- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 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 policy-makers 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. Sgt. Maj. Moors said he just hoped to provide his wife with "a nice set of quarters before we retire" after 30 years in the Army. 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 leaking and overflowing plumbing. Mrs. Thomas' ceiling has collapsed three times because of leaking pipes. "I've had three floods," she said.
The toilet in Mrs. Carr's cramped town house overflowed so much that it ruined three carpets. Sewage and toilet tissue routinely percolate to the surface in the front yard, she said.
"I've lived in public housing, and this is worse," Mrs. Carr said. "It's like we are nobody."
Recently, she moved out, planning to take her two children to live with her family while her husband, a sergeant first class, serves a tour of duty in South Korea.
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.
"Inadequate" is the term applied by the services themselves to two-thirds of the 300,000 family homes owned or leased by the U.S. military worldwide. That means they are too small or have major problems with plumbing, electrical systems, air conditioning, termites, rot or mold.
Many homes, officials say, simply need to be demolished.
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 still greatly needing work.
"I could make people live in my slum," he said, "but didn't have the power to fix them up."
Military brass worry about the effect that today's poor housing a legacy of 200 years of neglect could have on war-fighting ability as a second generation of professional troops 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 held a White House ceremony in May in which he thanked 100 re-enlisting service members. Re-enlistment rates dropped during the 1990s, and it was a major issue during the presidential campaign, with Mr. Bush arguing that sagging morale was partly to blame.
Mr. Bush and Congress have spelled out plans to improve troops' housing, good news for the services, which reported this month that recruitment remains a major challenge, even though they met goals for the past two years.
"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, Texas Democrat and a member of the House Appropriations military construction subcommittee.
Congress appropriated $890 million this year to replace and renovate 6,800 family homes worldwide. Mr. 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.
This year's allocation averages to $131,000 per home, which military officials say is comparable to the cost of a similar civilian home. A new town house at Fort Carson, Colo., for example, has wall-to-wall carpeting, ceiling fans, a bay window in a large kitchen, a garage, and an underground lawn-sprinkler system.
Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, 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.
Rep. Ed Schrock, Virginia Republican, recently made a whirlwind tour of 23 military bases with three other members of the House Armed Services Committee. He agreed that Congress is committed to fixing the problem.
"Time after time, base after base, state after state, we found conditions so bad that you don't want your worst enemy living in them," he said.
The long-term solution is privatization, the Pentagon hopes. In an experiment at Fort Carson, 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, much less construction requirements, 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.
Associated Press reporters heard stories of neglected upkeep or saw blighted housing on 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. AP also talked to base commanders, military housing officials and civilian experts.
Poor military housing is almost as old as the nation itself.
Soldiers were quartered in stables and shanties at frontier posts in the West, Army Corps of Engineers historian William C. Baldwin wrote in a history of Army housing. In 1870, the surgeon general reported that the United States had the "worst-housed army in the world." In 1924, national magazines published articles titled "Our Homeless Army" and "Army Housing: A National Disgrace."
Amid the nationwide housing shortage after World War II, "rather than be separated from their families many of the service personnel have accepted disgraceful living conditions in shacks, trailer camps and overcrowded buildings," the secretary of defense reported at the time.
Thousands of new homes were built in the 1950s and early '60s, but the shortage of family housing persisted. Those same houses are the ones now falling apart as the pressure for more and better housing increases.
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.
"When there is a procurement program pending for aircraft carriers, Air Force jets or Army tanks, there is a legion of lobbyists from all over the country fighting for those programs," said Mr. Edwards. "There are few lobbyists fighting for better houses" for military families.
A tour of Camp Lejeune underlines that reality.
Staff Sgt. David Murray, his wife and three children live in the base's Watkins Village, an eyesore built in the 1970s. Sgt. Murray is a 10-year Marine veteran who had planned to make the Corps a career. Does he still?
"No, 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.
"My way of making the most of it is to clean like a madwoman all the time," she said. But cleaning the walls is frustrating. She dampened a cloth and demonstrated: The paint came off with a light swipe.
"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 out of 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.
Despite poor quality, base housing is in demand, with waiting lists up to two years at some installations. That's because base housing and utilities are provided free of charge.
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, studies by the services show.
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, according to the GAO. Officials hope increased housing allowances approved by Congress will eliminate out-of-pocket expenses by 2005.
Like family housing, many barracks housing single troops are considered substandard. The Pentagon has set new standards calling for greater privacy and space for service members, including eliminating barracks with a central latrine. Mr. Bush's proposed budget contains $1.2 billion to build or update barracks.
Soon after taking office, Mr. Bush used Fort Stewart, Ga., as a backdrop for a speech telling soldiers and their families on a windswept parade field that "America is not serving you well."
Fort Stewart rates 75 percent of its family housing as poor, and 16 percent as worse than poor.
Geoffrey Armbruster, who drives a Bradley fighting vehicle, lives with his wife, Patricia, and their four children in a "really bad" two-bedroom town house in Fort Stewart's Hallwood Homes, built in 1957.
"The air conditioner has failed eight times. The kitchen sink gets stopped up and you can't get anything down it. We keep plunging and plunging and plunging," Patricia Armbruster said.
The Hallwood apartments also have leaky roofs and windows and bursting pipes.
"We maintain them, but they're old. They're falling apart," said post housing director Charlie Bunting.
Lead paint was banned for residential use in 1978. But most military houses built before then have it, like many private homes. Even when paint has been covered with nontoxic paints, cracking and peeling are common and an invitation for children to put paint chips in their mouths.
Asbestos is in wallboard paste and in floor-tile glue in many homes, base housing officials said. When major work is done on walls, ceilings or floors, workers wear respirators and hang signs warning: "Danger. Asbestos. Cancer and Lung Disease Hazard."
Military housing officials said they knew of no specific reports of lead- or asbestos-related illness.
At some bases, pest infestation is rampant. At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, for example, the mice and roaches infesting some homes backing up to woods were bad enough. "And in the past few months we've had a lot of calls for bats," said Terry Mathews, chief of family housing.
Troops taking families overseas also face housing woes.
Some soldiers seeing the three-story 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. Many of the apartments have not been renovated since they were built in the mid-1950s.

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