At this point in the calendar, the wave of PCSers has subsided, and its ugly aftermath is now coming into full relief. My general take on a PCS is that it is generally unpleasant toil, combined with a disconcerting sense of homelessness. On either end of a PCS, you have weeks or months where you might be living within your familiar four walls. But with stacks of boxes amounting to something like 'cardboard decor'—displacement chic—it doesn't feel much like home. Yours...or anyone else's. Coming or going, your home becomes a functional storage shed. If you've thought ahead, you have the basic necessities, but none of the creature comforts that make a house a home.
It's when you open those boxes that a whole new wave of headache washes over you. I'm quite sure that moving companies are carefully vetted, and that the DOD takes seriously its obligation to do what it can to get its servicemembers and their household goods from one point to another with the minimal amount of grief. But once your stuff has arrived at your new duty station, one particularly aggravating element of the PCS takes center stage: the damage assessment phase. On the one hand, you’re happy that you’ve been reunited with your worldly possessions. “They actually made it”, you think to yourself, because part of you secretly suspected that entrusting your stuff to complete strangers, especially on an OCONUS move back home, might well have been the last time you’d ever see it. The last time you saw all your stuff, you were standing there with a pot and a pillow, watching your collection of tangible possessions ride off into the sunset. You just had to hope…
And then it arrives a month or two later, and you chide your younger self for doubting the TLC the government and its relocation subcontractors would afford your lifetime of accumulations. Until you open a box or two, or unwrap the wrong piece of furniture. You see, moving crews make it very clear that they will acknowledge and damages that may crop up. And they will sign paperwork to that effect. You are then directed to your duty station’s personal property or transportation office to begin filing for reimbursement. That’s when the real fun begins.
Knowing that sending your stuff with a major relocation outfit means that yours is just one household’s worth of gear with which they’re dealing. And they probably deal with thousands of customers at any one time. I really have no idea. My point is that professional movers deal in bulk, and it is understandable that there may be a tolerable amount of damage they they’ll allow. They’ll never say this, of course. It would be bad for business. But I can only guess that, just like a fast food burger will never quite look like it does on the menu board, every last piece of your stuff probably won’t look the same as it did the last time you saw it.
I don’t like it, for sure. But I understand that not everything you own is going to be treated to its own seat on Air Force One. It’s the process of getting reimbursed for those damages that I find wildly forbidding. It becomes something of a war of attrition, or at the very least, an unstated ‘deductible’ that you accept when you PCS. Just like insurance providers have deductibles, which limit the number of frivolous, penny-ante claims it must pay out, the mountain of paperwork you must file to be reimbursed for lost or damaged items becomes its own cost-benefit calculation. Is it really worth it to fill out, with exacting detail, that stack of PPO forms because one of your picture frames was broken and the leg of your kitchen table was scratched? Oh, and it isn’t just the initial wave of paperwork either. If you’ve been ‘approved to file’ (or something to that effect) for household goods damages, you then must follow up that initial ‘pre-claim’ and fill out and file yet another stack of forms and verifications to eventually, maybe, possibly receive a portion of the loss you’ve incurred. Is the time and headache I’d have to go through to—maybe—get some money back for those damages worth the time and aggravation? In our moves, I made an executive decision that it wasn’t. I was happy to have our stuff back, and to be able to set up shop at our new post. But there’s always that petulant nerve in the back of your head that bugs you about having a few of your things broken. I know I’m speculating here, but there’s a part of me that believes that the layers of both paperwork and bureaucracy are de facto deductibles that a lot of people are not going to want to pay. The last thing you want to do as a PCS is wrapping up is to add to the deluge of paperwork you must deal with, and add a relatively time consuming process to your list of things to do. I know they give you a few months to file those initial damage claims. I know there’s a regimented procedure to file a grievance and seek damages. And I also suspect that someone, somewhere, knows that unless a whole lot of your stuff is really messed up, you won’t bother.
We have been relatively lucky with our movers, and I don’t want to take any one firm or moving crew to task. They generally know what they’re doing, and extend the proper care to your stuff as space and time allow. Oh, there have been some minor disagreements about what not to place inside of or on top of other things. But we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the condition of our stuff when it arrives at our new duty stations. It's when those minor damages crop up, and you’re met with the overwhelming process of getting reimbursed, that the real headscratching begins. “It has to be easier than this…”