Soldiers in slums

Sunday, October 28, 2001

Many U.S. military families living in housing provided by the armed services have a beef with their landlord. Long-neglected upkeep is a nagging, daily aggravation -- and policymakers and even commanders say it also lowers morale and hurts re-enlistment.

At Fort Story in Virginia, termite damage went unattended so long at the home of the top enlisted man, Sgt. Maj. Jim Moors, that the house was condemned. All other housing on the post is substandard, the service acknowledges.

Ungrounded wiring, found throughout New Mexico's Kirtland Air Force Base, was blamed when an airman's television "blew up," housing director Elaina Day said. Antiquated electrical systems at many bases increase the chance of fire and shock.

At Fort Bragg, N.C., Lucy Thomas and her neighbor, Sharon Carr, both soldiers' wives, are fed up with plumbing problems. Thomas' ceiling has collapsed three times because of leaking pipes. "I've had three floods," she said. The toilet in Carr's cramped townhouse has repeatedly overflowed, and sewage routinely percolates to the surface in the front yard.

"I've lived in public housing and this is worse," Carr said. "It's like we are nobody."

Across the nation's military installations, the complaints are the same. Ceilings sag and floors buckle. Lead-based paint crumbles where soldiers' children play, and wallboard paste laced with asbestos lies exposed. Patched roofs and neglected pipes leak. Septic systems overflow.

Legacy of neglect

"Inadequate" is the term applied by the services themselves to two-thirds of the 300,000 family homes owned or leased by the United States military worldwide. That means they are too small or have major problems with plumbing, electrical systems, air conditioning, termites, rot or mold.

Retired Maj. Gen. Ray L. Smith, commander of the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, N.C., through July 1999, called himself the region's "biggest slumlord" because of decaying, 50-year-old base housing.

Military brass worry about the effect that today's poor housing could have on war-fighting ability as a second generation of professional soldiers decide if they should remain in the service.

"It has a direct relationship to recruitment and retention," said Raymond F. Dubois, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment.

President Bush and Congress have spelled out plans to improve troops' housing, good news for the services which reported in September that recruitment remains a major challenge. Re-enlistment rates dropped during the 1990s.

"It's morally wrong to ask people who are risking their lives for the country to live in housing that the rest of us would be embarrassed to call home," said Rep. Chet Edwards, a member of the House Appropriations military construction subcommittee.

Congress appropriated $890 million this year to replace and renovate 6,800 family homes worldwide. Bush, who wants the services to eliminate substandard housing by 2008, two years ahead of the services' schedule, proposed spending $1.1 billion next year to construct or improve 6,300 family homes and to support private development of an additional 28,000.

Edwards said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the new focus on fighting terrorism will not curtail efforts to improve family housing.

The attacks "have refocused the American people on the need for a strong national defense," Edwards said.

Correcting by 2008

Sen. John Warner, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there is broad consensus in Congress to get the problem fixed. "The budgets thus far are on target for correction by 2008," he said.

The longterm solution is privatization, the Pentagon hopes. In an experiment at Fort Carson, Colo., the Army has turned over all family housing to a private developer.

Blending privatization and military construction is expected to cut by two-thirds the projected time and cost of rebuilding housing -- up to 30 years and $30 billion, if done by the military alone.

For at least 20 years, funding hasn't kept pace with even basic maintenance needs, said retired Brig. Gen. Robert L. Herndon, former chief of Army housing. Clearing the maintenance backlog alone will cost $16 billion to $30 billion -- "a huge spread because no one really knows how big the figure is," he said.

Stories of neglected upkeep or saw blighted housing were common during recent visits to 15 American military bases in the United States and overseas. More than 50 service members and their families gave specific examples of the housing inadequacies broadly reported by the services and the General Accounting Office.

Today, 740,000, or 53 percent, of America's 1,394,000 active duty military personnel are married -- and three-fourths of those have children. An additional 88,000, or 6 percent, are single parents.

Staff Sgt. David Murray, his wife and three children live in Camp Lejeune, N.C.'s Watkins Village, an eyesore built in the 1970s. Murray is a 10-year Marine veteran who had planned to make the corps a career. Does he still?

"Not if I have anything to do with it!" said his wife, Katie. "I'm tired of living in a house that no matter what I do, I hate it."

"When the kids take baths, water leaks downstairs and pours out of the heating vent," she said. Part of the nightly bath ritual is to put a towel on the floor below, where the water leaks from holes in the side of the bathtub.

"When the wife says, 'I'm outta here, I'm not living like this,' then we lose the Marine, too," said Col. Tom Phillips, assistant chief of staff for installations and environment at Camp Lejeune.

Base housing in demand

Despite poor quality, base housing is in demand, because it's provided for free.

Service members who live off base -- about 65 percent of the force -- receive a housing allowance, varying by rank, but must supplement it from their pockets. They typically pay 20 percent of housing expenses.

That could add up to about $2,000 out of pocket annually for a staff sergeant with eight years in the Army and a base pay of $24,552 a year. Officials hope increased housing allowances approved by Congress will eliminate out-of-pocket expenses by 2005.

Fort Stewart, Ga., rates 75 percent of its family housing as poor, and 16 percent as worse than poor.

"We maintain them, but they're old, they're falling apart," said post housing director Charlie Bunting.

At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, the mice and roaches infesting some homes backing up to woods were bad enough.

Troops taking families overseas also face housing woes.

Some soldiers seeing the half-century-old apartment buildings at the U.S. Army post in Heidelberg, Germany, protest, "I wouldn't have brought my family if I'd known," said Dee Spellman, housing manager.

Col. Walter Tomczak, an Air Force navigator, his wife Diann and their two children, live in a 900-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment at Osan Air Base in Korea. Jugs, baskets, toy boxes and dishes are stacked on top of each other.

Even those with high-profile jobs are not immune to housing problems.

Marine Capt. Charles Gant was flying an FA-18D in combat over Kosovo while dealing with housing problems sickening his son at Beaufort Marine Air Station in Beaufort, S.C.

Quality of housing will be a factor in Gant's decision whether to re-enlist when his tour ends. And he's not happy. "They should have taken care of my wife," he said, "when I was out of country."

With service members called to duty in the new war on terrorism the issue arises anew, said Phillips at Camp Lejeune.

"We would certainly hope," he said, "no left-behind spouse would have to call a deployed spouse with a housing problem."

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