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Lawmakers demand accountability after report on squalid military barracks


Thousands of the U.S. military’s most junior enlisted personnel are facing serious health and safety risks not on some foreign battlefield but in the very barracks where they live.

They’re dealing with mold in the showers, broken windows and air conditioners, rodent infestations, and inoperable fire systems. And now the Pentagon is being accused of not taking the problem seriously enough.

On Wednesday, an official with the Government Accountability Office testified that “many” Department of Defense officials aren’t even interested in seeking input from the enlisted troops living in the barracks. Many of the troops are still teenagers, fresh out of high school.

“According to these officials, this demographic group is so unreliable in terms of completing surveys or replying to emails or telephone inquiries that it isn’t worth trying to solicit their opinion,” said Elizabeth Field, director of the GAO’s Defense Capabilities and Management Office. “What we learned, however, is that these service members have a lot to say and are eager for someone to listen.”

Investigators with the congressional watchdog agency spent five months examining the conditions of the barracks at 10 military bases across the country. After releasing their report last week, GAO officials on Wednesday reviewed their findings at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

A number of U.S. military bases are located in the South where the summers can be fierce. However several barracks the GAO investigators examined lacked working air conditioners.

“One Marine said, ‘I often wake up at night, sweating from the heat, itching from bed bugs, and feeling like I am suffocating,’” Ms. Field told lawmakers.

Military personnel told the GAO investigators that they didn’t feel secure in the barracks, comparing them to a “rundown motel or a prison.” 

“Some of the most troubling statements we heard had to do with safety,” Ms. Field said. “One sailor told us the doors didn’t work and that anyone can access the rooms. Sexual assaults happen in the barracks more than people think.”

Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, said he would have been fired if the barracks where his junior airmen lived matched the squalid descriptions described in the GAO report.

“Where is the accountability with these barracks? Is anyone going to be held accountable?” the Nebraska Republican said. “What are we going to do to get this right and get this fixed?”

He said Congress was forced to step in a few years to address similar complaints about complaints over the state of military housing for families contracted out to private landlords. Children were getting sick and some service members feared retribution from their civilian landlords if they complained to their chain of command.

“This situation required extensive congressional action to make improvements to these conditions,” Mr. Bacon said. “The Department [of Defense] and the individual services have continued to neglect the oversight and management these projects require. It has failed to provide housing that service members need and deserve.”

Ms. Field agreed that the problems in the barracks today are similar to those GAO  investigators documented at military family housing units in the past. 

“The only real difference is that the Defense Department has felt more pressure in recent years to fix the problems in family housing than it has to fix the problems with barracks,” she said.

Army officials insisted they are committed to providing all military personnel with safe and quality housing — both for junior enlisted barracks and larger family complexes. Carla Coulson, assistant Army secretary for installations, housing and partnerships, told the lawmakers the Army has already implemented dozens of past GAO recommendations.

“The Army is also fully committed to improving soldier quality of life by addressing deferred maintenance at unaccompanied housing,” Ms. Coulson said. “In the fall of 2022, the Army took the unprecedented step of inspecting every room and every barracks building — of which there are over 6,700 — to remedy life, health and safety issues identified.”

She said the Army has committed to spending at least $1 billion a year to improve barracks throughout the service. 

Robert Thompson, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, said his service has made “meaningful, tangible progress” in improving the quality of life for service members in privatized housing.

“It’s clear today we have significant work ahead in our unaccompanied housing to provide safe, clean, reliable, comfortable and dignified places for our sailors and Marines,” Mr. Thompson said. 

Rep. Marilyn Strickland, Washington state Democrat, represents Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Seattle,  one of the largest military installations on the West Coast. She asked how much money it would take to make all service barracks safe and habitable again. 

“The bottom line is, we don’t know a total figure, in part because the [Defense Department] itself does not know,” the GAO’s Ms. Field said. 

While most barracks are owned by the government, the Defense Department needs to explore whether more private-sector living options might help improve the quality of life for junior enlisted personnel, Ms. Strickland said.

“It’s not necessarily a silver bullet, but I do think that we have to use every possible tool available,” she said.

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