GAO: U.S. troops living in barracks with mold, backed-up sewage

Government investigators recently found health hazards, including mold, brown tap water and bug infestations inside a number of barracks where single military personnel live. In one case, enlisted troops living in the barracks were told to clean up the biological waste following a suicide in one of the rooms.

In a just-released report, the Government Accountability Office said ongoing reports about poor conditions inside military barracks have raised questions about how the Defense Department manages housing for hundreds of thousands of service members in the U.S. and around the world.

The investigators toured barracks rooms at 10 military installations across the country, where they met with enlisted residents and officials. The troops told them the conditions of the barracks were affecting their quality of life and military readiness.

The congressional watchdog agency “observed barracks that pose potentially serious health and safety risks — such as broken windows and inoperable fire systems — and that do not meet the minimum [Defense Department] standards for privacy and configuration,” GAO auditors said in their report. “Thousands of service members live in barracks below standards, according to officials.”

At one of the military bases — not identified in the report — the investigators noticed a foul odor throughout one of the barracks. They were told the smell was methane gas leaking out of “aging plumbing” with sewage pipes that routinely crack and require replacement.

“These officials acknowledged that exposure to methane gas is a health risk,” the GAO said.

Mississippi Sen. Roger F. Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the report’s findings “shameful” and said it was troubling for the future of the military.

“Our service members deserve a safe place to live and work. Failing to provide this basic necessity harms readiness and discourages recruitment and retention,” he said Tuesday in a statement. 

Mr. Wicker said this year’s Senate defense budget includes increased oversight of military housing and would establish “basic habitability standards” along with targeted funding to address some of the problems.

“We are committed to ensuring these challenges are implemented through conference,” Mr. Wicker said.

Some troops in the barracks were told that basic pest control and even removing serious hazards like mold or sewage were their responsibility. The investigation revealed differing levels of mold and mildew inside both vacant and occupied rooms. The GAO investigators interviewed one barracks resident who was hospitalized with a respiratory illness linked to mold inside the room.

“After three visits to the emergency room, the service member was moved to a different barracks without mold and the medical issues were resolved,” according to the GAO report.

Barracks on each of the 10 bases in the GAO report had heating or air conditioning problems. One of the troops said sleeping in a barracks room with a broken air conditioner during the summer was like standing on the surface of the sun. While temperatures can exceed 90 degrees in the summer, barracks residents during the winter are often forced to buy their own space heaters, despite the fire risk, the investigators said.

Troops told the GAO investigators that poor barracks quality also can affect a service member’s mental health. Some said it was depressing to come home to a “dark box” after work, while others speculated that the military’s suicide problem might be linked to barracks quality.

The GAO said the Defense Department doesn’t adequately track information on the conditions of military barracks. The Pentagon asked for about $15 billion for facility maintenance for fiscal year 2024 but couldn’t identify how much was earmarked for barracks. The Defense Department also was unaware of how much money was being spent on housing allowances for military personnel who would normally be required to live in the barracks but didn’t because of insufficient space or poor living conditions.

“Complete funding information would help [the Defense Department] target improvements and provide the department with more visibility into full costs,” according to the report.

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