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Let's get one thing straight: My military family does not 'have it made'

Bryanne is a freelance writer who lives in Southern California with her active-duty husband and their two teenage sons. She is a passionate human-rights activist and cultural enthusiast. In between writing and family life, Bryanne spends...

The one thing people say about my military family that makes me cringe

I’ve been a military wife for 18 years, and if there’s one phrase that bothers me more than anything, it’s when people (especially those who aren't affiliated with the military) say, “You’ve got it made.”

From their insinuations that we have “free homes,” (um, we pay rent too) or “world-class health insurance,” there seems to be a misconception about what military life is really like. I’d like to quickly educate those financial optimists about the expenses military families regularly incur. Guess what? It ain't free by a long shot.

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Below are 10 real-life expenses most military families have to pay, proving our life is anything but “made.”

1. Permanent changes of station (moves)

Every few years, service members receive orders requiring them to uproot their families and relocate to a new duty station, which could be anywhere in the world. While there are allowances for these moves, rarely do they cover the full cost of moving. Replenishing pantries and cleaning supplies, incurring damage to vehicles during lengthy drives, trailer rentals, restaurant meals when you don’t have access to kitchens and (much) more cause military families to have to save up before executing orders or risk struggling to get by. Don't get us started on the cost of replacing items damaged by movers and the battle to get those expenses at least partially covered by the military. Plus, changing jobs, leaving friends and having to start at new schools (with varying academic ratings) all have a cost to military families too, even if they aren’t measurable in dollars.

2. Hotels

Here in the continental United States, members are allotted 10 days of hotel expenses while they move from one duty station to another. The problem is that often the waiting list for a base house is longer than 10 days, and the housing allowance generally isn't enough for more than an apartment out in town. That means members who don’t want to get locked into a lease off base must carry the cost of a hotel stay past 10 days until an on-base home becomes available.

3. Transporting vehicles

If you, like most families, have a second or third car, you may be unhappy to find that the military will not pay for more than one vehicle to be shipped to duty stations abroad (like Hawaii). Shipping a car can cost service members upwards of $1,000. Also, there are no provisions for rental cars once vehicles have been shipped, and since timing can be tricky, most families will need a temporary vehicle, which can cost hundreds.

4. Moving with pets

Have orders abroad? Unfortunately the military does not cover transportation expenses for pets, and it can be pricey. In some locations, there are quarantine programs that require blood work, vet visits and import fees prior to the move, and they aren’t cheap. Moving to Hawaii or Japan on orders with one pet can cost upwards of $600 (including their airline ticket) for this reason.

5. Health insurance coverage

Many people think that active-duty military families have 100 percent free health care. That couldn’t be more untrue. Families who opt to use the government's TriCare Prime are required to receive their medical care at specific military hospitals and get their medication from a base pharmacy or via a home delivery system called E-Scripts. While healthy family members using this option may rarely see a bill, those family members unlucky enough to struggle with chronic health problems like diabetes or congenital birth defects that require ongoing medical care often find the free health care is anything but. Non-formulary or compounded medications are rarely provided by the base pharmacies or E-Scripts, requiring family members to pay high copays for their medication needs. When you add in medical supplies like glucose test strips, blood glucose monitors, incontinence supplies, sterile bandages, needles and more, military families with chronically ill members can pay hundreds per month, regardless of their rank or income.

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6. Family visits

Every family, whether civilian or military, will generally have to pay for their own vacations, but since military families can be stationed so far from their relatives, a visit home can be ridiculously expensive. A family of five may struggle to buy plane tickets across the country to see Grandma and Grandpa for the holidays, not to mention having to cover the cost of their pets’ kenneling while also having enough money for gifts, entertainment and more on a limited income. Since vacation time (leave) for service members is limited, long-distance drives are usually out of the question. Often military families simply can’t afford those costly trips and may not see their families back home for years at a time.

7. Vision care

While our men and women in uniform are covered 100 percent for vision care, families are not so lucky. Currently, TriCare insurance only covers one vision exam a year per family member and that does not include a contact lens exam. There is zero coverage for eyeglass prescriptions or contact lenses for family members unless the vision prescription is for a qualified medical condition like infantile glaucoma. Since children with normal vision needs may require more than one eye exam per year, the cost can be quite high.

8. Dental care

Like the vision plan, dental coverage can be costly for a military family. There is a monthly fee for family-member coverage. The plan covers biannual exams and annual imaging, but only a percentage of any needed dental work, depending on the service member’s rank. Families pay between 20 to 50 percent of the cost of covered services like fillings, crowns, root canals and more.

9. Care packages

Deployments aren’t cheap! It’s not only tradition to send your deployed service member a care package with essentials from home, sometimes it’s necessary. They may not have access to hygiene items, snack foods, uniform stores or entertainment and those care packages can alleviate a lot of stress for the deployed member. They can also be costly. Buying care package items and paying for shipping and insurance are all out-of-pocket expenses for military families.

10. Living in expensive duty locations

When military members are stationed overseas, there is an adjustment to their pay called a cost of living allowance. However, the allowance is not usually authorized for U.S. continental duty stations. This can be problematic when orders require a family to live in high cost-of-living locations like Southern California or Washington, D.C. If a family is stationed in an area with traditionally lower living expenses and suddenly forced to live in a high-cost area, it can be an enormous burden on their income and lifestyle. Many spouses of enlisted service members are forced to work to bring in additional funds, but it can be difficult if their service member is away for long stretches and they don’t have family support to help with child care.

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