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Army working to offset challenges as travel ban extends

WASHINGTON — With the stop-movement order for official travel now extended to June 30, the Army is continuing to reduce challenges faced by Soldiers and families.

About 48,000 Soldiers and family members were scheduled to move between March and the end of September, until the Defense Department initiated a travel ban in mid-March to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper extended the order, which the Pentagon plans to review every 15 days to see if travel can resume earlier.

Since last month, the Army has launched several new polices to balance readiness while also taking care of its people.

“We know that this stop move will affect what are normally routine [permanent change-of-station] moves and we’re taking steps to minimize the negative impact on our Soldiers and families,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army’s G-1.

Last week, a special leave accrual policy was announced allowing Soldiers to carry over up to 120 days of leave, doubling the normal limit of 60 days. Saved leave days will not have to be taken until the end of fiscal year 2023.

Some cardholders can also temporarily use a DOD identification card that has expired on or after Jan. 1 to access bases and benefits until Sept. 30, as long as they have a current affiliation with the DOD.

Other policies have been issued on training, retention and promotions, such as the use of virtual boards, to ensure the career paths of Soldiers are not adversely affected.

“These efforts seek to ease the burdens brought on by COVID-19 that the service members are facing through no fault of their own,” Seamands said Tuesday during a press briefing.

Exceptions to the travel ban will remain on a case-by-case basis for compelling cases deemed mission essential, necessary for humanitarian reasons or warranted due to extreme hardship.

Already, about 500 requests have been sent to the Army vice chief of staff, who is still the approval authority on such cases.

“What we wanted to do is get those people who are kind of in limbo to be able to move on to their next location,” Seamands said, adding he expects that number to increase in the coming weeks.

Seamands said the process has not been “one size that fits all” in considering which Soldiers are mission essential.

“We’ve left it up to the gaining command to say why this person is mission essential,” he said. “It may be the [military occupational specialty] they have, it may the strength at their location and why the incoming person needs to be there.”

To lessen pressure on moving companies and perhaps provide a safer moving option once the travel ban is lifted, the Army will reimburse a Soldier for a personally procured move for 95% of how much it would cost the government to move the same weight.

“If your actual costs exceed that, service members can apply for the actual costs,” said Lt. Gen. Duane Gamble, the Army’s G-4.

Last fiscal year, about 7,000 Army personnel conducted a full PPM move. But the Army is currently working with DOD to increase the 95% amount and entice more people to take advantage of the program, Gamble said.

Since limited moves will be occurring for some time, Gamble said the Army will essentially have to move five months of people in three months in the upcoming peak PCS season.

Also to help with this effort, the Army is asking Soldiers to stay up to a yearat their current duty station.

To date, there have been about 100 requests from Soldiers to stabilize at their location, with more projected to roll in before the deadline on May 1.

“We expect that number to grow considerably here in the next 10 days or so,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Calloway, commander of U.S. Army Human Resources Command.

Soldiers about to retire or resign, if an officer, can also now withdraw their packets and remain on duty, he said, adding more than 250 have already expressed an interest in doing so.

As of today, nearly 40 noncommissioned officers and officers from a range of specialties have submitted requests to withdraw their packets. In addition, over 70 officers and almost 50 enlisted have submitted requests to extend their retirement dates beyond those originally approved, he said.

“It’s voluntary and we’ve opened it up to everybody,” Calloway said. “We’re going to continue to do the right thing for Soldiers and families who may present a hardship.”

Besides medical professions, the Army is hoping to keep Soldiers with recent drill sergeant experience, recruiters, aviators, and those in military intelligence and cyber career fields.

“Those are examples and there are others as well,” Calloway said.

As these new policies are rolled out, Seamands also said input from units will be important to ensure that they keep people and readiness as their centerpiece.

“In order to do that, we need the feedback across the formations to make sure what we’re doing is going to ease the burden and the stress on our Soldiers while maintaining readiness,” he said.

By Sean Kimmons, Army News Service

Related links

U.S. Army COVID-19 Guidance

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