In the face of reports of retaliation against military families for coming forward about their concerns about living conditions in privatized housing, senators strongly warned that they will not tolerate such reprisals.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Feb. 13 where military spouses testified, chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., reminded privatized company officials and defense and service officials that the witnesses’ testimony and other communications with the committee are protected communication.
“Any form of reprisal or threat should be immediately reported to this committee and will be immediately referred to the DoD Inspector General for swift action,” Inhofe said.
“Make no mistake — I will take any report of reprisal on military families directly to the secretary and chief of that specific service.”
Senators extracted commitments from all the company officials as well as DoD and service officials that they would protect families from reprisal.
Marine wife Crystal Cornwall testified that after hearing her concerns about the housing conditions, her unit’s family readiness officer stepped in on their behalf, and was retaliated against by the base command.
“He’s since left the family readiness program because of this issue,” she said. The family readiness officer had put her in touch with another military spouse at Camp Pendleton, California, who was also looking into issues, and they began working together. When the base command found out about it, she said, “the family readiness officer was told to stand down."
“I believe the marriage between the [privatized housing companies] and the base commands is the biggest detrimental part of this issue,” Cornwall said. “There’s a marriage there and there’s a certain kind of loyalty there that supersedes loyalty to military families.”
The issue of retaliation was also raised in a recent online survey fielded by the Military Family Advisory Network, which garnered responses from 14,558 current or recent residents of military privatized housing. “Families report attempts by housing company representatives and sometimes, military command to silence their complaints and several report receiving threats. Many fear retribution or negative impacts on their service members’ military career,” stated the MFAN report on preliminary findings.
MFAN also spoke with several families who were unwilling to come forward publicly for fear of retaliation or negative impact on their service member.
“One military spouse shared that their privatized housing company’s community manager threatened to call the service member’s commander if they continued to ‘complain,’" according to the report.
One service member told MFAN that a garrison commander threatened him with a general officer memorandum of reprimand because the service member demanded that his family be moved out of their home when ticks began falling from the ceiling. A bat colony was living in their attic.
Some families have reported rampant black mold, insect infestations, and a variety of other problems that made their homes unsafe. They’ve reported long-term health effects that they attribute to the mold and other conditions. But there are also financial implications; one spouse testified her family is now $40,000 in debt because of issues related to mold, including replacing household items that could no longer be used.
Concerns about reprisals against military families for speaking out are not new to this issue. It’s a long-standing concern in the military community — and service members have experienced reprisals in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons.
Senators also stressed numerous times that military families should not hesitate to call their senators if they find themselves in situations with housing conditions they can’t resolve.
“I speak for every Senate member when I say, if you’re living in military housing anywhere in this country, and you’re not getting satisfaction from any of these vendors, call your Senate offices and we’ll be in touch,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.