Feb 7, 2024 - Politics & Policy

"This is disgusting": Lawmakers grill officials on soldiers' living conditions

Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., is seen outside a House Republican Conference speaker of the House election meeting in Longworth Building.

Rep. Michael Waltz is seen outside a House Republican Conference speaker of the House election meeting in Longworth Building on Oct. 24, 2023. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

House members on Wednesday grilled senior defense officials over the "disgusting" and "unsatisfactory" living conditions that some soldiers and their families have had to endure on bases across the country.

Why it matters: The leaders stressed during the committee hearing that adequate housing is critical not only for national security, but also for the health of current service members and recruitment.

  • Still, the officials admitted they had much more work to do to address the problems.

Driving the news: "I don't think anybody on this committee, or any of you, are expecting our service members to live in the Taj Mahal," Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said.

  • "But this is disgusting. This is unsatisfactory," he added. "Would any of you want your children in these kinds of conditions, with mold, with feces, with broken sewage lines? I wouldn't."
Mold, sewage overflow shown in pictures of military barracks.
Examples of poor living conditions in barracks visited by GAO. Photo: Department of Defense/GAO

The big picture: The House Armed Services Committee hearing followed a September audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found that some military barracks posed "potentially serious health and safety risks."

  • The report said the Defense Department conducted "insufficient oversight" of barrack conditions. Problems included pests, mold, broken air conditioning, as well as issues with sewage pipes routinely cracking and water quality.
  • At a House hearing later that month, military service leaders acknowledged that there had been longterm issues with the living conditions.

What they're saying: "We've made some meaningful progress and we've got some significant work left to do," Meredith Berger, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment, testified.

  • Berger also pointed to the Marine Corps's announcement Wednesday that it plans to conduct inspections of all its barracks.
  • The U.S. Army is committed to bringing as many barracks as possible out of the "poor and failing" category and is increasing investment in maintaining good conditions, said Rachel Jacobson, an assistant secretary of the Army.
  • Ravi Chaudhary, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Energy, Installations and Environment, told the committee that the department is planning its largest dorm investment program in over a decade.

Details: Waltz said during the hearing that he would like to see the Defense Department "out of the hotel management business," noting that private sector entities could do the job "incredibly well."

  • Several officials noted that they're looking into barracks privatization.

But, but, but: Pressed by Waltz about who was fired as a result of the GAO's findings, Brendan Owens, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment, testified that no one he knew of had been dismissed.

  • "I would submit to you that may be a critical part of the problem, because that sends a signal, that this is unacceptable," Waltz responded.
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