Members of a House subcommittee on Thursday chided senior leaders of the Army and Air Force for failing to provide safe housing for military families, and urged all services to work harder to reduce sexual assault in their ranks.
In a hearing on military quality-of-life issues, Democrats and Republicans on the House Appropriations Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee faulted the services for failing to provide oversight of the private companies that manage base housing, leading to problems with mold on Air Force bases and lead poisoning among children on some Army posts.
In 2018, families across the Air Force began sounding the alarm on high levels of mold in their military homes, from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and elsewhere. Eleven families from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi filed a lawsuit in July against the company that manages housing at the base.
In the Army, more than 1,000 children who lived in base housing across the country tested above the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's threshold for lead poisoning -- a finding only revealed in August following an extensive investigation by Reuters.
In her opening line of questioning, Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the subcommittee chairwoman, said the services must "get to the bottom of how these problems stacked up."
"It seems that from 1996 on," Wasserman Schultz said, referring to the year the Defense Department privatized most base housing, "it feels like the military washed its hands of any oversight of these private contractors and left it to the contractors."
Rep. John Carter of Texas, the senior Republican on the panel, agreed.
"We need to jump all over these people," he said. "We want to be proud of what we are providing for our warriors. It's up to each services to come down hard on these people."
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said his service's housing has an 82 percent satisfaction rate but it is "holding the project managers accountable," requiring them to spend $6.5 million to fix the issues.
"We are fully engaged and have a strategy for how to remediate," Wright said.
Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey told the panel that his senior leadership is "very concerned" about the lead contamination in its housing, adding that the service has spent $4 million to conduct inspections and held town halls on every post to discuss safety concerns.
"We are fully aware of the hazards and ... have a detailed plan to eliminate them," Dailey said.
But Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania, chastised Dailey for not raising the issue in his opening statement. "We're here to provide responsible funding for adequate housing ... this is something you are concerned about, isn't it?"
Dailey said he is, but added that soldiers and their families also live off base.
"I'm not making light of it, it's a very serious concern, but ... there are about 250 million pre-1978 homes in America," referring to the year the U.S. banned the use of lead in household paints. "This is not just an Army problem, it's a nationwide problem."
Another issue raised by the panel was sexual assault in the military. The Defense Department in January released a report finding that incidents of sexual assault were up by 50 percent over the course of two years at the nation's military academies -- a "devastating portrait of the conduct that is occurring" at the schools, Wasserman Schultz said.
The senior enlisted personnel assured her that the issue is a top concern for the services.
"There's no issue that is any more important," Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith said.
The services, the enlisted chiefs said, are taking steps to reduce incidents of sexual assault on the campuses and across the ranks, to include building trust with leaders so troops are comfortable reporting incidents, reinvigorating prevention education programs and fostering a culture of respect among members.
Wright added that the Air Force Academy is promoting responsible use of alcohol and cracking down on its abuse. "About 65 percent of those cases involve alcohol. Just a fact. So we are doing some very targeted alcohol assessments," he said.
The subcommittee conducts a hearing with the senior enlisted personnel each year to find out the top concerns among troops and determine the services' needs.
The senior enlisted leaders said child care and the transition from military to civilian employment remain important subjects to junior personnel. But they also reported that retention rates are at record highs -- a reflection, in part, of improved quality of life.
In his opening statement, Smith said accessible and affordable child care is a readiness issue for sailors, as is failing infrastructure. "The condition of many Navy facilities impacts their quality of life and ability to train," he said.
Wright said airmen also report affordable child care and infrastructure concerns as important to quality of life in surveys.
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green told the subcommittee that housing and infrastructure are a top priority for his service, as more than 1,000 Marine families remain displaced from their homes as the result of two hurricanes last year.
"The need to get their facilities up and running, the resources they need to have safe homes is paramount," Green said.
For the most part, however, service members and families appear to be satisfied with their career choices and lifestyles and are demonstrating this by choosing to remain in the services, the chiefs said.
"Two years ago, I reported that quality of life was good. Over the past two years, we've seen even more improvements based on our own investments and due to the help of this committee," Dailey said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.