Difficulty breathing. Nose bleeds. Asthma.
The Army has struggled with moldy conditions in its barracks for decades, with reports of infestations blanketing soldiers' rooms and possessions at some installations becoming a frequent topic in the media. But those conditions aren't just unsightly, they're seemingly having a serious impact on the health of America's front-line troops.
Eleven soldiers interviewed by Military.com say they have developed illnesses from exposure to moldy conditions in the Army's dilapidated barracks as the service has struggled to significantly boost quality-of-life standards
"I can barely breathe whenever I am in the room," one junior soldier who had to move out of their barracks told Military.com. "I started coughing up blood and had to go to the ER."
All of the soldiers who say they have gotten sick are stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia, or Fort Bragg, North Carolina, two locations where prior Military.com investigations have revealed rampant mold. They all described similar symptoms tied to respiratory ailments, as well as frequent nosebleeds. In at least two cases, soldiers had to be moved out of their barracks because of serious health concerns.
All 11 soldiers were granted anonymity for this article to avoid retaliation because none of them was authorized to talk to the media.
The symptoms they list are consistent with the impacts some people suffer after exposure to black mold, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Mold is a fungus that thrives in hot, moist environments, such as the humid climates in the South and Hawaii that are home to large military bases. Many barracks were built in the mid-20th century, have poor ventilation, and use antiquated air conditioning systems that are prone to leaks.
Soldiers have reported inconsistent attention from their chains of command and maintenance crews when it comes to mold remediation.
"It feels like I've given a lot to the Army," another junior soldier told Military.com. "It's hard to be all you can be if there's mold in your barracks. Ever since I've got here, any room I go in … it just feels terrible. It just isn't getting fixed."
That soldier was recently diagnosed with asthma, according to medical records reviewed by Military.com. The soldier has also experienced wheezing and difficulty breathing, and said they frequently brought the issue up with their chain of command only to see room changes stalled.
Medical officials said that mold infestations in the barracks were continuing to harm the soldier's health and recommended they be moved to new living quarters immediately, according to a memo reviewed by Military.com.
When asked by Military.com whether Fort Stewart or Fort Bragg tracked how many of its soldiers are sick or had previous health concerns from moldy conditions, spokespeople for those bases could not provide any data. A spokesperson for Fort Stewart says it has issued 3,000 dehumidifiers to soldiers, meant to prevent mold growth by reducing moisture in the air. No soldiers interviewed by Military.com said they were offered one. Some of those soldiers have purchased their own dehumidifiers and air purifiers.
In March the Army concluded a service-wide inspection for mold in all of its facilities and found 2,100 buildings had some level of growth. That inspection followed a series of stories about barracks mold from Military.com and was the first time the service had tried to measure the scope of the issue.
Poor living conditions for the Army's youngest troops have been at the center of the service's quality-of-life issues, but top leaders have struggled to make significant gains, partly due to a relatively small barracks budget. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston have both made quality-of-life improvements key components of their tenure, with soldiers reporting significant gains in areas like the service's parental leave policy, which is more generous than the other branches.
"The mentality used to be suck it up, but that isn't where we are as a nation anymore," Katherine Kuzminski, a military policy expert at Center for a New American Security, told Military.com. "[Senior leaders are] acknowledging that it's a problem and that's a step in the right direction, but they are bound to the resourcing Congress provides."
While the Army has a $1 billion-per-year plan to renovate its aging barracks and build new ones, those projects are slow moving. Next year, the service plans to build only five new barracks: one each at Fort Wainwright, Alaska; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; and the Army Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts; and two at Fort Bragg.
Fort Stewart officials plan on renovating virtually all of their barracks, but those projects won't be complete until 2035, long after soldiers living there now have moved on in their careers or left the Army. While the service has asked for more money for barracks construction that Congress is likely to grant, the issue of moldy barracks hasn't gained significant traction on Capitol Hill and lawmakers have not sought any significant cash boost for living quarters across the services.
"There's a challenge that Congress controls the dollars. Neither the Army nor Congress want [barracks] money to take away from dollars going toward the lethality of the Army for a conflict in the Pacific," Kuzminski said. "The reality is the Army needs an influx of cash today."
In a recorded conversation shared with Military.com, a voice identified by one soldier as belonging to a Department of Public Works manager who helps oversee maintenance at Fort Stewart describes being overworked and having a huge backlog of mold remediation issues to deal with in different barracks rooms. The manager also said that the mold has been frequently painted over in the past.
Command Sgt. Maj. Quentin Fenderson, the 3rd Infantry Division's previous top enlisted leader who retired earlier this month, told Military.com in an interview in September that Fort Stewart wasn't in any clear need of additional maintenance teams and that he felt the timetable for renovations and new barracks was adequate.
The issue of poorly manned and sparsely trained maintenance workers was brought up by Wormuth when asked by lawmakers about housing conditions. She said it has been difficult hiring maintenance teams, though those positions are frequently low-paying jobs.
"I've seen some barracks quite frankly I wouldn't want my daughters to live in," Wormuth said at a House hearing on the Army's budget last week.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.