DEFENDING AMERICA
BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
10 October 2000

AN AMERICAN SHAME

For many of the uniformed folks who defend America, military housing is a nightmare. Maybe it's always been that way. Back in the 1920s, Ike, Omar Bradley and Joe Stillwell had less than good things to say about the armpits they were issued for their families to live in.

We can thank our lucky stars these three brilliant future senior leaders didn't turn in their soldier suits to take high-paying civilian jobs during the Roaring '20s. Positions that would've rewarded their families with the proverbial white trophy house on the hill. But despite the miserable housing, lousy pay and sticks for weapons, all three hung on, went onward and upward -- and became the main men who did a number on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Today, one of the central reasons young professionals are hanging it up in all of our services is because of the same kind of inferior housing Ike and his peers endured. But unlike them, our warriors are Generation Xers whose tolerance for mediocrity runs thin -- especially with employment conditions on the outside just too temptingly juicy to grin and bear it.

Then, too, Ike and his mates didn't have to sweat the many separations brought about by all the peacekeeping operations. Today, our warriors are frequently away on missions in places like Kuwait and Kosovo. Their families, for all intents and purposes, are left stranded in government quarters surrounded by crumbling walls, asbestos-wrapped leaking pipes, peeling, lead-based paint and ceilings that are mold farms.

Quitting has become almost a no-brainer. When mommy's not happy, daddy starts polishing his resume. An unparalleled number of expensively trained and skilled noncoms and young officers are checking out of all the services. A lot of factors are driving this exodus, but poor housing is high on the list.

A Pentagon report says that more than half of the 1.4 million active-duty members of our armed forces live in housing older than their commander in chief and in serious need of triage.

The Army says more than half of its housing units are wrecks and that it will take $6 billion and about 40 years -- at current spending levels -- to get the job done. A congressional study says it will take 30 years and $20 billion to refurbish 200,000 houses.

Last week while visiting Fort Benning, Ga., which repeatedly wins the award for "Best U.S. Army Installation in the World," I visited a friend at his base house. It looked like it hadn't been renovated since I was stationed there in 1952.

The electrical system could have been out of a WWII submarine -- with wires running amuck. The window-installed air conditioner wheezed, rattled, sent out puffs of white smoke and was so loud that I had to spend the evening yelling in order to yak with my pal -- who was sitting right next to me.

My friend, his wife and child shared one 1950-plumbed bathroom. The porcelain sink and toilet were cracked in many places and leaked. The medicine cabinet was rusted through, and the tile floor looked like it had been beaten by a hammer.

The kitchen was Motel-6 small, with little cabinet or counter space. And it was made even smaller by the numerous coats of paint that caked the walls like pancake makeup on an aging circus performer.

I had better digs as a reporter in a bombed-out village in war-torn Bosnia. If my son, his wife and kids lived in such appalling conditions, I'd call a van and move them from those shameful conditions quick-smart.

Fort Benning's chief of housing, Ken Hankins, is doing the best job he can. But, he says, "Money is in short supply." He's spending "$13 million this year renovating 120 homes" like the one I visited -- with "1,700 homes that need renovating."

Al Gore recently spent more than $2 million in taxpayer dollars renovating his VP's pad in Washington, D.C., while Dubya's building a palatial mansion on his Texas spread.

Maybe these two presidential wannabes should mosey down to Fort Benning to see how the other half live.

And then tell these good men and women who serve America so proudly just what they're going to do to fix this insulting mess if they get the job.