Committee searches for accountability after report on poor condition of barracks


(The Center Square) – Members of a House Armed Service Committee panel expressed shock and frustration Wednesday with the conditions of barracks that house U.S. troops after a government report detailed widespread health and safety issues, including raw sewage, rodent infestations, mold and inoperable fire safety systems.

“This is an issue that goes beyond party lines and demands our attention and action,” said U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., the chairman of the panel. “Our men and women in uniform have put their life on the line to protect our freedom. They and their families make countless sacrifices for our nation. We owe it to these individuals to ensure that they have access to safe, comfortable and affordable housing. Unfortunately, the reality of military housing is often far from that.”

Bacon said the recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report on barracks for U.S. troops detailed “deplorable, and frankly, inexcusable conditions” in military housing for unmarried service members with no children or other dependents, as previously reported by The Center Square.

The report detailed sewage backups, mold, inoperable fire safety systems, broken heating and air conditioning systems, rodent infestations and other problems at barracks where troops are required to live during training.

Bacon spent 30 years in the Air Force before retiring as a Brigadier General. He served as base commander at Ramstein Airbase in Germany and Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska.

“If I would have had these conditions in any of our barracks, I would have got fired,” he said. “One of the things we want to know today is where is the accountability at with these barracks? Has anyone been held accountable? And what are we going to do to get this right and get it fixed?”

Elizabeth Field, director of Defense Capabilities and Management for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told committee members that the conditions of barracks have been a problem for decades. She said 20 years ago, the Government Accountability Office found similar problems to those described in the agency’s most recent report. Ten years ago, in a report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Defense lauded the progress it had made in modernizing barracks with increased funding. The Department of Defense promised to maintain those barracks.

“Obviously, that didn’t happen,” Field said in her testimony Wednesday. “It will take years to reverse the chronic neglect and underfunding we uncovered.”

She said one of the most troubling things she observed during the Government Accountability Office investigation was that the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which oversees the barracks program, had what she called “a very hands-off approach to this topic.”

“When we asked them some basic questions at the beginning of our audit – about how many barracks there were, whether they were not complying with standards, how many service members live there – they couldn’t tell us,” Field said.

Bacon said that Congress has continued to give the Department of Defense more money over the years.

Field said the problem wasn’t with Congressional funding for the Department of Defense, but with how the Department of Defense chose to use that money.

“The department tends to only fund to about 80% of sustainment needs and the facilities that most often lose out are things like barracks,” she said.

Field said another problem was the lack of accountability.

“I think there has been a cultural perspective within the department that part of being in the military is toughing it out and ‘this is just going to get them ready for the military’ and unfortunately that has gotten us, in part, to where we are today,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., asked Field how much it would cost to get the barracks up to par.

Field said that was a difficult question, in part because the Department of Defense doesn’t know how much it spends on barracks and its assessments of the conditions of those barracks are unreliable.

Problems with barracks, where military members live during initial training, have existed for decades. The Department of Defense has not fully funded its facilities program for years leading to a backlog of at least $137 billion in deferred maintenance costs as of fiscal year 2020, according to the Government Accountability Office report.

Strickland also asked about the privatization of military housing.

In the mid-1990s, the Department of Defense worried that inadequate housing was contributing to people leaving the military. Congress enacted the Military Housing Privatization Initiative in 1996. That gave the Pentagon authority to obtain private-sector financing and management to repair, renovate, build and operate military housing. Since then, the private sector has taken over about 99% of military family housing in the U.S. By contrast, the Army and Navy have seven privatized barracks projects, according to the Government Accountability Office report. The rest of the barracks are owned and operated by the military services.

“Privatization is a tricky question because one of the things we’ve learned from this audit is whether it is government-owned or privatized, if you don’t pay attention, if you don’t fund, you’re going to end up with poor living conditions,” Field said.

Field said the Government Accountability Office did tour some private barracks in San Diego, which she described as far better than government-owned barracks.

“Privatization though, is not a silver bullet,” she said.

The Department of Defense was supposed to produce on report for Congress on its approach to privatization in July. That report has not yet been submitted, Field said.

“We could not get any clear information from the department on when it will be delivered,” Field said. “I think if this committee could push the department to deliver that report, that would be helpful.”

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