Less than a week after Navy Times published an investigation revealing how junior enlisted troops have gone without hot water for years in the barracks aboard the base that houses Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Navy officials said Thursday they are moving fast to rectify the problems they admit to having known about for years.
Navy leaders and the command of Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland, have established a website with updates on progress made to alleviate hot water issues and other problems in the two barracks buildings, Comfort and Sanctuary halls.
Asked why the Navy appears to have only started moving with urgency to fix the issues after they were made public, NSA Bethesda spokesman Jeremy Brooks blamed “an environment with limited resources and budgetary constraints.”
“We don’t always have the solutions we would like to have,” he said in an email.
“Recognizing the quality of life issues the living conditions presented, Navy leadership made additional resources available to accelerate the repairs while maintaining suitable living arrangements for the residents,” Brooks said. “We’re happy to have that assistance and grateful for the speed it (sic) has come together.”
Hundreds of junior sailors and soldiers were moved out of the affected barracks on Saturday, the day after Navy Times published its report on the conditions.
The barracks issues have aroused the attention of Congress, and Rear Adm. Michael Steffen, commandant for Naval District Washington, was expected to brief congressional staffers on Friday, according to his spokesman.
One corpsman — a sailor working in a medical setting, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter — told Navy Times Thursday that being moved into a room with working hot water allows everyone to “decompress and prepare for the next day.”
The lack of hot water while working in a COVID ward posed “a major hygiene issue,” the corpsman said.
“Basic hygiene is soap and warm water,” the corpsman said. “We were missing the warm part of that.”
Others outside the Navy are questioning how this was ever allowed to happen.
The national commander of the American Legion, Paul Dillard, called the Navy Times report a “gut punch,” and cited past scandals involving military housing in a statement posted to the organization’s website on Wednesday.
“I hope that history is not repeating itself,” Dillard wrote.
He added that he will be addressing a joint congressional committee next month, and that “you can bet that this will be a major topic of discussion.”
“The men and women who choose to serve in our all-volunteer force have many other attractive options,” Dillard wrote. “They should not be subject to living in third-world conditions while serving a first-world nation.”
Brooks told Navy Times Thursday that the cost and completion dates for the repairs to Sanctuary and Comfort halls were not yet known, and as a result, it remains unclear when affected troops will be able to return to the barracks.
The update website states that the mixing valve issue that has afflicted Sanctuary Hall, which was built in 2014 for about $63 million, was repaired Wednesday.
Sanctuary Hall’s issues involve insufficient hot water supply to accommodate the hundreds of residents there during peak hours, according to the site.
“Another significant issue involving one of the hot water heaters was also identified and repaired,” the site states. “Public Works will continue to evaluate system performance to identify any other issues that could impact the supply of hot water.”
During a Feb. 3 town hall, before the barracks issues became public, base commanding officer Capt. Scott Switzer told attendees that he wasn’t sure if the valve needed to repair Sanctuary Hall was in stock, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Navy Times,
Those who have opted not to temporarily move out of Sanctuary Hall are “advised to try and plan their hot water usage outside of peak hours,” from about 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., the site states.
Comfort Hall was built in 1986 and cost about $11 million in that year’s dollars, according to base officials.
But for reasons that remain unclear, it was built without a hot water loop that could supply hot water to the third and fourth floors.
“We started work in December of 2021 on a project to improve the situation, but encountered some unforeseen conditions which must also be addressed,” the command site states. “The end result will be an increase in the amount of available hot water.”
Moving everyone out of Comfort Hall is allowing the Navy to accelerate the work, according to the site.
Updates will be posted to the site as the situation develops and affected residents will receive updates via their chain of command, the site states.
Hot water is not being redirected to other buildings, the site notes.
An air conditioning outage last summer in Sanctuary Hall — also highlighted in the Navy Times report — was caused by a chilled water pump failure, according to the site.
The site states that the outage lasted three weeks, but affected sailors told Navy Times that the issues spanned months.
“Following the repair, the installation Public Works Department oversaw a room-to-room assessment of reported faulty temperature controllers to ensure proper temperature and air flow,” the site states. “As a result of the maintenance reporting gap, there may be more faulty temperature controls that were reported but not addressed.”
Affected residents should “report it again so this can be looked into and corrected as soon as possible,” the site states.
Switzer acknowledged at last week’s townhall that “trouble tickets” submitted by affected residents in the recent past were not being properly handled.
“We reviewed our ticketing process and identified a specific step that wasn’t being properly executed by our staff,” Brooks said, adding that this information would soon be added to the updated site. “As a result of that gap, some of the maintenance issues were not being addressed after being submitted. We’ve addressed the problem and Capt. Switzer is tracking the response.”
Some sailors told Navy Times last week that the locks to their doors in the coed Comfort Hall would break, and that superiors told them to just leave their door propped open, which raised safety concerns among some female residents.
“The key card lock systems in (Comfort Hall) are no longer supported by the original manufacturer,” the site states. “A new contract was procured from a separate company to continue repairing system parts as needed, but the fixes sometimes fail. We will be looking for better ways to address this.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.