Navy Sinking Nearly $1 Billion into Barracks Construction Amid Revelations of Poor Living Conditions

Barracks under construction at Naval Air Station Patuxent River
Exterior of a barracks under construction at Naval Air Station Patuxent River Jul. 31 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Matthew Stinson)

The Navy says it's set to make substantial improvements to barracks and that its top officer is committed to funding it, with a host of construction projects totaling nearly $1 billion already underway.

Destiny Sibert, a spokeswoman for the Navy's Installation Command, said that the admiral who oversees all of the service's barracks and buildings has a commitment from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti to fully fund the Navy's unaccompanied housing and morale, welfare and recreation, or MWR, gym sustainment budget by this October.

"We are working toward determining allocation for the additional funds in order to close the gap to achieve 100% sustainment ... with a focus on the areas that will have the greatest impact for sailors" Sibert said.

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Both Sibert and another Navy official described the move as "huge."

"One hundred percent funding for housing and gyms. ... We've never done that before," the official added.

"We have eight different [military construction] projects that we're working on," Leslie Gould, a top civilian official at the Navy command, which oversees its bases and buildings, told in an interview.

Those projects, according to Navy figures, are going to cost $969 million through 2029.

The service says it is also going to spend an additional $718 million on other barracks improvements. Gould highlighted that her command has dedicated $50 million just to replace furnishings in the barracks.

The move puts some substance behind the promises Franchetti and other Navy leaders made in January to work on improving sailors' lives.

The Navy official also said that there are several offices that are developing a variety of infrastructure plans to get after things like barracks and child development centers, as well as determine what accommodations sailors may need in the future. requested copies of those documents, but the officials were not able to provide anything in time for publication.

However, the new funding and plans are part of a growing change in tone among Navy officials, who seem to be more willing to admit that the service has not done enough to support its sailors.

"Does the Navy have every building meeting the DoD standard? No ... and if it did, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now," Gould said.

That concession comes months after a searing Government Accountability Office report found that service members across all the branches have been dealing with bedbugs and roaches, doors without locks, squatters, and inoperable heating or air conditioning systems.

The Navy alone was found to have about 5,000 service members living in substandard barracks as of March.

The standard that both Gould and the GAO refer to is the Defense department's "Minimum Configuration and Privacy Standards" that say a sailor up to the rank of petty officer third class should have a private bedroom with a minimum of 90 square feet, a kitchenette, and a bathroom they share with only one other person if they live in a room without a living room.

If the barracks they are assigned to has a living room, the standard falls to a shared bedroom with one other person that has a minimum of 72 square feet per person but a full kitchen.

Gould explained that the Navy already has construction projects underway to update buildings on Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia; do work on the dorms at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida; replace barracks at Naval Base Coronado in California; and expand the barracks in Rota, Spain. They're also starting to look at improving the barracks at a base in Djibouti.

Gould also said there are plans making their way through the Pentagon to expand the privately run barracks of Pacific Beacon in San Diego and Homeport Hampton Roads in Norfolk, Virginia.

While the large, costly and yearslong projects work their way to fruition, the Navy has tried to push ahead with smaller but impactful projects that it hopes can make some difference in sailors' lives.

The Navy recently announced a pilot program at a barracks in the Norfolk area that will provide free Wi-Fi to up to 4,000 sailors starting this month.

In mid-January, the service also lifted its ban on small cooking appliances in the barracks in an effort to give sailors who work long or unusual shifts more food options at all hours of the day.

And Gould highlighted the Navy's recent rollout of a QR Code-based maintenance request system that makes asking for repairs easier and, according to the Navy official, faster.

However, some of the complaints sailors have about living in the barracks go beyond basic maintenance requests and speak to a broader problem with the buildings as a whole.

In an interview Wednesday, a corpsman with about 10 years experience in the military told that, in their experience, "one thing that the barracks is severely failing on is the ventilation systems."

The sailor said many installations -- especially in the South -- get hot in the summer and, when the HVAC or air conditioning fails, it creates a breeding ground for moisture and mold. Plus, it can get so hot, they said, that they are forced to consider sleeping in their personal vehicle.

Good sleep does not come "when you're living or sleeping in a sauna," they said.

In those instances, they felt it was urgent to fix the problem "instead of saying, 'Hey, we'll put an order in, and we'll take care of it here in three months.'"

The corpsman did note, though, that they have seen both good and bad barracks and that there is generally no standard across the board on how they are run or maintained.

Gould said that "the Navy does have a really good handle on how many buildings we have, and which ones need repair."

However, the GAO report noted that sometimes the measures that services use to determine the state of barracks -- the condition index -- can be flawed and barracks at seven of 10 military installations investigators visited "appeared to require significant improvement, despite condition scores above 80." The report did not say whether Navy bases were among those seven.

Gould pointed out that the Navy is working with the Defense Department to develop a new measurement -- a habitability index -- that will go beyond just assessing the state of the actual building.

"That's going to take into [account] things ... like, how far away is parking? What is the infrastructure availability? What's inside the fence line as far as food options? What's outside the fence line? How accessible is that barracks to where they work?" she said.

Gould also said that the index will be able to influence the Navy's future plans -- which others have suggested could be grand.

The service's top enlisted sailor, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea, told in an interview Monday that he is advocating for a barracks room for every junior sailor -- a move that would mean sailors no longer have to live aboard their ships while in port.

"I believe that every sailor should be able to have separation from their work life to their home life," he said.

However, Honea said that completing such a goal would take years. But Gould stressed that she and her team are committed to making as many of the improvements as possible.

"We're pulling a lot of different levers to try to get after the right answer," she said.

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