Col. Donald R. Tindall knows about moving. In his 27-year military career, he has relocated 21 times--once during a Korean monsoon--and plans yet another move next month, his third in two years.

Tindall also is in charge of one of the world's busiest moving operations, the Defense Department's Joint Personal Property Shipping Office of the Washington Area (known in military-speak as JPPSOWA, pronounced jip-SO-wa). The Fort Belvoir office handles all moves for the military and Coast Guard in a 38,000-square-mile area stretching from north of Baltimore down to Richmond. Last year, that meant overseeing more than 54,000 shipments.

This summer, though, there's an added complication. Because unemployment is so low, the private-sector movers that pack and ship possessions on contract with the military are having a tough time finding enough help.

This means the unit has been "experiencing major problems in getting shipments picked up and delivered in a timely manner," according to a taped message that greets callers to the office. "The result of these actions has placed a tremendous strain on the JPPSOWA staff."

So Tindall has something he wants his customers and other would-be movers to hear: "Please have patience with everyone involved in the process, because there is a strain on the system that we have not seen in previous years. To make these moves happen, we need patience from customers, and flexibility."

Moving is never a good experience, he admits. "Moving is always stressful. I don't care if everything is going perfectly, it's stressful."

Still, Tindall and others at Fort Belvoir have some advice to make the experience less trying, whether you're military or civilian.

* Don't procrastinate. For military families, that means contacting the appropriate counseling office as soon as you get your orders. For others, that means contacting a mover as far in advance as possible.

* Be flexible about your moving date. "Set up enough time to give yourself some leeway," said Mike Milward, Tindall's deputy. For instance, if you're selling your house and everything has to be cleared out in time for closing on the 31st of the month, don't schedule your move for the 30th.

"If anything goes wrong, which we've had this summer, that causes problems on the real estate side," Milward said. Those can be expensive problems--one family that found itself in that situation had to drop the sale price on their house $7,000 to avoid losing their buyer, he said.

* Think about your schedule, even though the days before a move are hectic. "If the movers are scheduled, don't schedule a dental appointment that afternoon--or any appointments," Tindall said. Wait until after the move to have utilities turned off--on moving day, you'll want electricity and a working telephone.

* Be ready for the movers. In military moves, as in many corporate moves, the employer pays for packing. But telling the movers just to pack everything can be a disaster. That's how passports and traveler's checks end up on the moving truck. Instead, designate a lockable closet or a separate room for items that need to go along with you, such as luggage, passports and purses. Also, keep the children and pets out of the way of the movers. "We've had cats that ended up being moved in vans," Milward said.

* Communicate. Take the crew chief on a tour of the house when he gets there, Tindall said. Show him all the rooms and point out any items that need special handling. Point out areas that need to be covered, such as marble floors. "None of these guys want to go out and intentionally damage your property, because they're the ones that have to pay for it," Tindall said.

* Be nice to the movers. "Do you have an ice chest of soda and water so the guys can take a little break? I do," Tindall said. Show them where the bathroom is, and send out for food at lunch time.

"It's in your best interest," Tindall said. "You are about to turn over to these guys possessions you deem valuable."

A Moving Picture

According to the Census Bureau:

* Between March 1996 and March 1997 (the most recent numbers available), 42.1 million Americans, or 16 percent of the population, moved.

* Based on an average family size of 2.34 people, that means about 18 million households moved. Of those, 11.9 million moved within the same county, 3.4 million outside the county but in the same state, and 2.7 million out of state.

* Young adults move the most; 31.8 percent of people ages 20 to 29 moved that year, while only 4.7 percent of those 65 or older moved.

* Renters move more than homeowners. About a third of people living in rental units in March 1997 had moved during the previous year, while only 8.2 percent of homeowners had moved.