By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Sept. 29, 2023) -- Recent reports in the private media have detailed conditions in the barracks which house single service members. Included in those reports are revelations of exposed raw sewage, extensive mold and other non-functioning systems such as HVAC and fire detection.
On Capitol Hill Wednesday leaders of the military services responsible for maintaining those military barracks addressed concerns from lawmakers and discussed how the services plan to implement remedies.
Carla Coulson, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for installations, housing and partnerships told members of the House Armed Services Committee that the Army is aware of problems in its housing for unaccompanied servicemembers and that it's already working on a solution.
"Our leadership, from our secretary, our chief of staff on down, are focusing very clearly on quality of life and barracks as a piece of that," she said. "We've done a lot of work already."
In the next budget release, which will happen in February 2024, Coulson said she expects there will be a multi-year investment strategy that looks at providing additional sustainment dollars for things like military barracks.
"We need to sustain the inventory we have," she said. "Just as an example, we've got in the Army, through our modeling efforts, we can see that we have 300 permanent party barracks buildings that are in poor and failing shape. Across our fiscal year defense program from [2024 to 2028], we can address 113 of those [barracks] buildings. But at the same time, if we don't fully sustain, we'll have 110 barracks, existing barracks buildings, that will move from good or adequate into the poor and failing category. So, we don't make much progress unless we can ensure that we are doing preventative maintenance and fully sustaining our inventory."
Robert E. Thompson, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, said barracks have in the past been prioritized beneath other facilities that are deemed more critical -- but said that the barracks themselves are critical.
"I think there needs to be a realization that we are approaching ... facility criticality maybe from the wrong angle in the department," he said. "In resource-constrained environments, the bias is to put resources towards the most critical installation facilities. The reality is the introduction of a single sailor ... into a facility makes it, by definition, mission critical. The fact that these are their homes makes it mission critical."
The standards against which facilities like barracks are evaluated also need to change, Thompson said.
"There needs to be a standard for livability," he said. "There needs to be a ... clear-eyed view of what the standard is for this place to be dignified, safe and comfortable."
Robert E. Moriarty, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations said in the past the Air Force had done a good job on facility maintenance but has lost that focus in recent years.
"We used to have a dorm focus fund," he said. "We went away from that. And when we centralized a lot of our installation management, when we put all the money together, we went to a worst first or then went to a condition-based thing and prioritized everything together, looking at the best."
Now, he said, the Air Force has "gone back" to what it had done in the past.
"We now have a focused fund, if you will, where we set aside the amount of funds, we think we need to keep the dorms good and accelerate that," he said.
Elizabeth Field, the director of defense capabilities and management within the Government Accountability Office, also testified and discussed with lawmakers, findings revealed in a recently released GAO report related to military barracks. That report, released this month, was produced after visiting military barracks around the Defense Department and talking with those who live there.
Field said the GAO found, among other things, that the military services can do a better job of assessing the most accurate conditions in military barracks by leaning more heavily on input from the servicemembers who live there.
"What we learned ... is that these service members have a lot to say and are eager for someone to listen," she told lawmakers.
The GAO, Field said, found that there were many complaints from servicemembers about mold in the barracks, inadequate maintenance, broken heating and air conditioning systems and a myriad of other problems that relate to health and sanitation.
One contributing factor to the condition of military barracks has been funding. Field said the Defense Department tends to fund only about 80% of its sustainment needs, and that shortfall of funding means that military barracks often end up as a low priority.
"The facilities that most often lose out are things like barracks," she said. "Eventually if you don't fund sustainment enough, you're going to need to build an entirely new barracks, which means you need new military construction funding."
The GAO report made a series of 31 recommendations to the Defense Department and military services that can be used to improve barracks living conditions for servicemembers.
"We believe that the recommendations in our report, if fully implemented, will put the department on a better footing to address this substantial challenge," she said. "But it will take years to reverse the chronic neglect and underfunding we uncovered."
In a separate statement, Brendan Owens, the assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment and the DOD's chief housing officer, responded to the findings in the GAO report.
"In return for the commitment and sacrifices that service members make when they volunteer to defend our nation, the Department of Defense has a moral obligation to ensure that the places they live and work dignify their service," Owens said. "The DOD has, in too many instances, failed to live up to our role in making sure housing for our soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Guardians honors their commitment and enables them to bring the best versions of themselves to their critical missions."
Owens said he is committed to correcting deficiencies in unaccompanied housing across the Defense Department.
"I will move out aggressively to increase oversight and accountability in government-owned unaccompanied housing and to address unacceptable living conditions impacting our service members," Owens said. "My office will work with the military departments to ensure that you have a safe and secure place to live. Collectively, we will improve our responsiveness to your concerns as we strive to ensure a living experience that enhances your wellbeing and readiness so that you can defend the citizens of the United States as part of the finest military in the history of the world."