Lawmakers vented their frustration Wednesday after a government watchdog report detailed squalid living conditions in military barracks that included overflowing sewage, rampant mold, bed bug infestations and squatters.
In the first public hearing of the House Armed Services Committee's recently launched military quality-of-life panel, both Republican and Democrat lawmakers blasted the findings of last week's Government Accountability Office report on barracks conditions as "deplorable," "unacceptable" and "appalling."
"If I would have had these conditions in any of our barracks, I would have gotten fired," said panel Chairman Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force brigadier general who served as a wing commander at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. "Where is the accountability at with these barracks? Has anyone been held accountable? And what are we going to do to get this right and get this fixed?"
"We cannot allow this situation to persist," Bacon added. "It is an issue not only of justice and dignity, but also of military readiness."
The GAO report, issued last week, illuminated and confirmed complaints that service members have sounded for years about barracks that are unlivable.
Based on visits to 12 installations, the 118-page report featured accounts of undrinkable brown water, broken air conditioning during heat waves, broken and unsecured doors and windows, and, in one of the most extreme cases, service members having to clean up "biological waste" themselves after a suicide attempt.
At Wednesday's hearing, Elizabeth Field, who led the GAO's audit, said conditions were allowed to deteriorate so badly because of chronic underfunding of barracks maintenance, coupled with officials' indifference to junior enlisted members' opinions and a lack of attention to the issue from the highest levels of the Pentagon.
"One of the most troubling things that we observed during our audit was that the Office of the Secretary of Defense -- which is supposed to oversee the barracks programs, give guidance to the military services -- very much had a hands-off approach to this topic," Field said. "When we asked them some basic questions at the beginning of our audit about how many barracks there were, whether they were not complying with standards, how many service members lived there, they couldn't tell us."
Witnesses from the departments of the Army, Air Force and Navy acknowledged issues with housing and vowed to improve living conditions but offered few specific solutions, which appeared to frustrate lawmakers further.
When Carla Coulson, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for installations, housing and partnerships, attributed housing issues to a lack of funding, Bacon noted Congress typically provides the Pentagon more funding than it asks for.
"It doesn't add up," Bacon said.
When Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., raised the possibility of Congress requiring funds be spent specifically on barracks so it doesn't compete with other facilities funding, officials said they would oppose taking away "flexibility" in how they can spend money.
"We all like flexibility, but I think we're clearly seeing that the barracks are not being invested in, so maybe flexibility is not the only priority here," Jacobs shot back.
Rep. Jen Kiggans, R-Va., a Navy veteran whose Hampton Roads-area district includes a significant Navy presence, said she was "almost in tears" when she saw the living conditions on bases in her district.
"It hurts my heart when I hear other Navy and military parents say, 'I can't recommend this job to my kids for these reasons,' so we have to do better," Kiggans said.
Some lawmakers, including Kiggans, raised the possibility of privatizing more barracks to improve their quality.
While Field said that privatized barracks the GAO toured in San Diego were in "amazing condition," she also stressed privatization is not a "silver bullet." The military's family housing, which is largely privatized, has faced its own issues with unsafe and unhealthy living conditions in recent years.
Pressed on what Congress should be doing to ensure the military improves the barracks, Field suggested mandating the GAO's 31 recommendations in law if the Pentagon does not follow through on them itself.
"The department concurred with most of our recommendations, but in some cases, they were partial concurrences and statements that they've already implemented the recommendations and so they're good. They're not good," Field said.
Bacon, who is planning for his quality-of-life panel to release a report in the coming months recommending reforms to include in next year's defense policy bill, said there is a "smorgasbord" of changes lawmakers will need to look at.
"This isn't just a money problem, which it is and we need to know definitively what it's going to cost to get this right," he said. "But it's also policy, accountability."
Robert Thompson, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, appeared to concede that top officials need to change their mindset and consider housing as "mission critical" as other facilities before barracks will improve.
"There needs to be a standard for livability," Thompson said, adding that conversations with the defense secretary’s office on what that means started after last week's GAO came out. "There needs to be a plain-eyed, clear-eyed view of what the standard is for this place to be dignified, safe and comfortable."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.