A software developer who spent 12 years in the Army could not believe what he saw in a recent report about moldy, filthy barracks across the military.
“I want to hold leaders and installations accountable to this stuff,” said Robert Evans, a former sergeant in the Army Reserves and National Guard. “Let’s be real, some of these commanders and leaders, they’re either married or they’re living on post housing or somewhere off post. So they don’t really have to really experience that. That’s really unfortunate.”
In his spare time after putting his kids to bed, he started coding a Yelp-like app that he hoped could help hold leaders accountable for troops’ living conditions and give a voice to younger, junior enlisted troops from all branches and across all domestic military installations and those abroad.
He called it Hots & Cots. The app launched on Oct. 3rd for iOS and for Android on Oct. 21st. So far, there are around 1,200 downloads. So far, users have posted reviews on topics from raw chicken at dining facilities and dead mice in barracks to a nice Thanksgiving dinner featured at an installation.
“I want soldiers to be heard because being a lower enlisted, sometimes you don’t feel like you’re heard,” Evans said.
Just this week, Spc. Daniel Montgomery, a soldier at Joint Base Lewis-McCord was assigned to new barracks after coming back from a deployment in Iraq. He soon realized there were problems with mold and a bug infestation with wasps. The soldier kept a humorous running thread on X about the bugs, writing “If anyone sees this insect, please kill it.” and “INSECT IDENTIFIED AS WASP, WASP LOCATED AND INCAPACITATED, WTF IS A WASP DOING IN NOVEMBER”
Montgomery posted about the room, its conditions, and its wildlife on Hots & Cots. With the soldier’s permission, Evans shared the barracks room number with a contact at JBLM who was able to contact the Directorate of Public Works. Someone was spraying for bugs within 24 hours, Montgomery said.
Montgomery said he’s lived in barracks before where things have never been fixed, despite numerous work orders. He welcomed the fast turnaround time.
“It’s rough having to do my job and then come back to a barracks with mold problems and insect problems that even though you sent up a request it never gets filled or it gets filled several months later,” Montgomery told Task & Purpose. “It can be really stressful on a soldier that has to live in that kind of environment and then go to work every day.”
It’s a common story, Evans said, which he hopes Hots&Cots can help with. Younger troops’ feedback, he said, can feel like it “goes in this black box and then you don’t really ever know what happens to it. You’re like, ‘Did somebody read it?’ Is any change gonna happen? Am I gonna have to wait days? Am I gonna have to wait hours, weeks, etc for something to get done?’”
Evans spent 12 years in uniform, split between six years in the Army Reserve in Florida with the 3220th Garrison Support unit and six in the North Carolina National Guard. He deployed to both Kuwait and Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But he was, like many, stunned by a Government Accountability Office report released in September on military barracks. The damming GAO report found that barracks at several bases inspectors looked at were contaminated with mold, infested with rodents, and left some troops feeling unsafe and vulnerable, even to sexual assault. In some cases, troops were forced to clean up “biological waste” left behind by the suicides of fellow servicemembers. In an increasingly unusual show of bipartisanship, several lawmakers have also asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to develop Key Performance Indicators to address the root causes of the barracks problems highlighted by the GAO.
The report, said Evans, was the “tip of the iceberg for me.”
Evans had been a moderator on a military subreddit for years. One of the other moderators asked Evans what they could do to actually make an impact and improve barracks conditions for troops. In the age of social media, that’s what drives change and impact, he thought. And so he took a vacation from work and spent his free time developing what would become the Hots & Cots app.
“I wanted to take this on because I still feel like this gives me an opportunity to give back, to still feel like I’m serving those soldiers and still feel connected to the military,” he said.
Hots & Cots is one of a growing number of examples of soldiers or those around the military community helping solve problems that the larger services can’t seem to wrap their arms around.
Soldiers at Fort Stewart in Georgia developed their own sensing devices to monitor conditions for mold growth in barracks – an issue that has been especially bad in the south due to the humid climate.
Evans, who works as a software developer with a major tech company, wrote the code and set up the data infrastructure himself. He coordinated with several active duty friends and contacts on the proper questions to ask and on early designs and feedback.
Evans is running the app on his own time. He’s not getting paid by his employer or the Pentagon to run this app. The only funding he’s received is from donations by Reddit users.
“When I get my kids to bed, I’m usually behind my desk,” he said.
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For now, Hots & Cots focuses on barracks and DFACs but he’s looking to branch out and include other types of facilities on base, NWRS, gym facilities, etc so “if somebody wants to PCS or they’re in a TDY somewhere or whatever, they have an understanding of where they’re going.”
Another idea that he got from an Airman could include whether an installation offers special accommodations for parents and families who have kids that need special education or disability services.
While there’s no way to confirm that troops are the ones sending reviews, Evans moderates the content and removes anything he deems “fishy.” The data is not shared and reviews submitted by troops cannot be seen by officials at the Defense Department, Evans said.
Evans is hoping to collaborate more officially with the DOD and has had conversations with installation officials on ways to share the app feedback through some type of dashboard.
In early October, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Weimer announced the service was working on an app titled “My Army Post” for troops to access and share information about facilities, nearby road conditions, dining hall hours, and more.
“There’s a difference between me releasing an app and somebody in the DOD releasing an app because they can paint the picture one way versus me as an indie-solo developer. I don’t have those same guide rails that I need to abide by,” Evans said. “I just want folks to be able to have a voice, whether that’s good or bad, and I can kind of give that platform.”
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