods.

4. Get on the road

If you’ve haven’t packed five people and two dogs into two cars and driven 3,000 miles, then you haven’t lived. Do that a few more times and your darker tendencies are far more likely to see the light of day. Find ways to make those long trips more tolerable, even if it means extending the move by a few days. Somewhere between the world’s largest ball of twine (it’s in Kansas if you ever wondered) and Wally World, there’s a family adventure to be found. Find it. Your sanity will thank me later.

5. Get there

You’ve arrived at your destination. Whether you already had a place to live locked in or you still need to find one, the steps are basically the same. Do everything above, but in reverse order. Get off the road, get unpacked, get reorganized, and get busy living. At least for a couple more years. Then lather, rinse, repeat.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.