Few things are more venerated in the American experience than the sacrifices of volunteers who serve and defend the nation in uniform, and appropriately so.
That’s why it comes as such a shock to learn that thousands of military families have been exposed to toxic housing conditions on bases across the country, circumstances allowed to fester for years despite annual defense budgets topping $700 billion.
When families complained, no one listened. Not higher command, and certainly not the private landlords reaping billions of dollars in government housing payments.
And this shamelessly unfolded as these Marines, soldiers and airmen were being deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and other world hot spots.
Among the horror stories, brought to light by Reuters and congressional investigators:
—Army Col. J. Cale Brown was called home on emergency leave from Afghanistan in 2014 after learning that lead levels in his toddler son, John Cale “JC” Jr., had risen a second time after the family was shifted from one aging home at Fort Benning, Georgia, to another. The boy now suffers from a developmental disorder. “I’m sad that my son has lost his future,” says Brown’s wife, Darlena.
—Marine Cpl. Matt Limon jettisoned a military career after a dispute with his landlord, Lincoln Military Housing, a private firm controlling thousands of homes at Camp Pendleton, California. Limon and his wife financed their own relocation after an infestation of mice in 2017, and Lincoln demanded $1,084 to replace a vermin-soiled carpet, offering to drop the bill only if the family signed a nondisclosure agreement.
—Military spouse Janna Driver told a Senate subcommittee last week how she and her husband, who serves in the Air Force, and their five children suffered chronic sore throats, nose bleeds, blurred vision, numbness, fatigue and migraine headaches after months of living last year in housing at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, infested with five types of black mold. “It didn’t have to be this way,” she said. “Our military families do not deserve this after all the sacrifices they make. It is criminal. It is unbelievable.”
An online military family survey from Jan. 30 to Feb. 6 elicited more than 16,000 responses — hundreds poured in each hour — and 55 percent rated experience in privately managed base housing “very negative” or “negative.”
There’s no inherent evil in privatizing government functions if it improves service and accountability. But those improvements were lost at some point after the military began selling off housing stock in the 1990s. Property management executives, including Lincoln’s, hung their heads at the Senate hearing and vowed to do better.
That’s not good enough. Testifying families suggested that their housing allowances, paid to landlords to the tune of $3.9 billion in 2018, be withheld on a case-by-case basis until problems are fixed. A fine idea.
And the Pentagon and Congress should make sure that no money appropriated for housing improvement is diverted to build a southern border wall under President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration last week. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said that’s unlikely. A Pentagon spokeswoman told us it won’t happen.
It should be out of the question. The bare minimum America owes its troops is the assurance that their families won’t be sickened by the base housing they call home.