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The Military Moves Hundreds of Thousands of Families Each Summer. Many of Them Don’t Go Well

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

Traci Mayes knew there would be times her husband would be away when he joined the military. As a First Class Petty Officer in the Navy, being stationed on a destroyer ship in the middle of an ocean is just part of William Mayes’ job description. But that didn’t prepare Mayes for what happened in August, when William received a new assignment and her family had to move closer to his base.

Somewhere in or between Florida and Illinois, Mayes says, the moving company the military contracted to pack and ship the contents of their home lost or damaged $26,000 worth of furniture and prized possessions, including her 6-year-old son’s bed, her great grandmother’s jewelry, her children’s birth announcements and her husband’s golf clubs from his great-great grandfather. Though their claim was $26,000, she said her family “would be lucky to see $10,000 of that.”

Shur-Way Moving & Cartage’s long distance operations manager, Eric Brzezinski told TIME the company is going through their vaults everyday to locate Mayes’ missing items.

“The situation is that we put the stuff into our storage and we accidentally misplaced two of her vaults out of seven,” he said. “We do apologize. We’ve done everything we can at this point, but we are still looking for the items and once we get them, before or after the claim is settled, they will still receive their items when we locate them.” Brzezinski says they have found and delivered one of the two missing vaults, and believe the other one is somewhere on the property.

But that doesn’t help Mayes, who has waited months to be reunited with her prized possessions. And her family isn’t alone.

The United States Armed Forces orchestrates between 420,000 and 450,000 Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves for military families annually, Rear Admiral Peter Clarke, director of strategic plans, policy and logistics at United States Transportation Command, tells TIME. About 40% of them take place in the summer. During the season, the satisfaction rate dips to as low as 80%, Clarke said. That means, every summer, thousands — if not tens of thousands — of Permanent Change of Station moves don’t go as planned for military families.

The issue stems from the contracted packers and shippers not having the capacity to service the thousands of families that need to move in a relatively short time period, Clarke says. U.S. Transportation Command is considering a number of solutions to minimize the number of Permanent Change of Station transitions that have to take place during peak season. Outside of the summer months, about 95% of families report satisfactory moves, Clarke said.

“[Moving companies] have a business model that provides capacity to be able to satisfy the needs of America, and as a result, the needs of the Department of Defense for the average number of moves that happen per week, per month, throughout the year,” he says. “They don’t have the capacity to fully support our peak of the peak move period with quality movers and with sufficient truckers to prevent some of the problems that occur periodically and that have been exasperated this year.” At the same time, Clarke says, many families want to move during the summer months, so that their kids aren’t disrupted during the school year.

More than 100,000 people have signed a Change.org petition demanding better. The petition originated as an open letter posted to Facebook by Megan Harless, a stay-at-home mother of three. She says her family has sacrificed too much to have to go through a complicated and disorderly ordeal every time they pack up their family so it can serve the country. The family has moved nine times in the four years she served in the Army, lastly as a battalion maintenance officer, and the 13 years her husband has, currently as a logistics officer.

“When you’re asking a family to pick up and move every two years — across the country and around the world — when things get broken and things get lost, it becomes a financial burden on that family,” Harless says. “Some of the things we are able to put prices on and hope to get reimbursed for them. Other things you can’t really put a price on.”

Shelly, a mother of five children whose husband is in the Air Force, knows what that’s like. She’s a professional artist who sells watercolor and oil paintings online. When her husband’s assignment required they move from Monterey, California, to Fort Meade in Maryland in 2014, she purchased cardboard packaging tubes for her pieces to ensure they’d arrive at her new destination safely. But instead of rolling the artwork into the tubes, Shelly, who asked that her last name not be used, says the movers folded her masterpieces and put them into boxes. The oil paintings ripped and the watercolor ones got wet, making the colors run. “I can’t sell them anymore,” she lamented.

And while losing the paintings was a financial burden, it’s not the worst thing contracted movers have done to her family over the years, Shelly said. Four of her children have special needs. When the family relocated from Maryland to Nebraska, the movers lost needles her daughter with spina bifida needs for medication, according to Shelly, who says it took a month and a half for the family to get new ones. “They never treat us families right,” she said.

The contractors the military uses are responsible for 100% of the damages incurred, Clarke said, but getting them to pay isn’t always a simple process. During peak season, the contractors sometimes have to contract out more help. Shelly says that during her move from California to Maryland, there were so many contractors involved that it was hard to find who to hold accountable for their broken goods and furniture. TIME, therefore, was unable to reach the responsible party for comment.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and ranking member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, says military families deserve to have simpler moves. “Troops and their families frequently have to pack up their lives to move across the country or even the world in the service of our nation,” he told TIME in a statement. “These folks should be focused on their mission, and shouldn’t be forced to deal with cancelled moves, lengthy delays, and scheduling blackouts that cause personal hardships for them and their families. Moving companies working with the military must be held to the highest standard of service, transparency and accountability.”

The Department of Defense knows the stakes are high.

“We owe it to our service members and their families to ensure that the family relocation experience during the Permanent Change of Station is as low stress as possible,” Clarke says. “We recognize that with the exception of a deployment of a service member away from home, this is the second-most stressful time period that most service members and their families will experience.”

Correction Oct. 22

A previous version of this story misstated the title of Rear Admiral Peter Clarke. He is the director of strategic plans, policy and logistics at United States Transportation Command, not the director of strategy, capabilities, policy and logistics.

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com