What can military and defense officials do to really address long-term problems like the condition of on-base housing and barracks, shortages of child care, spouse unemployment, and the destruction or damage of property during a move to a new duty station?
Over the last several decades, these problems have been persistent, and while there have been numerous efforts over the years to fix them, it sometimes seems like a game of whac-a-mole.
But now there’s a culture change happening in the Army, to include the demise of the practice of “end-stating” when it comes to quality of life, said the Army general responsible for many of those programs.
As Gen. Charles Hamilton, commanding general of Army Materiel Command, put it in an interview with Military Times, “end-stating” refers to the final phase of an operation. According to the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, end state is “the set of required conditions that defines achievement of the commander’s objectives.” But just because a project or building is finished, the responsibilities don’t end for that project or building, said Hamilton, who is in charge of many quality-of-life programs, such as housing, child care and spouse employment.
Service members and families have faced problems for decades with a number of issues affecting quality of life, as the Government Accountability Office and Military Times have been reporting through the years. These include problems such as mold in family housing and barracks and a lack of timely maintenance; shortages of affordable, quality child care; problems with broken or lost household goods; military spouses’ difficulty in finding employment; and inadequate dining facilities.
“What I warn my team about, what I’m afraid of, is … we like to finish things, and then we go, okay, here’s my line of effort. There’s an end state. That’s the problem. We ‘end-state’ it. And then the world moves past us,” said Hamilton. “We say, ‘Okay, that barracks is finished. Okay that project’s done.’ Well, no. It’s finished for that one thing, but it’s got to keep getting maintenance, it’s got to keep getting sustainment, somebody’s got to go check it.”
Officials are working on a culture change from the top down, Hamilton said, where those projects continue to evolve, he said.
“It’s ‘Look guys, it doesn’t have an end state on it. It’s an evolution,’” said Hamilton, who enlisted in the Army in 1982 and has himself seen these issues.
“I haven’t heard a military officer say that before, so kudos,” said Kelly Hruska, government relations director of the National Military Family Association. “I’m glad he’s articulating that,” she said. As a Navy spouse of 29 years who has worked with the association since 2007, and other military family organizations before that, she has seen the continuing problems.
“It seems like we’re fighting the same things. There are days when I think we’re making progress. But then I get a call from a family and I get discouraged again,” she said.
Quality of life is a big focus in the Army now, Hamilton said. “We spend a lot of time in this space … the secretary and the chief chair these meetings, with commanders in the field. … We’re going location by location. So right there, that sends a clear message that this is a priority to the Army. They bring up everything. Child care. Dining Facilities. The meeting is called Quality of Life,” he said.
The fact remains, however, that military leaders are only in their positions for two or three years, so priorities can change.
Leaders must be willing to play the “long game” for the sake of the people they serve “rather than what can be accomplished during their time in [the] seat,” said Corie Weathers, wife of an Army chaplain, and a military clinical consultant. Her latest book, “Military Culture Shift: The Impact of War, Money, and Generational Perspective on Morale, Retention, and Leadership,” will be available Nov. 14.
Weathers also cautions that there are some quality-of-life issues that “service members and families have brought up for decades, generations even, that many are no longer willing to wait for without consequence.”
While some of the services may be doing well with retention right now, Weathers believes the military is on the verge of a retention crisis. “In order to begin the healing process, I believe the institution (ultimately leaders) will need to authentically show that they value the people over bureaucracy,” she said, in an email response.
“Our culture is at a tipping point where the community’s expectations and frustration over issues that should have been resolved (or should have an expected end date) will be fully displayed as evergreen content online until leaders are held accountable,” she said. “This is an immense amount of pressure on leaders who genuinely would like to make progress on systemic problems.”
Leaders must be able to “communicate ongoing efforts to make progress on quality-of-life issues while simultaneously casting vision for realistic expectations and deadlines that can be used to hold the institution accountable,” Weathers said. But leaders should avoid communicating in ways that sound like “kicking the can down the road,” she said.
Hamilton explained that there have been improvements on this front in recent decades, “but as you know, the world changes pretty quickly around us. Whether it be barracks, housing, the expectations from families have certainly, and deservedly so, increased over time. They’re holding us accountable, as they should.”
For example, when it comes to housing he noted that “with the dollars we have, we’re going to continue to build, to renovate and modernize, and go after getting better housing for our families. ... It all goes to readiness. And I won’t come off that dime as long as I’m the Army Materiel Command commander. We owe it to our families.”
Much of the problem, of course, has to do with money, and the competition for limited amounts of dollars between quality-of-life programs and things like weapons systems. More and more, leaders like Hamilton have been saying that these programs that affect rank-and-file service members and their families directly affect military readiness, too.
Deja vu all over again
In the 1990s, military family housing had deteriorated to such a degree on some installations, with mold, neglected and deferred critical maintenance and other problems, that the services and defense officials faced a $20 billion maintenance backlog that would take 30 years to fix with traditional military construction. Too often, installations had used money meant for maintaining housing for other priorities. So DoD and the services turned to agreements with private companies to fix the decrepit housing, turning it over to the companies to demolish, build, renovate, maintain and operate. In return, the companies receive service members’ monthly Basic Allowance for Housing for rent.
By 2018, nearly 20 years later, it was clear the services and DoD had taken their eye off the ball and weren’t listening to military families about persistent problems with mold, overflowing sewage, rodent infestation, water intrusion, and other problems in their houses. Congress passed laws to reform the housing privatization program and to require more rigorous oversight of these private companies by DoD and the services, and to ensure quick response to family’s problems with their housing.
The living conditions in the barracks have also been a persistent problem, and were documented in a recent GAO report. GAO reported similar problems with barracks 20 years ago.
And 10 years ago, in a report to Congress, the Defense Department lauded the progress it had made in modernizing its barracks program, said GAO’s Elizabeth Field, in her Sept. 27 testimony before Congress. “The department also promised that military barracks would be adequately maintained over the long term,” she said. “Obviously, that didn’t happen.”
Lawmakers are again pushing DoD and the services to address the living conditions in the barracks. The Army will spend $1 billion a year through 2030 to fix barracks, but another $6.8 billion on top of that is needed, officials say.
“If Hamilton was king for a day, I’d have the $6.8 billion and I’d go in and fix everything. But I’ve only got a billion a year until 2030, so I’m going to try to fix as much as I can fix over time,” Hamilton said. “I know mold will continue to show up in barracks, especially in those warm areas. But we’ll continue to combat it. We treat it like any other mission. We actually actively have teams and we go after this in a very, very aggressive manner. We’re trying to increase the public works staffs, and we try to keep everybody informed on mitigation programs.”
As far as the transportation of service members’ household goods, that, too, has been a problem for decades — broken and missing furniture and belongings, missed pickup dates and delivery dates. The Defense Department has “re-engineered” that process several times over the last two decades, but issues boiled up again in a particularly brutal PCS season in 2018.
The latest effort is U.S. Transportation Command’s outsourcing of the management of the process, through a contract with a single company. All moves within the continental United States are expected to be managed by this company by peak moving season 2024, which starts in the April-May time frame. While commercial companies have always done the work of packing, loading and trucking troops’ belongings to the next duty station, one company will now have the responsibility of assigning the moves to companies and managing the process.
Meanwhile, TRANSCOM and the services have been working on some improvements to the PCS process, such as giving service members more lead time on their orders before their report date to the new duty station, and increasing military inspections of movers.
Shortages of affordable, available child care, and high rates of unemployment for military spouses who face frequent moves have been increasing problems over the decades, as more military spouses seek employment — like their civilian counterparts.
Defense and service officials have initiated a number of programs to increase spouse education and employment opportunities. The unemployment numbers remain stubbornly high — more than 20%, according to some surveys, but it’s not regularly tracked. NMFA’s Hruska and others have asked the Department of Labor to track military spouse unemployment as they do veteran unemployment, as those efforts have produced results. So far, that tracking hasn’t happened.
Military families value their military child development centers on installations, which are highly regulated, generally wholesome environments for their children. But there have been shortages of child care spaces for military children in a number of areas. Lawmakers have criticized service leaders for years for not asking for more money to build more child development centers.
The services and DoD have implemented a number of initiatives to try to address these shortages, such as fee assistance programs for quality child care in the civilian community.
Hamilton noted the Army funded seven new child development centers from 2021 to 2023, and eight additional centers and two youth centers are planned between now and 2025. “The bigger problem is the hiring,” he said. “I can pretty much build. But it’s the competition. It’s a true war with competition.” And the government hiring process takes a while.
“I’m committed to changing this” he said, noting that “from the Secretary on down, everybody is working in this space.”
“Whether it be spouse employment or child care, those go directly to the readiness of a family’s household,” Hamilton said. “Their peace of mind, how they’re going to assimilate in the military. It goes to retention in the military. So we put a lot of time and effort into this space,” he said.
“Is it perfect? No. But man, it’s gotten a lot better than it used to be.”
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.