Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Quality of Life

Sewage blocks a bathroom drain in a barracks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (photo by Ed Frawley, via AP)

The Army is under fire again, this time for dilapidated barracks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When members of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Regiment returned from a 15-month tour in Afghanistan, they moved into a building with peeling paint; mold on ceilings and walls, a bathroom drain blocked by sewage and broken door locks.

Unfortunately for the Army brass, the father of a returning trooper brought along his camera and recorded the deplorable conditions, then posted the video on You Tube. Ed Frawley, a dog breeder from Wisconsin, had traveled to Fort Bragg to welcome home his son, Army Sergeant Jeff Frawley. He made the tape after viewing the living conditions endured by Sergeant Frawley and other members of his unit:

The instant you walk through the front door, you know you are in a building that should be condemned,” he said.

Conditions inside the barracks have attracted the attention of two North Carolina politicians, Senator Elizabeth Dole and Congressman Bob Etheridge, whose district includes Fort Bragg. Both are demanding answers. As the AP reports:

"Our service members deserve safe, clean housing,” she said. “If this video posting accurately portrays living conditions for our soldiers, this is wholly unacceptable and it must be immediately corrected.”

Ethridge agreed, saying "Although the military continues to be stretched thin during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no excuse for substandard housing for our soldiers."

Army officials have acknowledged the problem at Fort Bragg and ordered a worldwide inspection of its barracks. Brigadier General Dennis Rogers, who runs the service's barracks maintenance program, said most of the checks were conducted last week, but he hasn't seen the final results.

In an attempt at damage control, the Army arranged a media tour of the barracks at Fort Bragg. While many of the buildings that house members of the 82nd Airborne Division (and other units) are being renovated or replaced, at least 40 older barracks, dating from the 1950s, are still in use.

The contractor for the renovation project, Weston Solutions, reports that the old living quarters received "no significant upgrades" during much of their service life. The renovation plan is aimed at extending each barrack's "useful life" by 5-10 years, pending new construction.

It was not immediately clear if the building in question is on the renovation list, or when it might be replaced. A base spokesman told the AP that all single paratroopers are scheduled to be in new buildings by 2012.

Weston's comment about the condition of some buildings at Fort Bragg speaks volumes about why the Army is facing this problem. Over the past 30 years, the service has generally lagged behind other branches of the military in offering "quality-of-life" improvements for its youngest enlisted members. When other services--most notably, the Air Force--began moving to dormitory-style rooms with semi-private baths in the late 1970s, the Army dragged its feet, retaining hundreds of older barracks with communal latrines and little privacy.

The conditions at Fort Bragg are more distressing when you consider that the Army adopted a new housing standard for its unmarried, junior enlisted members more than a decade ago. Under the "One Plus One" standard mandated by the Secretary of Defense in 1997, all services were supposed to provide a private room to all single enlisted personnel, with the exception of those in basic training, attending technical schools, deployed to combat zones or embarked on a ship.

Along with the private room, the "One Plus One" arrangement called for semi-private bathrooms and a kitchenette, shared by no more than two soldiers. The run-down barracks at Fort Bragg is clearly light-years behind that standard, implemented by the Army eleven years ago.

It's also worth noting that some branches of the military have actually moved beyond the requirements of "One Plus One." In 2003, the Air Force expanded the concept, creating a dormitory plan called "Four Plus One." Quarters built to that specification have four airmen in a larger suite, sharing a common living room and full kitchen. But the plan also gives each resident their own bedroom and bath, a major improvement over other housing arrangements. The Air Force has built "Four Plus One" dorms at eight of its bases over the past five years.

The Army has also invested heavily in new housing for junior enlisted personnel, spending at least $1 billion on barracks construction and renovation over the past five years. But, in some respects, the Army faces greater hurdles in meeting its housing goals. Not only does it need more rooms, the service has also elected to build what it calls "barracks complexes," supporting all aspects of a soldiers' life. As a 2003 DoD press release described it:

These complexes include soldier community buildings, consolidated dayrooms, common fully-equipped ktichen, mailroom and laundry. Company operations buildings have bulk storage for TA-50 field gear, so that duffel bags no longer dominate the sleeping room.

Storage, shower facilities and mud-rooms for cleaning gear and boots are desinged to accommodate all soldiers in the unit, not just those in the barracks. Brigade and battalion headquarters and dining facilities in separate buildings are also incorporated.

As you might expect, it takes longer to design and build a barracks complex, instead of simply building a new dormitory. But that's little consolation for the troops at Fort Bragg, who have been saddled with substandard quarters after 15 months in combat.

And, in a sense, they're paying for mistakes made over the Army during the past 30 years. Talk with former Air Force civil engineers, First Sergeants and Senior Enlisted Advisers who served in areas with Army and Marine Corps installations in the 1980s and 90s. At forums on barracks design and other key, quality-of-life issues, the USAF was often derided for offering quarters that were "too nice" by military standards.

Back in those days, some viewed the notion of private bedrooms and bathrooms as a threat to military cohesion and discipline. That's one reason the Army was slow to follow the Air Force's lead and never really embraced the idea of personal space and privacy for junior enlisted personnel, at least until "One Plus One" became the military standard.

As for the situation at Fort Bragg, it will be fixed. Ed Frawley has already received a phone call from General Richard Cody, the Army Vice Chief of Staff, so the issue is on a lot of high-level radar screens. But the service could have saved itself a lot of time, money and embarrassment by taking a different approach 20 years ago, and making greater investments in new barracks and other important, quality-of-life issues.


kbo said...

The Army "One Plus One" standard certainly isn't in effect at Fort Gordon for permanent party soldiers in at least one brigade. Most E4s and below share a room with a roommate. Despite being in violation, the brigade won't allow E5s (buck sergeants) to receive BAH (basic allowance for housing). Whomever came up with the brilliant idea of one kitchen and one day room for a brigade's worth of single junior enlisted soldiers probably hadn't lived in barracks for over 20 years, if ever. Amazingly, the day room/laundry room complex was built in 1998.

elovrich said...

I was stationed at a joint-service school for a year back in the late '80's. At that time new barracks were constructed that were a wonderful change from what we had been living in. After the school was complete, I moved to my permanent party installation and was very disappointed to see the conditions that I would live in for the next 5 years.

There was a joke, only funny because seemed to true to us in the Army, that, when the USAF builds a base, the first thigns they construct are wonderful family housing, community areas, great enlisted housing, all of the niceties. Then, they would go to Congress and say, "We need more money to build the airstrips and hangars." Of course, the funding would be found to build these necessary items.

Conversely, the Army would build the motorpools, the ranges, the training areas. Then they would go to Congress and say, "We need more money to build living areas." What limited funds they could get, if any, were then used to do the best they could.........

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