Military leaders must do more to fix the failing state of troop housing and infrastructure, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said Wednesday during a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing.
Waltz started the Subcommittee on Readiness meeting by showing photos from the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) September 2023 review of military barracks. The images show restrooms covered with brown residue and walls full of mold.
“This is disgusting,” Waltz said. “This is unsatisfactory. I don’t know if any of you — Would any of you want your children in these kinds of conditions? With mold, with feces, with broken sewage lines? I wouldn’t.”
Waltz pushed hard against the military witnesses at the hearing, asking who had been fired or “held accountable” for allowing the conditions.
“I mean, a hallmark of military leadership, of any leadership, is accountability and consequences,” Waltz said. “When you fall short, much less having our soldiers and sailors and service members living in this.”
Brendan Owens, assistant secretary of Defense for installations, energy and environment, said he was not aware of anyone who was fired but understood the seriousness of the issue.
“The DOD has in many instances failed to live up to our role in making sure the housing we provide honors the commitment of the service members and their families and enables them to bring their best versions of themselves to their critical missions,” Owens said.
Over the past five years, the Pentagon has invested an average of $14.6 billion a year to build new facilities, $15.3 billion a year to maintain and repair buildings infrastructure, and $2 billion a year on environmental restoration conservation efforts, Owens said. But the department also faced a $134 billion deferred maintenance backlog.
He acknowledged infrastructure is a priority because it is crucial to the quality of life for service members.
“These places are central to our service members’ military experience — affecting your physical health, mental health, ability to carry out their missions, and the overall recruitment and retention of the force,” Owens said. “It is, therefore, both a national security imperative and our moral obligation to ensure our installations are healthy, functional and resilient.”
The Defense Department plans to implement 28 of the 31 GAO recommendations this year and has a plan for improving conditions, Owens said.
Rachel Jacobson, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, said she also shares the concerns reflected in Congress’s recent National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024.
The failing buildings and infrastructure are due to a few contributing factors, Jacobson said. The sheer size of inventory, the growing backlog of deferred maintenance, a large deficit and ineffective management practices have made issues worse.
She said the Army is committed to investing billions into barracks and plans to make the buildings the department’s primary focus.
Ravi Chaudhary, assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, energy and environment, shared plans to invest $1.1 billion on a dorm investment program through fiscal 2026.
Ranking member Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said the disrepair seen in military facilities is not new.
“We’ve been banging this drum for a long time, and we’ll have to continue to do so,” Garamendi said. “We’ve made some progress. But we’re not where we need to be.”
While conditions in barracks and family housing are key issues, the military is also falling behind in maintaining essential labs.
Garamendi said Congress has worked to increase funds for facility sustainment, restoration and modernization, but the money often gets diverted to other tasks.
Meredith Berger, assistant secretary of the Navy for installations, energy and environment, said this is also an issue within the Navy.
“As an institution, we have allowed these assets to degrade over time, we have identified and deferred risk and allowed that risk to accumulate and compound,” Berger said. “We’ve been paying the bill with quality of life and readiness.”
Berger said Congress’s intent with the National Defense Authorization Act was heard “loud and clear,” and the goals are ones that the Navy shares and plans to work toward.
“A sailor or Marine recruited and retained, healthy, safe, supported and trained with a physical space to do the work of our national defense will return infinitely more value than the dollars that it will cost, but it’ll cost a lot to get it right,” Berger said.