The Army Needs a Lot of Money for Barracks, But It’s Fighting for Pocket Change

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October 19, 2023
Senior leaders from across 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, check barracks facilities for mold

“I do use this in a pejorative term, and it’s adulting.”

Maj. Gen. James Isenhower III, the commander of the 1st Armored Division, was suggesting to a room packed with spectators earlier this month that a key cause of the mold and other poor living conditions in the Army is soldiers and families not maintaining their living spaces.

The mold in particular, pictures of which have made the rounds on social media and become something of a shorthand for the dire state of many Army barracks, has been the subject of multiple Military.com investigations revealing rooms made fuzzy with growing fungi.

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“A lot of times, we just need to teach young soldiers and young family members what is appropriate and what is part of their obligation and basic responsibility as an adult,” Isenhower continued speaking at the Association of the United States Army conference. “I will tell senior leaders, ‘I don’t have a mold problem, I have a discipline problem.'”

He was flanked by a nodding Lt. Gen. Omar Jones IV, who runs the service’s Installation Management Command, which is responsible for barracks quality. A clip posted to Reddit of the exchange has since become something of a sensation, being viewed at least 1 million times.

The comments on social media have been brutal. Soldiers’ concerns over dilapidated barracks that have faced years of neglect from Army officials, maintenance crews and Congress were being dismissed. It was pointed out that the generals, two West Point graduates with Roman numerals in their names, were seemingly shifting the blame to the junior enlisted.

A division spokesperson declined Military.com’s request for comment on whether Isenhower wanted to retract or clarify what he said at the conference.

The service’s senior leaders know that the condition of barracks is an issue. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth set in motion the relocation of some 1,100 troops from the Smoke Bomb Hill Barracks at Fort Liberty, North Carolina, in August after complaints reached her desk over living conditions. Those barracks were almost immediately scheduled for demolition.

But with so many of the 6,700 barracks across the force broadly falling into such disrepair, that kind of relocation in many cases isn’t viable. Army planners have estimated it would cost at least $7.5 billion simply to catch up on the maintenance and repair backlog made particularly costly by mold infestations that have plagued living quarters in humid climates such as North Carolina, Georgia and Hawaii.

A damning audit from the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, released in September found systemic issues in barracks across the military posing significant health and safety risks to troops, including dirty water, sewage backups and pests.

Earlier this month, Military.com reported on an internal plan being discussed by Army leaders to ask for $4 billion from Congress to try to play catch up on its barracks woes, about half of what is needed. But even that is unlikely as it’s unclear how much buy-in the Army has from Congress.

“I would describe that as aspirational,” Wormuth told Military.com in an interview.

Lawmakers in Washington outlined uncertainty as to whether funding would materialize, though there continues to be at least a public bipartisan majority vocal about supporting troops.

“There’s a lot of pressure from Congress right now to address a lot of demands on the budget,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D- Pa., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s military quality-of-life panel, told Military.com. “There’s certainly deficit hawks and many people who don’t necessarily support more funding for the DoD in general. But those folks are not the majority. One of the hopes I have is that we support barracks, which is essential to quality of life and readiness.”

Seemingly accepting that more money might not materialize, after years of setting aside and spending only 85% of the total money approved for Congress to keep barracks in reasonable shape, the Army is instead looking to fully fund maintenance.

The Army has in the past shifted the extra 15% to other projects, but those sustainment funds are intended to simply maintain the status quo of barracks conditions, not improve or fix lingering problems. Using all the money earmarked for barracks maintenance would add about $342 million through the rest of the decade — pocket change in the sprawling Defense Department’s budget.

“The 100% sustainment is something Gen. [Randy] George and I are working very hard to find a path to,” Wormuth said, noting that the Army will eventually need Congress to significantly boost funds for living quarters if it’s going to improve on existing conditions. “To put a very serious dent into our backlog, we need to have what we’ve been calling a ‘generational investment’ in housing. And that’s not something that right now we can fit under our relatively flat [budget].”

Part of that challenge is that barracks have never been a significant priority in the Pentagon’s portfolio — always taking a back seat to wars and weapons projects. Junior enlisted troops, who are often between 18- and 24-years-old and make up the bulk of barracks residents, have little say in how Army money is spent or approved.

The service is also eyeing privatized barracks, including looking into starting a pilot program at Fort Irwin, California. Some of the companies the Army currently does business with to maintain family housing have had a terrible track record with poor conditions. For years, lawmakers have been grilling some of these companies for widespread mistreatment of military families. In 2021, Balfour Beatty Communities, one of the largest providers of privatized military housing, pleaded guilty to fraud, paying $65 million in fines and penalties after a Department of Justice criminal inquiry and a civil lawsuit alleged a pattern of delayed repairs, mold and pest infestations.

“I’m not going to name names, but some of those companies do a very good job,” Wormuth said. “Other companies we’ve had problems with. If we did pursue privatized barracks on a broader scale, I don’t think we’d necessarily be working with bad partners.”

A 2022 Military.com report of the conditions at Fort Stewart, Georgia, found soldiers’ gear was destroyed by mold; air conditioners were broken; and walls had turned black, with no significant action from leadership other than a stand-down over how troops can clean mold themselves.

Cleaning up environmental hazards like mold is largely considered its own trade, with some states requiring licenses for remediation in the private sector. That stand-down was also conducted only after leadership at the installation was made aware of Military.com’s impending story, despite years of complaints from the rank and file. In April, the publication also interviewed 11 soldiers, most of whom were serving at Fort Stewart or Fort Liberty, who say they have been sickened by mold and in some cases were admitted to emergency rooms for respiratory issues, coughing up blood, and other symptoms associated with long-term exposure to black mold.

Some soldiers have since been moved to different rooms, and there have been increased efforts on mold detection and mitigation, though a service-wide inspection in the last year of all active-duty facilities found 23% of the barracks are in poor or failing condition.

Meanwhile, the Army is moving forward with a handful of projects with a relatively limited budget of roughly $1 billion per year to maintain and build new barracks. New living quarters were recently built at Fort Johnson, Louisiana, totaling 160 rooms, and roughly $500 million has been spent on the base in the past decade refurbishing other barracks in the muggy climate.

In 2025, new barracks for 253 soldiers at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, are expected to open. Soldiers will have their own bedroom and share a common area. A similar style of barracks is under construction for the 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade at Fort Cavazos, Texas. The 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, at Fort Carson, Colorado, will begin seeing new barracks around 2027.

— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on X @StevenBeynon.

Related: Mold Is Consuming Fort Stewart’s Barracks as a Pattern Emerges Across the Army

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