American G.I.s: Dude, Where’s My Car?
Amanda dropped off her family’s Mini Cooper in San Diego for shipping to Alaska on May 13, after her husband was re-stationed. She was supposed to receive it in early June, but as of mid-July she still had no idea where it was. For the past month, her husband, an active-duty service member, has been forced to walk or bike miles to work every morning, in a town known as the “Rain Capital of Alaska.”
“I am worried I will never see it again,” Amanda told The Daily Beast. “I am really upset that the car is ‘lost’ but even more upset that I cannot get anyone…to give me any information. I do not know if it will arrive next week, next month or next year, or ever.”
Thousands of military families are re-stationed every year, and the Pentagon helps ship their private vehicles to new locations. To carry out this difficult logistical task, the Department of Defense has employed contractors since the mid-1990s. But this year, just as the summer moving rush began, the Pentagon changed contractors. The results have been, at least anecdotally, disastrous: lost cars, delays, IT glitches, problems with live tracking, and poor customer service.
The exact scope of the problem is hard to nail down, but dozens and dozens of military family members from around the world have spoken up, on Facebook message boards and product review sites about the chaos and confusion involved with moving their cars cross-country or overseas.
Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) wrote to the Pentagon about the issue in late June, saying he had “been astounded at a number of the stories soldiers have shared with me regarding the difficulties their families have endured.”
The worst part of the ordeal, many service members say, is the added hardship on soldiers already enduring the strain of a long-distance move. With the Pentagon concerned about fatigue and morale, a lost piece of valuable property is the last thing these families need.
“It just added a lot of extra stress to an already stressful situation,” said Belen, another military spouse, who like others interviewed for this story asked for anonymity but was eager to talk about the problem. Her car shipment was delayed for three weeks, with no information about where it was or when it would show up. Her husband tried without success to reach a customer service representative for weeks.
“We got a rental [car] so that it wouldn’t affect him getting to work, which of course we had to pay out of pocket,” she said. It could be months before she is reimbursed, if at all.
For those accustomed to military life, a lost possession is just another headache soldiers and their families are forced to endure.
“There are many things we have to accept…as military families because we honestly don’t have any control,” said another military family member. It took nearly three months to ship the family’s car from Puerto Rico to San Diego, two months longer than scheduled. The process was a maddening tangle of unreliable tracking, delays, and confusion, the family member said.
The Pentagon, for its part, insisted that “no service member vehicles have been lost,” although it acknowledged cases of late delivery. The United States Transportation Command, which oversees the shipping contract, said it had representatives at vehicle processing centers to monitor the situation and that its leadership was being briefed periodically on the problem.
International Auto Logistics (IAL), which began handling the car-moving operation in May, did not respond to a request for comment. A call to its customer service line led to a full voicemail box. Since May, the Pentagon said, IAL has processed more than 22,000 cars for shipment.
In a July letter to Sen. Vitter obtained by The Daily Beast, the Department of Defense sought to downplay the problem, writing: “We have noted in the early stages of this contract transition that IAL has faced some challenges…Some members have experienced reduced service during the transition. Those servicing issues are being addressed individually.”
The Pentagon turned over the global shipping of private cars to a logistics contractor called American Auto Logistics (AAL) in the mid-1990s. For some 20 years, the company facilitated the movement of privately owned cars for soldiers and their families. AAL lost the contract in the fall of 2013 and has been fighting to win it back ever since, first by filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office and then through subsequent Court of Federal Claims litigation.
Since May 1, when IAL took over the contract, AAL has received 8,500 phone calls from service members and 2,100 walk-ins at its vehicle processing centers. These interactions vary from military service members unaware that the Pentagon’s shipping contract had changed to those seeking help for a problem with IAL.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) represents the district where IAL is based. When IAL won the contract last year, Kingston put out a press release praising the business for its “continued excellence” and contribution to the local economy.
A spokesman for Kingston, Greg Dolan, said the anecdotal complaints against IAL were not substantial enough to conclude that there was a systemic problem at the shipping company.
“If there’s something where they’re not doing their job, for sure we’d like to investigate that,” Dolan said. “[But] incidents of customer dissatisfaction doesn’t rise to that level. It would have to be something more substantial before we raise a fit on that.”