SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Every year, the U.S. military moves hundreds of thousands of service members and their families across the globe. It is not cheap. In 2014, the Department of Defense spent more than $4 billion on moving costs. As Alaska Public Media's Zachariah Hughes reports, officials don't know where all that money's going.
ZACHARIAH HUGHES, BYLINE: Standing on his back porch in Birkenstocks earlier this summer, Lieutenant Colonel Alan Brown points to the edge of a river winding through this subdivision in Anchorage.
ALAN BROWN: We've had moose come right up along the back end of the fence multiple times.
HUGHES: The deck is a sliver of calm amid a frenzy of packing inside. The family's lived in this house for three years. And Brown's wife, Kristy, tells me that is a streak of stability compared to that seven moves they've made with the Army since getting married. Just in the last few years, they've lived in Texas, Kansas, Colorado and New York.
KRISTY BROWN: We came up here for the stability because, before this, we had moved annually. And that got quite challenging.
HUGHES: Postings in Alaska are a year longer than in the lower 48 because the state technically counts as an overseas rotation, sort of like Korea or Germany. But his three-year rotation is up, and Brown is set to teach English at West Point. The family is making a vacation out of their drive to New York while ships, trucks and movers transport almost all their worldly possessions more than 4,400 miles. In military jargon, each move, roughly 650,000 of them each year, is called a permanent change of station, or PCS. It adds up to just under 4 percent of the military's personnel budget. And this is what it looks like - boxes, furniture, piles of stuff, everything from the essentials to random clutter. There is just no incentive to shed.
A BROWN: Yeah, that's my scuba stuff. I haven't used those in a long time. When was the last time we went scuba diving?
K BROWN: On our honeymoon.
A BROWN: Yeah.
HUGHES: Because the government covers moving costs, there's not really a need to make a choice about what stays or goes. And even though the number of moves a year is declining as the military shrinks, the cost of a move is going up. A move like Alan Brown's, an officer with a family in a remote posting, would've cost around $11,000 in 2001 and would cost just under $16,000 today. That's according to a report last year by the Government Accountability Office. It looked at more than 10 years of data and found that, basically, the military doesn't keep great records on moving costs.
BRENDA FARRELL: Some of the services report it. Some don't. Some of the service report it but they don't report it for all years.
HUGHES: Brenda Farrell wrote the GAO report. She says the spotty data keeps Pentagon officials from seeing what factors are driving moving costs, and that's a violation of DOD's own requirement that it assess how it spends taxpayer dollars.
FARRELL: When we asked the DOD officials during our review - when was the last time an evaluation was made of the PCS program? - none of them could recall such an evaluation being done.
HUGHES: Farrell says defense officials have acted on basically none of the policy recommendations that she's made. Now, criticism and anecdotes about excess in the program are common. But there are very legitimate reasons why the military moves people so often.
A BROWN: The Army could save a bunch of money if we all just were stationed here for four or five years. It would cut down on the rotation, but it doesn't work that way.
HUGHES: That's Brown again as the movers deconstruct his guest room.
A BROWN: You get folks that really need to go to a new location to expand their skill set and gain new experiences. And so the Army really needs them to move somewhere else and try something new.
HUGHES: The Army hasn't told Brown the full price tag for how much moving his family across the continent costs. But as an officer with three family members living essentially overseas, he hits the most expensive categories for pricey moves. And the costs include more than freight. The military doesn't let service members ship certain things, so they reimburse on the other end.
A BROWN: You got to go buy mops. You got to go buy cleaning supplies. You got to go buy ketchup and mustard and everything, all the stuff that we have to leave behind.
HUGHES: Meaning a chunk of this $4 billion program is just paying for mops and mustard in New York that had to be left in Alaska.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING THEN RINGING)
HUGHES: I check back with Brown at the end of summer to see how the move went.
A BROWN: Hello?
A BROWN: Hey, Colonel Brown. This is Zach. How are you?
A BROWN: I'm good, man.
HUGHES: He said everything went smoothly. It took more crates than he'd expected, but the family was still under its freight limit.
A BROWN: Everything arrived intact.
HUGHES: Well, almost everything. The one thing damaged traveling all the way from Alaska was his snowblower.
For NPR News, I'm Zachariah Hughes in Anchorage.
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