Space & Time Disruption: Understanding the PCS Experience

Written By: Christopher Plein, Ph.D. West Virginia University and MFLN Military Caregiving Team

military couple

As a professor, I am fortunate that I am able to rub elbows and interact with colleagues from many different academic disciplines. I am intrigued with the work of astrophysicists. Much of what they do involves exploring the mysteries of space and time and how it shapes our universe. Curiosity being what it is, I sometimes pick up a book or two on the subject.  Much attention is focused on the expansion of the universe. The big take away is that this movement, so to speak, is not always smooth and uniform.  Some explain that this helps to account for the formation of stars and galaxies. So clearly, some good comes out of this disruption.

After a long cross-country flight spent reading about the cosmos, the echo of these thoughts remained as I read a recent report on the Permanent Change of Station (PCS) experience for military families. Produced by the Rand Corporation for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, the report, Enhancing Family Stability during a Permanent Change of Stationexplores how PCS disrupts the lives of military personnel and their families.  This disruption need not necessarily be negative, but it does create challenges and stresses that are bound by both space and time.

The report is provides insight on the tempo and dynamics of the PCS process. On average, in any year about one-third of active duty military personnel go through the PCS process and are relocated to a new assignment and community the report notes (page ix).  Another way to look at this is that the typical military family faces a move every three years or so.

Travel

For most of us in civilian world, the promise of a new move brings both excitement and apprehension. The same can be said for military families.  However, what is distinct in the military context is that moving from place to place is not an option so much as it is a job requirement. The PCS process is necessary for force preparedness and flexibility.

The report inventories the many different military-related and DoD sponsored programs and support systems that exist for families. Because of this robust system, the report does not call for new policies, programs and services, but instead concentrates on how these might be more closely coordinated and enhanced.  The military branches and the DoD have long embraced the concept of a “warm hand-off” for a family moving from one location to another, this report helps to highlight new opportunities for improving this process.

The report not only sheds light on how space, that is moving across distance, affects military personnel and their families, it provides very helpful analysis on how families deal with the PCS process over time (pp. 20-25). The report uses survey data to show how service member and spouse attitudes towards PCS vary in the months prior and after a move.  The general finding is that stress intensifies in the weeks ahead of a move, but that families are resilient on the backend of the move.  This finding alone should remind us that families may have different needs and concerns throughout the PCS process.

The work of the MFLN emphasizes providing support to those helping military families in transition.  Indeed, our colleagues in the MFLN Personal Finance and the MFLN Family Transition teams have hosted a three-part webinar series on the PCS process.  Their most recent webinar in this series focuses specifically on the Enhancing Family Stability during Permanent Change of Station report.

The work of our MFLN Caregiving team also helps to complement our understanding of issues associated with moving to a new state and community.  For example, our various webinars and blogs on policies and systems across the U.S. contribute to our understanding how education, family, and healthcare services may be quite different from place to place.

Across time and space, the journey can be exciting but also challenging.  A better understanding of the PCS process allows those who help military families to acquire new knowledge and resources.

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