The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Far From Home Sweet Home

Navy Lt. Dwight Carter (name has been changed) was excited to report to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2018. He’d been selected to attend the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College there, and was looking forward to advancing his naval career through his studies at the prestigious military school.

But just a couple of weeks after he and his family moved into their on-base housing, Carter began feeling ill.

“I experienced chronic and devastating symptoms ranging from cognitive, vision, hearing and memory impairment, tinnitus, arrhythmia, tachycardia, severe abdominal pain, relentless anxiety, numbness in arms and legs, extreme fatigue and many more,” he said in a telephone interview.

After seeking medical attention from both military and civilian doctors, Carter is convinced the sources of his many ailments are toxic mold, carbon monoxide and lead paint, all of which he and his family were exposed to at their eight-plex unit and at other military housing on the base. He points particularly to a living room HVAC unit that proved to be “a petri dish from hell” of contaminants.

Carter’s case is far from unique. Congressional watchdogs at the General Accountability Office have looked into multiple cases of illness and severely subpar housing on bases for all of the country’s armed services. And they have given the military a flunking grade on the way many servicemen and women have been housed.

The Department of Defense doesn’t disagree: Of the dozen scathing findings and recommendations the GAO made, DOD has agreed with 10 of them and partially concurs with the other two.

But Carter’s grievance doesn’t stop with the allegedly toxic housing. It’s also with what he describes as ineffective medical care from both the Army and Navy, and a misdiagnosis of his health concerns as psychological in nature.

He says a civilian doctor has diagnosed him as suffering from “acute, high-level exposure to toxic mold and more specifically the poisons they produce, called mycotoxins. The exposure originated from a water-damaged building ecosystem where mold grew unabated and where their toxins permeated the living environment.”

Other grievances he reports include “reprisal, cover-ups, denial of medical care, adverse personnel actions and intimidation.”

Even worse, his wife and children had even higher exposures than his. “Since my wife and children home-school, they were constantly exposed without relief while we were stationed in Kansas,” he said. “My wife had asthma attacks, tinnitus, numbness in her legs and arms, and three of our five children suffered from chronic cough and abdominal pain.”

So far, his family has stayed healthier than he has. The officer continues to battle health issues, the most devastating being a pulmonary condition that has left him with just 75% of his normal breathing function.

The scope of the military housing problem is large. Though more than half of military personnel live offsite, the ones who reside on base live in units the Pentagon has contracted out to private companies. And there are a lot of these “privatized” homes: 202,000 units on 80 bases, according to DOD.

As reported in this column earlier this year, the House of Representatives asked GAO to investigate concerns like those brought to the Senate. Overall, GAO’s conclusions paint a picture of shoddy oversight of housing conditions. Amplifying the preliminary recommendations previously reported here, it found:

-- The military departments conduct some oversight of the physical condition of housing, but some efforts have been limited in scope. “For example, annual interior walk-throughs are limited to just a few homes at some installations, which may not comprehensively reflect the condition of the housing units at those installations.”

-- The military departments use performance metrics to monitor private partners, but the metrics do not provide meaningful information on the condition of housing. “A common indicator is how quickly the private partner responded to a work order, not whether the issue was actually addressed.”

-- The military departments and their private partners collect maintenance data on homes, but these data are not captured reliably or consistently. “DOD is expanding its use of work order data to monitor and track the condition of privatized housing. However, based on GAO’s analysis of data provided by all 14 private partners, these data cannot reliably be used for ongoing monitoring of privatized housing because of data anomalies and inconsistent business practices in how these data are collected.”

-- DOD provides reports to Congress on the status of privatized housing, but “some data in these reports are unreliable, leading to misleading results.”

In all, GAO made 12 recommendations: six to top brass at the Pentagon, and two each to the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

In the meantime, though, many service members and veterans are wondering if their health has been compromised by substandard housing and a seemingly uncaring or intimidating chain of command. Some probably share Carter’s feeling of hopelessness: “We are invisible, without a voice. And we will be gone before anyone notices and cares.”

Asked if he wanted to add a recommendation to the GAO’s to rectify what he called “a debacle,” Carter offered this: Cancel private contracts and put “the slumlords” out of business. Bring housing back in-house at DOD. Fix unhealthy housing by leveling it. Incentivize business owners like homebuilders to come in and erect decent, healthy houses.

Finally, he thinks military spouses should be put on the oversight boards. That would be a really effective way to make sure everything stays shipshape, he says.

-- Freelance writer Mark Fogarty contributed to this report.