The Marine Corps effort to improve conditions in its barracks will likely take a decade, Commandant Gen. Eric Smith said Friday, as the wider military grapples with deteriorated and sometimes squalid on-base housing for troops.
Smith said he is "walking a thin line" between reining in occupancy rates, closing unsatisfactory barracks, and upgrading and building new barracks. He spoke to reporters during an appearance at the Military Reporters and Editors conference in Washington, D.C.
What he called the "Barracks 2030" strategy includes securing more funding and professionalizing the Marine Corps entities tasked with their upkeep. Smith said he and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlos Ruiz have "crossed the line of departure" to start addressing these issues during his tenure, but he expects the problem to outlast his time as commandant and the fixes to take potentially a decade.
The commandant and sergeant major of the Marine Corps visited Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, on Monday to get a firsthand look at the installation's barracks amid widening concern over the living conditions for troops across the military.
"I think it's a 10-year problem to get out of the barracks issue that we're in," Smith said following the trip, which was also intended to show Congress the need for more funding. "Because frankly, there are not enough construction companies to do it. Costs are extremely high right now."
Clips from the trip to Lejeune were posted in a video on social media Friday promising that the commandant and Ruiz would release more information about the barracks in the next 30 days. The leaders were accompanied by Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and two members of Congress, Rep. Greg Pence, R-Ind., a Marine Corps veteran, and Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C.
The officials saw the "good, bad and ugly" of Camp Lejeune's barracks, according to the social media post.
"The fact that we're still living in these barracks, we're not helping our cause," Smith said to Marines during the trip. "So, Sgt. Maj [Ruiz] and I [are] working with members of Congress you see here and [the secretary of the Navy] to double the amount of money."
Smith's comments follow a damning Government Accountability Office report last month that detailed disgusting living conditions that many service members are forced to endure -- brown water, insect infestations, squatters -- and systemic issues with the way the Pentagon handles barracks.
According to that report, 17,000 Marines lived in substandard housing as of March, compared to about 5,000 sailors. The other services did not "comprehensively document" substandard living conditions, however, and tracking requirements are not standardized within the Defense Department, so numbers for the Army -- which has received significant criticism for its barracks conditions -- and the Air Force were not available.
The number of Marines assigned to a bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette did not meet Defense Department minimum privacy and configuration standards, according to the GAO report.
"What I saw at Camp Lejeune, purposefully, was our least good barracks, our better barracks, and our best barracks," Smith said during the conference Friday. "We want to move to our best."
Another common concern service members across the military reported to the GAO was that "the quality of maintenance services, such as lack of responsiveness to resident requests," was inadequate.
As the military grapples with long-term fixes for barracks, much of the frustration stems from troops and leaders submitting fixes for flooding, mold or broken utilities -- issues that the average service member cannot fix on their own -- to public works civilians, according to the report.
"We are also looking to professionalize our barracks managers," Smith said. Those managers are service members assigned to handle the housing issues. It is not a military occupational specialty, and oftentimes -- across the military -- junior troops are tasked with the job as an additional duty.
Smith said that he wants experienced technicians with knowledge of the problems that plague the barracks to be the ones interacting with public works.
"I don’t want to put a corporal or a sergeant who's not a barracks manager in charge of that barracks. That's how you fix the public works -- with a professional to a professional," he said.
Smith said that there are 652 barracks across the force that are, on average, 32 years old. Some are more than 40 years old, he said.
A Marine Smith spoke to in the posted video said that the maintenance cycles were "always pretty good, but it's always a Band-Aid."
Most services measure barracks quality -- in part -- with mission scores. Mission scores assess the risk to a unit's mission capability "should the barracks facility fail." The higher the score, the more mission critical the barracks is assessed to be. According to the GAO report, which cited Marine Corps officials, Marine barracks gave mission scores below 30 out of a possible total of 100 for their facilities, generally.
Amid funding for body armor and long-range munitions, Smith said, "The barracks and the facilities took a hit.
"It will take us 10 years to get out of the hole," he said, addressing the members of Congress in the video. "I spent about a billion of the $53 billion that I get from you gentlemen.
"So, you'll see us coming seeking support," Smith added.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X @df_lawrence.