Army Plans Boost in Barracks Spending as Military Grapples with Squalid Living Conditions

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Senior leaders from across 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, check barracks facilities for mold and other maintenance concerns.
Senior leaders from across 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, check barracks facilities for mold and other maintenance concerns in September 2022 after soldiers voiced concerns to installation leaders and posting imagery of mold in rooms on social media. (Sgt. 1st Class Jason Hull/U.S. Army photo)

The Army is crafting a new plan to improve barracks following mold and health issues, as well as a damning report from a government watchdog last month that found squalid base housing across the services -- including bad plumbing, brown water and insect infestations.

The plan, which has not yet been approved by Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, aims to pump $4 billion into barracks construction and renovations, and fund barracks sustainment to 100% of what's authorized by Congress, according to an internal copy reviewed by Military.com. On average in recent years, the Army has funded barracks sustainment at only 85% of what's authorized, using the rest of the money for unrelated projects.

Part of that increase would go to fully funding repairs and other sustainment, amounting to $342 million through the rest of the decade. The $4 billion would be a huge boost to new construction and renovations, but it would require the support of Congress for new funding.

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"Honestly, it's a matter of balancing resources," Paul Farnan, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, said Thursday when asked why barracks weren't fully funded from the start. "We only have so many dollars. In the past, installations were under-invested in and that's how we got ourselves into this hole."

The Army's plan, though short on specifics, is the most substantial response so far to the severe livability issues with military barracks. In some cases, rooming did not have locking doors and squatters moved in, according to the Government Accountability Office report. Military.com reached out to the Army, Navy and Marine Corps about what each service plans to do to address the issues unveiled in the report, but responses were muted.

The Pentagon's civilian leadership was also criticized by the GAO for failing to enforce meaningful barracks standards on the branches and viewing the issue as unimportant after it nixed surveys of the rank and file on the matter.

After a service-wide inspection of all of its 6,700 barracks buildings, the Army found 23% of them in "poor" or "failing" condition. About 5% of the housing in poor or failing condition were temporary barracks set up at locations such as schools or major training centers, which are lower in priority compared to soldiers' homes.

"We are aware of the infrastructure challenges in our barracks across the Army," Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Weimer told Military.com in a statement. "We acknowledge that more needs to be done to provide the living arrangements our soldiers deserve."

The service expects it to cost $7.5 billion in total to catch up on barracks renovations and a growing maintenance backlog, which would be difficult to cover with an annual budget for living quarters of about $1.4 billion per year.

Even with an infusion of funding, the Army's current plan for barracks has gaps.

There is no clear outline for accountability if barracks fall into poor conditions, and no concrete standards for hiring maintenance workers. Soldiers regularly complain that barracks issues may take weeks or months to be properly addressed by Department of Public Works, or DPW, teams.

"Manpower is absolutely an issue," Farnan said. "Our installations were historically underfunded over the last few decades. … One result was a cut in manpower at the garrison. We need to take a look at better management practices."

The GAO report scolded the Army for skirting baseline living standards, saying, "The Army effectively waives all barracks from DoD minimum standards." There are no health or safety requirements that prevent installations from assigning service members to live in substandard barracks rooms.

Barracks quality goes beyond giving soldiers a nice home to live in. Army senior leaders have argued in recent years that those conditions affect the service's ability to fight. Unsafe conditions make troops more likely to separate and not recommend enlistment when they return home.

"I can't wait to leave the Army soon," said a junior enlisted infantryman, who spoke to Military.com on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation.

The soldier has lived in the barracks at Fort Stewart, Georgia, for years. The building smells musty. There has been no significant effort to remediate the mold that has infected the barracks, some of which has just been painted over.

He knew being in the infantry meant putting up with austere conditions, but not at home, and now he fears he is developing health issues related to the poor barracks conditions.

There are regular coughs and frequent nose bleeds, symptoms consistent with long-term exposure to black mold that other soldiers have relayed to Military.com. In some cases, soldiers have been admitted to the emergency room.

As the Army formulates plans, the Pentagon and other areas of the military have been slow to respond as poor living conditions among troops make news headlines.

Brendan Owens, an assistant secretary of defense and the Pentagon's chief housing officer, said that "in too many instances" the department "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."

In his emailed statement, Owens said that he "will move out aggressively to increase oversight and accountability in government-owned unaccompanied housing and to address unacceptable living conditions impacting our service members."

While the man that the defense department points to as the ultimate authority on barracks is promising change, Kelly Flynn, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Military.com that there was "nothing to announce at this time" regarding either the history of housing service members in substandard barracks rooms or the services' practice of exempting themselves from Pentagon standards.

Meanwhile, the Navy has pointed to the "Unaccompanied Housing Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" that it unveiled this May as part of its efforts to improve life for the roughly 5,000 sailors that the GAO found live in substandard housing.

The bill of rights says the service will provide sailors "a community that is safe, secure, and meets applicable health and environmental standards" and that they have "the right to reside in a housing unit that has working fixtures, appliances, and utilities."

But the service didn't define what those standards are and stressed that it views the new policy as a two-way street in which sailors are also charged with maintaining daily living standards in their barracks.

The GAO report found that service members across the branches struggle to do exactly that. Troops are often tasked with pest control, cleaning up mold and sewage, or providing their own heaters and air conditioners while living in barracks rooms.

One installation that GAO inspectors visited even told them that "service members are responsible for cleaning biological waste that may remain in a barracks room after a suicide."

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on X @StevenBeynon.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on X @ktoropin.

Related: Mold Is Consuming Fort Stewart's Barracks as a Pattern Emerges Across the Army

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