Fort Detrick held two town halls last Friday, with a third set for Friday, to hear housing concerns from military members and residents. The town halls were prompted by concerns about deplorable conditions, including black mold, termites and maintenance failures, in privatized military housing across the country.
The concerns led to a Feb. 13 Senate Armed Services subcommittee meeting. Although Fort Detrick was not specifically mentioned at the hearing, the company that manages the privatized housing on the fort, Balfour Beatty, was called to testify. Balfour Beatty is also responsible for privatized housing on Tinker Air Force Base, subject of a Reuters investigation detailing the conditions of the homes.
The town halls were open only to those who live on Fort Detrick’s grounds. A variety of people live on post, said Col. Scott Halter, the garrison commander. There are 350 homes, 60 percent of which have residents who are active-duty military personnel. Private residences can be rented out to civilians; many of those residents are veterans or retired Department of Defense workers, he said.
In addition to holding town halls, Army leaders are walking through homes and barracks on the grounds to see housing conditions for themselves, Halter said. He wants residents to tell them about problems, from warped floors to backed-up toilets.
“Part of this is us visiting 100 percent of all the barrack rooms and homes, so we’re prompting them in a deliberate manner to tell us,” he said. “Instead of waiting for them to tell us, we’re going to go out and practically knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, do you have any problems?’”
One area that also needs attention is work orders, said Maj. Gen. Barbara Holcomb, commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and Fort Detrick. She went over the process at the town hall. Balfour Beatty is responsible for work orders from the privatized housing.
There are orders that are addressed, but at the first town hall, others brought up problems with work orders being filed. They will be following up on work orders to make sure they are addressed, Holcomb said.
At the barracks, concerns were often about broken washers and dryers. For the attendees who spoke at the first town hall, it was about smoke detectors, sidewalks and problems that often accompany aged homes, Holcomb said.
“Kind of like any apartment complex that you move into or a hotel when you go, you expect the washers and dryers to work,” she said.
Many of the residences on Fort Detrick were built in the 1960s, she said, and houses on the bases built before 1978 may still have lead-based paint.
One of the continuous problems is also aging infrastructure, Halter said. Like the houses, water and sewer lines are likely from the 1950s and ’60s. They are causing problems for residences and tenants, but it takes money to fix them. That money is shared among all Army installations, including overseas, which means it goes to where the highest need is, Halter said. While he advocates for the fort, it does not always receive the money it needs.
So far, in February, the post’s public works department has had to dig up water lines four or five times, he said.
Halter did not anticipate a housing condition crisis, like what is being reported at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, but he does expect that they will find many things that will need to be fixed.
Senators call for accountability
The Senate subcommittee heard from three panels at the hearing, the first being three residents, followed by property owners and then commanders.
Christopher Williams, president of Balfour Beatty Communities, represented the housing company.
“I know at Balfour Beatty, we want every service member and their family to have only positive experiences in housing,” Williams testified. “We’re constantly working to meet that duty. And when we fall short, we try to make that right.”
Senators called out the property representative, including Balfour Beatty, for failing to respond to the situations before being called to testify.
“I’m just trying to figure out why on Earth anybody who’s working in this organization would have heard these stories and not moved heaven and Earth to try and get the right resource on site,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
Other senators, including presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), questioned the companies’ commitment to fixing problems and their financials.
None of the company representatives had served in the military, a question asked by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). He told them that the companies needed to be held accountable, but an apology to the families is also needed. That should come from the commanders, he said at the hearing, because they have military experience and know what it is like to live on installations.
Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) does have military experience, and she said that the property owners owe families apologies for the state of the housing.
“There have been many failures here,” McSally said. “And I hope all of you can look these service members and their families in the eye, and tell them that you’re sorry. But then do the right thing. Starting right now. I hope you feel embarrassed. Starting now, do the right thing, and the next right thing in order to take care of this.”