July 21, 2024
"If mama ain't happy, nobody's happy." It's as outdated a saying as is the military's impression of what a "normal" family looks like. Gone are the days of the all male force, with 2.5 kids and a stay at home mom in every government issued quarters. The types of families that make up the greater U.S. Army are far more diverse than 10-20 years ago. Dual income families are much closer to the norm and unfortunately the Army's professional military education system and the moves associated with it force significant spouse unemployment. WAR ROOM welcomes back Paul Kearney to propose solutions to the system that aim to improve life at home, increase retention, and in turn maximize talent management.

…However, it is not enough to simply seek out the best and brightest fish in the pond; we need to build a bigger pond and fill it with more fish.

As the Army reevaluates its talent management systems, it has focused on ways that it can make better promotion and selection decisions. New programs have been created like the Battalion Commander’s Assessment Program (BCAP) and formerly ubiquitous requirements like the Department of the Army Photo have fallen into the trash heap of history. These changes are essential steps towards ensuring that officers are selected for the most critical positions without implicit biases negatively impacting the meritocratic process. However, it is not enough to simply seek out the best and brightest fish in the pond; we need to build a bigger pond and fill it with more fish. Current diversity and inclusion efforts, though laudable, are focused on making sure that those who are best within the system get promoted. Unfortunately, many factors cause talented officers to leave the Army, and they take their experience, skills, and years of government investment with them. One of the factors that drives talent out of the Army is what I call the PCS penalty, or the compounding adverse effects of permanent changes of station (PCS) moves often during a military career. These effects are worse than in past generations and are being exacerbated by the outdated structure of officer professional military education (PME). By recognizing the new realities of the Army, the Army can become more inclusive and retain top talent at lower costs.

The Army has undergone rapid changes within the last 20 years. Amidst the Global War on Terrorism, advances like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the removal of gender restrictions for serving in combat arms positions, and numerous diversity and inclusion firsts have been the highlight reel of the Total Army Force. Unfortunately, many military policies and systems are anchored in a 1950s-stereotypical family model that is no longer reflective of the force. Family life has shifted across American society, and the military is no different.  A Center for Economic Studies report looked at the rise of dual-income families across the United States and saw that from 1960 to 2000, the number of dual-income families more than doubled to over 60%. A 2019 survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed this, reporting that in 69.9% of families, both parents work. Prospects for dual-income families shape both career and family choices. But while two-income households are the norm in many places, the military is ill-suited to adapt.  For the first time in the Army’s history, a majority of officers’ spouses, over 60 percent, are employed or actively seeking employment. If the Army wishes to compete for top talent, it is no longer sufficient to address the needs and career desires of the officer in isolation. The Army needs to focus on the entire family unit, particularly military spouses.

Army families accrue the “PCS Penalty” every time an officer is required to uproot and move their family. Nearly every  military move forces a short period of spouse unemployment (averaging around 4-6 months), and hectic job-markets around military bases make underemployment a problem for over 40% of military spouses. Taking a month off forces the military spouse to forfeit over four times the amount of their lost salary when the value of employee benefits, lost savings/investments, and decreased future earning power are factored in. This shortfall cannot quantitatively factor in additional losses due to job skills atrophy, loss of professional certification/currency, increased difficulty in hiring with gaps in resumés or with employers making assumptions about the prospect of long-term employment, and myriad other negative factors. Since these losses in savings and investment can compound, more frequent moves earlier in an officer’s career are more detrimental to lifetime earnings than later moves.

Within officer’s career timeline, a typical active-duty Army officer will have 2-3 duty stations as a Lieutenant, 2-3 duty stations as a Captain, 2-4 duty stations as a Major, and one duty station as a Lieutenant Colonel before reaching 20 years of service when they become eligible for retirement. Moves at the start or end of a resident Professional Military Education increase the total number of moves substantially.  Let us consider the effects of the PCS penalty on a hypothetical Infantry officer. Assuming the officer is in a relationship at their commissioning, the Army will move the officer from their pre-commissioning program to Fort Benning, Georgia, for Infantry Basic Officer Leader’s Course. Upon successful completion of that course and follow-on schooling (typically between 7-10 months), the family will go to an initial duty station because with only a battalion task force at Benning, there are not many available jobs for lieutenants.  Their spouse would likely be un- or under-employed while at Fort Benning because of the saturated job market and significant distance to a larger market like Atlanta. At the Infantry Officer’s first assignment, the couple can expect a repeat of 4-6 months of lost income while the spouse actively hunts for a new job. After around three years at their first duty station, the couple will likely move back to Fort Benning, as the officer completes the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course and follow-on schooling for 10-11 months. Meanwhile, the spouse will likely suffer another period of 4-6 months lost salary if they decide to remain in the job market at all. Then the couple will relocate for their next assignment, and, again, it’s time for a 4–6-month transition and job hunt. This process will repeat itself after the Infantry Officer completes their key-developmental time as a Company Commander and then moves to the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In Kansas, the military officer’s spouse is likely to take a full year out of the workforce, since most CGSC students remain at Fort Leavenworth for less than a year. The difficulties of searching for a job that suits this timeline, even within a “military” community are significant. Before long, the year is up, and it’s time to start the process all over again.

In this entire scenario, the Infantry Officer’s spouse can expect to lose between 2-6 years of lost salary during the first half of the officer’s 20-year career. For a spouse averaging a modest salary of $50,000 a year, this equates to a loss between $100,000 and $300,000 in income and between $400,000 to $1.2 million in lost lifetime earnings. The penalty becomes more significant if the spouse has a higher salary, an advanced degree, or a career-specific license. Difficulties in transferring professional licenses between states have very real consequences for income and earnings as gaps waiting for licenses to be transferred can be significant (in addition to the difficulty of job searching in the first place.)  While the Army has a program to help cover the costs of transferring licenses and credentials, the Army cannot control how long the process takes.

The loss of lifetime earnings not only hurts a family’s savings account and impedes the accrual of wealth and assets, it simultaneously grows stress and resentment.

Similarly, other Army programs may inadvertently delay a spouse from re-entering the job market. For example, if the Army family has small children, but the wait time for placement into an on-post Child Development Center is long, the family faces a stark choice. It can either pay more for civilian childcare services despite the typically lower quality, or the spouse is forced out of the job market until care becomes available. This reality flies in the face of the Army Family Covenant that seeks to expand family services and ensure affordable childcare was available so that soldiers could focus on the Army mission.

The loss of lifetime earnings not only hurts a family’s savings account and impedes the accrual of wealth and assets, it simultaneously grows stress and resentment. The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University and Blue Star Families found that in 2019, the top military family concerns were time apart and spouse employment. A separate study from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation found eight of every ten military spouses cited unemployment and underemployment as a key cause of marital stress. According to the study, 81% of spouses reported that they had discussed leaving the service with their servicemember, and spouse-employment was one of the top driving factors.

The added stress that the PCS Penalty places on families has not been overlooked by the Army’s senior leadership. In fact, then-Secretary of the Army, and former-Secretary of Defense, Dr. Mark Esper advocated for fewer PCS moves because “changing duty stations too often hurts families.” As the Army re-looks at talent management, professional military education is the most frequent driver of an involuntary PCS move. Reforming the PME system could offer the Army a way to support spouse careers and therefore retain more top talent. These reforms would need to be focused on minimizing disruption to Army Families and build flexibility within the system to support smoother transitions.

The PCS Penalty could be reduced by half, for example, by expanding satellite locations for the Command and General Staff College. The mid-career mark is where many talented officers leave the force. It represents an important decision point. Officers at this point in their career have completed their initial service obligations, and their continued service has earned the full benefits of the G.I. Bill. Additionally, officers can leave the service before 20-years and still retain some retirement benefits with the new Blended Retirement System.

Expanding satellite-CGSC locations and thoughtfully placing them at key installations can reduce costs for both the Army and Army families. Fort Bragg, for example, has the highest number of service members of any Army post, but no satellite location. Placing a satellite location there would allow any officer PCS-ing from or to Fort Bragg to do a single move rather than two PCSs within a year span. The costs of establishing new satellite locations are not astronomical either. Since these classroom-only courses do not need significant infrastructure additions to the existing education centers, the cost can be made up for by reducing the number of expensive PCS moves the Army has to conduct. At around $6,700 per move, it is easy to see how cutting the number of PCSs every year would cover the cost of new locations.

This model would be a departure from the Leavenworth-centered idea of what CGSC is and should be. There are clear trade-offs, but creative thinking can mitigate many of these. For example, the curriculum at Leavenworth is more customizable for students.  Existing CGSC satellite locations typically either teach just the common-core portion or the advanced operations course, but few electives. Additional satellite locations would need to expand their elective options (in person or virtually). The selection of satellite locations would have to balance student preferences, availability of faculty, and other factors to optimize a satellite focused CGSC. Finally, some argue that there are intangible, social benefits from centralizing CGSC at Leavenworth. Senior officers have described their time at CGSC, away from the hectic pace of military lives, as “the best year of their lives. This argument may be less salient for the current generation of officers and future students given the proliferation of and students’ likely familiarity with a variety of digital platforms. Eliminating even one PCS move could mean a difference in up to $200,000 in lifetime earnings for a military spouse, but beyond the dollars and cents, reducing the career and family stresses incentivize officers to stay in uniform. Reducing  military family moves would allow spouses to develop closer career and more personal ties in their communities, which has been shown to increase resilience and reduce stress. Families’ financial well-being is better supported through fewer gaps in employment. These and other more intangible factors increase overall satisfaction with the Army and, in the end, produce a larger, more experienced, and more inclusive talent pool because fewer officers self-select out. This larger population can now include families that have dual-incomes and varying backgrounds rather than the narrow fields that can conform to the current Army structure.

The simple facts of the matter are that our Army looks, feels, and acts differently than it did 60, 40, or even 20 years ago. The officer corps is no longer composed of imagined 1950s-style nuclear families who all live on post and in which spouses do not have independent careers. Considerations for spousal career stability and employment prospects must become a more central factor in Army’s decisions and structures if it hopes to retain top talent and maintain readiness.

MAJ Paul M Kearney is an active-duty Army Strategist and Wargaming Strategist at the Center for Army Analysis. He holds degrees from the United States Military Academy, King’s College London, and Georgetown University. You can follow him @GStrategerist on Twitter.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo


  1. So while I agree with the general theme of your article, I think you have missed a few key factors:

    – There is no doubt that far too often we PCS people for sport. Sending an Armor CPT from Ft Hood to Ft Riley while sending another from Ft Riley to Ft Hood when both would rather stay where they are is silly. But at the same time, dont discount the goodness of change. There is a reason why we send officers to school when we do. Ideally you get promoted to CPT and PCS to the Career Course the next day. Why? Because you dont want to stick around in a unit where you have been “LT Jones” for the last 4 years. The jump from LT to CPT is significant in more than just pay. Same with CGSC and Leavenworth. Ideally you get promoted to MAJ and depart so that even if you PCS back to the same post there is a gap in the perception of you as a Company Grade officer and as a Field Grade Officer.

    – Moving to a new place with new ideas is part of developing a well round professional. You gave the example of Ft Bragg but I it is often the bad example for not PCSing people. Who hasn’t run into an 18th Airborne Corp cultist who doesn’t know how the Army runs outside of Fayetteville? I know people who have been at Bragg for more than a decade and honestly they are less capable officers than ones who have a diverse background. Back in ancient times the same thing would happen in Korea as it was relatively easy to stay if you wanted to, moving from 2ID to 8th Army to USFK and back to 2ID. They were great at Korea but bad at Army. Staying in one place for 4-6 years is probably a very good thing but it has to be the right 4-6 years. Staying there for a decade plus? Not so much.

    – School is more than just learning. Its networking and building you professional reputation. CGSC classes are built they way they are for a reason. When TRADOC was struggling to build classes at the height of the surge it wasn’t because of a shortage of combat arms officers but because of a shortage of low density Officers. MI, MP, QM, etc were tapped out sending people to CENTCOM and having a bunch of Infantry guys go through ILE by themselves was counter productive. We are building teams, not individuals. Rarely do I go a day without hearing “yeah I know him, we went to (insert school) together. Ill shoot him a note”. And that team building extends to spouses. Too often we discount “mandatory fun” but the reality is that social activities are far more likely to occupy the good times box on retirement day than “that time I went to PT in the morning, worked all day and came home at night”. Balls, BBQs and promotion parties are a big part what make Army life fun and make us different from working at “a job”. If your ILE consists of going to the post education center and sitting in a VTC for 8 hours, I feel bad for you.

    – The statistic about 60% of American families having two incomes is not necessarily a good thing. More often than not it reflects needing two incomes just to survive. Military pay is, despite popular belief, quite generous. A newly commissioned 2LT makes $40K in base pay alone and while that is under the $50K starting for the average college graduate, most college graduates down get allowances for housing and food and free as in beer health care. More importantly, pay for junior officers increases rapidly. After two years a 1LT makes $53K, again just base pay. After 4 years a CPT makes $72K, just base and in almost every location the jump for housing allowance for a Captain is substantial. Using your example of an Infantry Captain at Ft Benning, he/she would receive $3194 a year in BAS and $19,080 in BAH. Thats $22K in untaxed additional income, putting his/her total compensation at just under $100K a year 4 years out of college, more that $100K if you factor in the value of the non-taxed income. There are very few jobs where your pay increases by almost 100% in the first 4 years and even fewer where on graduation day you know for a fact that you pay will top 6 figures in 4 years. (note – I fully understand that enlisted pay is different but I am addressing the same audience the author did)

    – None of the pay discussion is to say that need is the only thing that drives spouses to want to have their own career. It isn’t. Personal and professional fulfillment is a big factor for many military spouses. But instead of asking the Army to make all of the changes, why not use the leverage the Army has to change those places where spouses work? Require certain levels of spousal employment to be an on post vendor. Include spousal employment in consideration for large contracts. “How many work from home/telework opportunities do you have for military spouses?” You can’t tell me that Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrup, etc lack the ability to create portable career opportunities. Why are we not using our very substantial leverage to force them to do that? This last year has proven that remote work is not only possible but in some cases preferable.

    – In my experience, there is a high correlation between people who dont like the frequency/location of their moves and people who are passive about managing their careers. Not always, but very often. I had a mentor early in my career who told me “If you dont manage your career no one else will”. Seems pretty self evident but it is shocking how many officers, even senior field grade ones, are completely passive about managing their career. The same mentor told me not to accept crappy assignments. “Tell branch what you want and if you dont get it you are taking your ball and going home. But dont bluff because otherwise you will suffer.” The only time I have had to take a “not first choice” assignment I went to Ft Carson. Not exactly a bad backup plan. At the same time, know what is in the realm of possible dont be a jerk to your branch manager. Demanding Japan when your Career Field has no positions there is just dumb. If you have 120 months of dwell time and Branch has to fill 20 unaccompanied tours, dont get mad and cry, its your turn. And If your relationship with your branch manager has caused you to land in the P&A file, thats on you. Of course most of this is OBE now with AIM 2.0. Assignment tinder is just a rough as dating tinder is and I have already heard some of my younger peers long for the old days. Im in my last assignment just like Im on my last (only) spouses so good luck to you all!

    – This is not a job, its a profession – the Profession of Arms. Professions are different than jobs and it seems like a lot of the complaints from junior soldiers and officers are because they are looking for the experience of a job and not a profession. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals have similar demands that go along with be a profession instead of a vocation and they have very similar complaints about stress on families and family life. I dont know what to say other than if you dont want to be part of the Profession of Arms, thank you for your service and good luck in your future endeavors. I mean that sincerely. This isn’t for everyone and that is not a good or bad thing, just s fact. There is only so much that can be done to change before we are no longer a profession and that is a line I hope the Army never crosses.

    1. This comment fails to miss the point of this post- meaningful spousal employment. Spouses lose out on their own income and fulfillment due to these frequent moves (and often times, places with weak job markets). The Army is a profession, absolutely, but it is a *temporary* profession. Marriage is forever. In regards to a two income household, the problem isn’t just money, it’s meaningful employment. Spouses are not unpaid laborers anymore for the army, if you want a well-run SFRG with people who care, they need to be paid for it, and any formerly thought of us volunteer work.
      Before anyone recommends more schooling to aid with employment- most spouses have degrees, or licenses. They don’t need school and more lost income, they need jobs. Good jobs.

    2. Great response. So many people forget that there is actual logic behind moving people in the military. The other point about military pay being very generous is lost on most as well. Do both spouses need to work? Absolutely not. When they do it makes for a fat bank account but there are always trade-offs. Spouses also get first crack at any DA Civilian jobs on bases so that’s something they should take advantage of. There are also a ton of dual military spouses who are always PCS’d together.

  2. I like the article. I think it is definitely poignant and merits consideration. Some further thoughts below:
    -Those who say, “this is the way it has been, and it is good,” are the reason why the Army can’t retain top talent. If the Army doesn’t adapt to current society at least somewhat, it’s going to miss out on a solid portion of the population who will take their marketable skills elsewhere (i.e. low-density MOS).
    -As we see rapid inflation, and especially rising housing costs, many can’t afford to maintain single-income households.
    -To answer a previous comment, it is possible to be “career-minded” while also doing what you can to limit PCSs. I do concur with that same comment’s discussion about seeing senior officers being passive about their careers, though.
    -If over 60% of officers’ spouses work, then what’s happening with the SFRGs? The Army mandated it be in every unit, even the TDA units. While it makes some sense for a unit to have an SFRG if they deploy often, why are we still trying to force regulation onto families? Commanders feel the pressure to not have their spouse work, because they “need to support as the FRG Leader.” That’s one of the old school parts of the Army that needs to die off.

  3. I served for 20 years before working overseas as a contractor and then becoming a DA Civilian. If you join the military to get rich, then you’re doing it for the wrong reason. I could have made a lot more money in the civilian world than I ever did in the Army, but I wouldn’t have made as much of a difference or had the opportunities I did as a Soldier. My men and I saved people’s lives. I don’t regret a day in service. Even the ones where I was getting shot at, mortared, hit by IED’s, rockets, and other fun stuff. The Army isn’t for everyone and if you’re focused on money, I think you should go elsewhere and get it.

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