Reforming military pay and benefits and improving housing conditions are the top two quality-of-life issues for service members that lawmakers should address immediately, the senior enlisted leaders for all the military services told Congress on Wednesday.
"A couple of these problems are so big that if we don't start taking immediate action on them now, we're going to miss the curve in the future," Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea said Wednesday at a House hearing.
Honea was testifying at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee's military quality-of-life panel alongside his fellow senior enlisted leaders from the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Space Force and Joint Chiefs of Staff. The leaders were called to Capitol Hill following months of news stories and watchdog reports documenting foul living conditions, limited food options and subpar health care -- problems that come as most of the military services struggle to meet their recruiting goals.
"Military pay and compensation reform is going to be one of those big problems that we need to start taking a bite at today," Honea said. "I would also offer unaccompanied housing for our service members. That's also going to be a very big problem, and it's not going to be solved by Saturday. It's not going to be solved by this one year or in the next maybe five years, even.
"So, we need to start on that today, otherwise we're not going to be in front of this problem," he added.
Pressed by House panel Chairman Don Bacon, R-Neb., to identify the top two quality-of-life issues facing their services, all the enlisted leaders agreed that pay and housing are the most pressing concerns.
As evidence has piled up of declining quality of life and as recruitment continues to flag, the House panel has spent months examining military pay, housing, health care and family life with an eye toward enacting significant reforms in the annual defense policy bill lawmakers will consider later this year. Wednesday's hearing, which came after several closed-door briefings with key players and an open hearing on housing with civilian officials last year, is expected to be the final public session of the panel before it releases its recommendations later this spring.
"The work of this panel has revealed an alarming erosion of military quality of life that, if not addressed quickly, will place the very existence of our all-volunteer force at risk," Bacon said at the top of the hearing. "I believe that reversing this decline will require a national commitment to change course while there is still time."
In recent years, lawmakers have proposed overhauling the military pay chart to give junior enlisted service members a significant pay boost in addition to the annual across-the-board raise for all troops. Lawmakers have also advanced new, targeted bonuses and allowances to make military service more appealing amid the recruitment crisis.
But in most cases, civilian defense officials and other administration officials have rebuffed those proposals, arguing they are premature amid an ongoing comprehensive review of military pay that is expected to be done by early 2025.
At Wednesday's hearing, while the enlisted leaders similarly said they are eagerly awaiting the results of the pay review, they also implored lawmakers to take action immediately.
"We have not done a targeted pay raise for your military service members since 2007," said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass, referencing when some enlisted troops and warrant officers got an extra pay bump on top of the annual across-the-board raise.
The hearing also comes on the heels of a nearly 100-page report this past September from the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, that detailed substandard living conditions in military housing, with examples ranging from rancid sewage smells and rust-colored water to issues with bugs and even squatters entering buildings. Investigators with the GAO went to six military facilities for the report.
Lawmaker concerns about housing sparked the sharpest moment of the hearing when Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., challenged Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlos Ruiz about housing issues in her home state.
In the weeks prior to the hearing, the Marine Corps started a messaging campaign focused on improved barracks and housing. That messaging has been challenged by images and reports of squalid living conditions, Military.com has previously reported. At the hearing, Ruiz was explaining the "business model" of the living facilities at installations such as Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
"I'm not sure that we have a disconnect with information, I think --," Ruiz said before Mace cut him off.
"No, there's definitely a housing issue down there," Mace said. "I'm not going to accept that there's an issue with disinformation or misinformation. ... That's not happening."
Ruiz went on to explain progress at fire stations and schools at the South Carolina base, but was interrupted again.
"We're talking about housing -- the issues of housing -- not with the fire station or anything else," Mace said.
Meanwhile, the Army owns the largest portfolio of barracks in the military. But Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Weimer, who was making his Capitol Hill debut after taking the role in August, offered few new insights or details in his testimony Wednesday on how the service plans to fix what its own measurements have found is one-quarter of buildings in poor or failing condition.
Service planners have previously pointed to insufficient funding to maintain the Army's barracks properly, projecting they would need at least $6.5 billion on top of their current budget of about $1 billion for barracks just to catch up on maintenance issues.
Key service planners from across the Army met in December to come up with policy plans to do what they can with their limited budget, but the service declined to answer questions from Military.com ahead of the hearing on what, if any, plans exist to maintain or enhance its large inventory of barracks.
For the Air Force, Bass admitted it was "not shocking to any of us" that "most of our infrastructure is like antiques," adding that underfunding modernization efforts in its dorms is partially to blame.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force John Bentivegna said that "nothing was unlivable" in dorms at Space Force bases and added that the airmen and Guardians in Department of the Air Force housing were "relatively happy." But he said the majority of the criticism from enlisted members is over when the facilities will, eventually, be modernized.
Honea, the Navy's enlisted leader, told the committee that one of his goals is to offer every sailor a barracks room. Right now, about 800 sailors per aircraft carrier -- which have a permanent crew of about 3,000 service members -- have to live on ships while in port because barracks rooms aren't available and the Navy cannot offer a housing allowance to most junior enlisted members, he said.
Reacting to complaints and clusters of suicides last year, Congress gave the Navy the ability to offer sailors in shipyards a housing allowance to find stable and comfortable housing off base.
Now, Honea said he wants to expand that authority to every sailor.
"The immediate impact that it's going to have is ... [to] give us the ability and the flexibility and the authority to pay those sailors to secure their own housing, and then that will no longer then have to be an afterthought of the maintenance budget," he told the representatives.
Allowing more sailors to find off-base housing will, Honea added, "give those sailors that immediate separation from their work life to their home life"
The effort may take some time, though, Honea said in an interview with Military.com on Monday.
"It's going to be something that we're going to have to lay out with a ... 5-, 10-, 15-year strategy, he said.