This Christmas, hundreds of military families will be displaced due to their military base homes being filled with mold, pests, or other toxins that have sickened their children and cost them thousands of dollars in new belongings.
“We’ve lost all of our possessions,” said one Navy spouse whose family of six was forced to leave their military base home in Monterey, California, in July. “They’re sitting in the home, we are displaced. We’ve been displaced.”
“We have to decide whether we’re going to buy our kids beds — or toys,” she told Breitbart News.
So far, she said, they have not been reimbursed for their losses.
Just in the Army alone, 182 military families are currently displaced from their homes, according to officials who testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said the Army has tracked the displacement of 2,265 families overall. The other services did not provide numbers, although Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett testified that last week she met families at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi who had been displaced from their privatized homes as many as four times in recent years.
Although problems have been plaguing military base housing for more than a decade, they received nationwide attention this year after a series of stories by Reuters that revealed military homes poisoned by lead, mold, rodent infestations, gas and carbon monoxide leaks, and repeated sewage leaks.
The reports also revealed serious health issues suffered by military families living in these homes, including neurological damage and severe pulmonary and respiratory conditions. Breitbart News reported earlier this year on one family whose children suffered serious respiratory issues after living in a moldy home at the MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
“We have children with brain damage and brain cancer, anaphylaxis and long-term forever reactions. When their family gets out of the military, it doesn’t just magically go away…it will last forever for families,” said Amanda Brewer, a Navy spouse at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, who attended Tuesday’s hearing.
At the core of the problem is a decision by the military to hand over its stock of nearly 300,000 homes to private contractors in the 1990s with the intention of improving military base housing and saving taxpayers billions of dollars in repairs. Contractors were supposed to foot the repair bills and in turn get a steady flow of government dollars in 50-year leases.
However, that did not happen. In 2016, a Pentagon inspector general report found that poor maintenance and oversight left military families vulnerable to health and safety hazards. Reports revealed that military families also faced retaliation for making complaints.
“We can be aggressive at war, but we can’t be aggressive on terrorism on the homefront. And I think our contractors are committing terrorism,” said Ashley Fisher, another Navy spouse at Fort Belvoir who attended Tuesday’s hearing.
After a number of reports, Congress began holding hearings in February to pressure defense and military leaders, who have pledged to fix it as quickly as possible. However, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) noted Tuesday he was disappointed with the results.
“We hoped that since our first two hearings in February and March, we would see marked differences by now… . Unfortunately, that is not the case,” he told the civilian and uniformed leaders of each military branch, who were called to testify, adding:
We continue to hear regularly from families across the country about questionable practices, poor workmanship, and frankly, in some places, about housing contractors just not caring about the families they are serving.
Additionally…some of these contractors are now under investigation for defrauding the federal government. I’m really worried — What else is going to come out of the woodwork? What else don’t we know? To our witnesses from the Department, I have to ask, ‘When is enough enough?’
Military leaders insisted they were dedicated to solving the issue, outlining the steps they have taken since February.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said the Army has taken a number of steps, including putting a four-star general in charge of housing operations and withholding “incentive fees” — or performance bonuses — from non-performing contractors. Furthermore, he said the Army is investing $1.1 billion in housing for the 2020 budget year.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the Navy and Marine Corps have “diligently pursued” three distinct lines of effort: active and engaged leadership, reinforcing oversight of privatized housing partners, and restoring resident trust by hiring more staff for housing offices to increase responsiveness and performance.
Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said the Air Force has completed an inspector general’s investigation and has either fully or partially implemented its recommendations. She said there are now resident advocates at each housing office to help resolve disputes and more staff, and there that the Air Force has referred allegations of misconduct for possible criminal charges.
But leaders also talked about the complexity of working with the privatized housing contractors, with whom military services have decades-long contracts with rates negotiated in the 1990s and who allegedly lack the capital for improvements to base housing.
Elizabeth Field, director of Defense Capabilities and Management at the Government Accountability Office, an internal government watchdog that has undertaken a review of the housing crisis, said it will take “a number of years” to provide safe and clean housing.
“Many factors that make this a deeply complex problem, including the departments’ inability to unilaterally make certain changes to the legal agreements with the partners,” she said, adding:
Through our ongoing review, we know that the department’s efforts are headed in the right direction, but it will take sustained attention, likely over a number of years to work through the many complications of this long-term public-private partnership and to fully meet the department’s goal of providing safe and clean housing for all service members and their families.
But military families are running out of patience and trust.
Some who came to the hearing on Tuesday expressed anger over the incentive fees that go straight to the contractor instead of improving military homes, or proposals that would give contractors more money to supposedly fix the housing problems despite their bad past behavior.
Some are angry that not one contractor has been fired or charged with fraud.
“We’ve been providing evidence of fraud for months,” Fisher said.
Nicole Painter, an Army spouse at Fort Belvoir, said she caught hired repairmen who were supposed to rid her home of mold instead leaving moldy insulation in her walls. She said when she complained to the base facilities manager, she was told she was overreacting.
“I said, ‘Just humor me and just open up the walls.’ And they did, and as soon as they did, wet moldy insulation fell out of the wall,” she said.
Painter said her family has been displaced since September, living at an on-base hotel. She said at first the hotel refused to give them a two-bedroom suite and forced their family of six to live in two separate rooms, but after McCarthy called the hotel they were given a suite later that day.
“Our timeline is extended to January 1st, so we very likely will be in a hotel for Christmas,” Painter told Breitbart News.
The Navy spouse from Monterey, California, said many families have lost all their belongings to mold, and that for kids, that is especially tough:
They’ve lost all of their toys. It’s their one staple that they have when you move from location to location is their stuff. It leaves one house and you see it at another house and that’s when you see their light turn back on — when they see their stuff. So for them to lose everything is really hard.
“It is the belongings you bring that make it home. And across the nation, people are losing their belongings.”
Follow Breitbart News’s @Kristina_Wong.