Officials at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, are struggling to take inventory of how many barracks rooms it has available for 1,200 soldiers set to be evacuated from moldy living quarters this month. The movement of so many soldiers could spur major logistical headaches for much of the rest of the decade and balloon demand for rental property in a housing market already at the breaking point.
This account comes from interviews with a half dozen soldiers, including two with direct knowledge of leadership decisions about how the Army will deal with the need to find places for troops to live.
Installation leaders in recent weeks have tried to inventory the number of safe, available rooms on post to relocate soldiers from the troubled Smoke Bomb Hill Barracks, but cannot get an accurate number, one source with direct knowledge told Military.com on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
"A lot of units had less rooms than were shown on paper," the source said, adding that there are anywhere between 700 to 900 available rooms. However, that number changes frequently due to a confluence of issues including inaccurate counts from different units and difficulty with tracking whether those rooms are serviceable or in use.
In some cases, unit leaders are suspected of lowballing how much space they have available to prevent soldiers from other units mixing in with their own, according to the source, creating drama behind the scenes between different elements of the XVIII Airborne Corps trying to preserve their own real estate on base.
A spokesperson for Fort Bragg did not respond to a request for comment ahead of this story's publication. The struggle for leaders to develop a plan and communicate to soldiers has bred a lot of confusion among the rank and file, who are unsure where they are going to live.
"My problem is there's no communication on the process, not even a timetable being set so we could possibly make some sort of plan or arrangements, even if it changed," a junior enlisted soldier told Military.com on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation for speaking to the press. "Obviously, a lot of people are anxious to leave these barracks."
But even if officials find room for all of the soldiers, that could create enormous additional problems on post with troops scattered, in some cases miles from their units. Garrison leaders are now eyeing the logistical challenge of how to transport soldiers. A potential problem revolves around getting troops to early morning physical training with their units, back to the barracks to shower and then back to their units for the workday. That constant back and forth could require round-the-clock shuttle services, which can quickly get costly and slow traffic on base, another source with direct knowledge of the situation told Military.com.
Base officials are considering giving a housing allowance to some of the displaced soldiers, money that is typically reserved for married troops. A sergeant with no dependents would receive about $1,200, but a review of real estate listings found limited options on that budget. It's also unclear whether the real estate market in the surrounding town of Fayetteville, North Carolina, could handle a major influx of new renters.
If the latest estimate of available rooms is right, 300 to 500 soldiers would either have to move to hotels, potentially for years, or find off-base housing that doesn't appear to be available. There are also concerns over the practicality of using hotels or whether hotel managers would want junior soldiers living in those facilities long term.
"This couldn't have happened at a worse time," Mark Mayoras, founder of Soldiers First Real Estate, told Military.com in an interview. "There was a feeding frenzy with low interest rates of buying, which created a severe shortage of properties."
Mayoras added that the inventory of modest homes for single soldiers is scarce. His company manages 400 properties in the Fayetteville area, and he said most are gone before they're even listed due to a long waiting list of people looking to rent.
The issues with Smoke Bomb Hill Barracks were long known to Fort Bragg leadership. At least 203 soldiers with 1st Special Force Command were displaced after mold was discovered in 2020.
Some soldiers have raised the issue with lawmakers. In December 2021, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., penned a letter to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth highlighting the unsafe living conditions.
"Senator Tillis had heard from a number of servicemembers at Fort Bragg who were living in unacceptable housing conditions, and that is why he requested that Army leadership step in back in December," a spokesperson told Military.com in a statement. "He is disappointed it took such drastic measure [sic] to take action and is committed to ensuring the Army is effective in receiving and executing all available funding to modernize and replace substandard barracks."
That mold issue is mostly due to decades-old leaky air conditioning units, which the Army has concluded would be a waste of money to repair or replace given other issues with the buildings. The recent decision to evacuate soldiers and eventually demolish and rebuild 12 of the buildings came only after senior Army leadership pushed aggressively for action, including an inspection from Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston last month and an order from Gen. Edward Daly, who oversees the management of Army installations.
In the meantime, Fort Bragg leaders are asking soldiers to complete a barracks survey that asks a number of quality-of-life questions, including roommate preferences and access to food and cooking appliances.
"This survey will help [the Army] prioritize resources and the design of our future barracks," Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Holland, the top enlisted leader of the XVIII Airborne Corps, said Tuesday on Twitter. "You have a voice, it's time to be heard!"
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.