Six senators have told the Pentagon they want to see the U.S. military implement specific plans to fix its long-standing problem of unacceptable living conditions in barracks.

The Government Accountability Office issued a blistering report in September about how thousands of service members are faced with appalling living conditions. The report found numerous problems at barracks on 10 U.S. military installations, including mold, cockroaches, bed bugs, rodents, and issues with sewage as well as water quality.

“Further, officials at one installation told us service members are responsible for cleaning biological waste that may remain in a barracks room after a suicide,” the report says.

The roots of the U.S. military’s barracks problems start at the very top, according to the GAO report, which found the Defense Department “does not reliably assess conditions” in troops’ living quarters.

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The Defense Department also does not adequately track information on the barracks’ conditions or how much money it spends on the barracks, the report found.

“For example, DOD requested about $15 billion for overall facility sustainment for fiscal year 2024 but could not identify how much of this total would be spent toward barracks,” according to the report.

Now six senators — four Republicans and two Democrats, each with major bases in their home states — are asking Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to develop a a series of Key Performance Indicators to address the root causes of the barracks problems identified by the GAO.

Stars and Stripes first reported on the Oct. 31 letter signed by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.).

The senators have asked Austin to take make the following changes to the Defense Department’s budget process:

  • Make sure the Defense Department’s Fiscal Year 2025 budget reflects all the requirements for barracks sustainment, restoration, and modernization.
  • Outline in the Fiscal 2025 budget request exactly how much it will cost to sustain, restore, and modernize barracks facilities.
  • Use a consistent methodology across all the military branches to assess the requirements to sustain, restore, and modernize barracks.
  • Include a comprehensive and installation-specific list of military construction requirements in the Fiscal Year 2025 budget request, regardless of whether they are slated for funding in Fiscal Year 2025.
  • Have Defense Department officials brief the senators’ staffers on the U.S. military’s efforts to deal with barracks maintenance, repair, modernization, and construction.

When asked about the senators’ requests, Pentagon spokeswoman Kelly Flynn provided a brief statement that did not specify how the Defense Department plans to address problems with service members’ living conditions.

“Addressing barracks conditions is a priority for the Secretary and his Taking Care of People Initiative aimed at improving quality of life for our service members and their families,” Flynn told Task & Purpose. “The Department has made reviewing the concerns outlined in the GAO report a priority and we appreciate the support from Congress to address these challenges.”

The Oct. 31 letter is the most recent effort by lawmakers to force the Defense Department to rectify the disgraceful problems with troops’ living conditions that were chronicled in the GAO report.  

A group of 17 senators sent Austin a letter in September castigating the Defense Department for failing to make barracks management a priority and urging him to take action. Separately, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) threatened last month to block nominations of civilian Defense Department officials unless Fort Leonard Wood received money for housing on the base.

What makes the letter from the six senators different is that they outline exactly what actions the Defense Department needs to take.

Senior military leaders’ reactions to the problems with barracks have been mixed. Maj. Gen. James P. Isenhower III, commanding officer of the 1st Armored Division, blamed service members for barracks issues while speaking last month at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington. D.C.

“I will tell senior leaders ‘I don’t have a mold problem, I have a discipline problem,’” Isenhower said. “Because just the lack of humidity we’re not under the same conditions. We have had some mold problems, but that’s from some leaky pipes we didn’t discover until it was too late, and there’s a quick way to fix it. It’s acute. But at the end of the day, we still had young men and women who called the hotline and say ‘I’ve got black mold in my shower and it’s on the grout,’ because they haven’t cleaned it.”

The GAO report found that about 17,000 Marines and 5,000 sailors were living in substandard barracks as of March 2023.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Eric Smith recently said that “quality of life and taking care of Marines is my first priority,” and his plan for addressing problems in living conditions involves professionalizing the Corps’ barracks managers.

“I don’t want to put a young corporal or a sergeant who is not a barracks manager in charge of the barracks,” Smith said at the Military Reporters & Editors Association annual conference in October. “That’s how you fix the public works.”

The Marine Corps is also giving about 600 sergeants a Basic Allowance for Housing so they can live off-base, Smith said.

Smith’s goal is to ultimately move all the Marines in substandard living quarters into new barracks, but the process may take a decade, he said.

One reason why it may take so much time to move Marines into better housing is the Corps has more than 600 barracks, which is “far too many,” Smith said.

“I think it’s a 10-year problem to get out of the barracks that we’re in, because frankly there’s not enough construction companies to do it,” Smith said. “Costs are extremely high right now, as you know.”

However, Smith said he is committed to putting the Marine Corps on a path to fix its housing conditions this decade. He has dubbed the effort to improve living conditions for Marines “Barracks 2030.”

“I’ve taken the 2030 largely off of Force Design – I just say ‘Force Design’ because I don’t want to say 2031 next year or 2032,” Smith said. “The one number I’m not removing it from is barracks: 2030, get it done – 2030. That’s to put pressure on me and my team to get that done on behalf of the lance corporals.”

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