FORT LEE, Va. - Senator Mark Warner visited two homes and led a round-table discussion with residents here April 25 as part of an assessment of privatized military housing conditions and what's being done to correct deficiencies.
Earlier in the day, Warner visited Virginia's Naval Station Norfolk with a similar purpose. The inadequate quality of privatized military housing across the services has national attention. At a community town hall here at the end of February - attended by a representative from Warner's office - residents shared stories of chronic maintenance deficiencies, mold, questionable pet fees and other issues.
"You have your leadership's full attention," Warner assured the 17 service members and spouses who were invited to share their experiences with Virginia's top democratic leader. Sitting near the senator in the housing center community room was Maj. Gen. Rodney D. Fogg, Combined Arms Support Command and Fort Lee commanding general, Col. Hollie J. Martin, garrison commander, and their senior enlisted leaders.
"The truth is ... you shouldn't have had to go through this kind of hassle," Warner said. "Your families shouldn't have to live in circumstances where their health could be in jeopardy. As a father of three daughters myself, I would be frantic."
Remedial measures must be long-range and sustainable, the senator emphasized. Funding that would allow greater oversight of privatized housing contractors is part of the proposed National Defense Authorization Act that will soon be voted on by legislative leaders, and Warner told the group it is getting bipartisan support that makes passage likely.
Also in the works is a "Resident Bill of Rights" that will empower military families with assurances of command support if unsatisfactory living conditions are not being resolved. One portion of the declaration sets parameters for withholding rent payments as leverage to get chronic health and safety deficiencies corrected, according to the senator.
"You have my promise that I'm going to stay on this as long as it takes to get it fixed," Warner stated. "What I need from you is a commitment to stay engaged. We can't fix it if we don't know about it, so keep talking to your leaders if you're not getting the results you think you deserve."
Fort Lee family member Amanda Vargas was the first to offer feedback to the senator. "It seems to me there's a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding in regards to how dangerous mold actually is," she observed. "Of the strains testing positive in our home, we learned one inhibits cell growth, which is irreversible. It scares me every day to think about what that could be doing to my kids. We just need to make sure these contractors are trained in mold certification, and the cleanup work is being done correctly."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jolene Pickens described an incident in which a maintenance worker entered her home while she was in the shower. Others around the table cited instances of "sloppy patchwork" repairs, lack of cleanup after mowing and mold remediation being performed by uncertified technicians.
Revisiting the mold issue, family member Leticia Lewis said, "What it all comes down to at the end of the day is our health. We shouldn't have to go through this. I am now seeing more specialty doctors than I ever had before I came to Fort Lee. My son was hospitalized in the pediatric ICU for three days because his oxygen levels were so low. ... I want an apology. I think my family and everybody in housing here at Fort Lee is owed an apology."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Nicholas Machado said he was pressured to accept his on-post home unseen or risk losing it and being bumped off the waiting list. "In my family's situation, we see on-base housing as a necessity because of everything that's nearby like the CDC," he said. "We decided to take the risk of declining it and waiting for the second offer. On the day that came available, we literally were given 15 minutes to look at it and accept it."
The staff sergeant then held up a four-page list of maintenance issues they are trying to get fixed. "This was supposedly a good-to-go house and, so far, it has only given us stress and the hassle of making phone calls and waiting for repair people to show up. On top of that, I'm now hearing about all of these health issues with mold, and I'm worried it's going to happen to my kids if all (housing) did was paint over it."
Warner continued to listen intently as the remaining round-table participants described dilemmas similar to what was voiced earlier. Summing up what he experienced at Norfolk and what he just heard, the senator said, "It's been a pretty damn frustrating day."
"You deserve better," he continued. "You ought to have safe housing. All these things with maintenance issues, kids with asthma, people experiencing respiratory issues ... it's enough to make someone crazy having those circumstances with no place to turn.
"I very much appreciate you coming and sharing your experiences," Warner concluded. "On behalf of the American people, I offer my apologies. You shouldn't have had to live through this. We're going to get this right, you have my commitment."
Air Force Master Sgt. Segonia Cameron said she appreciated the senator's engagement and concern. "I think it's great that all of this is being brought to light, and it's motivating real changes that are being immediately implemented.
"As one of the people here stated, this is about the men and women who are serving our country," she further observed. "The last thing they should be worrying about is the safety and health of their children in the homes where they reside. I think it's great that these leaders are taking an active role in trying to rectify this situation."
"I know I felt a lot of anxiety when I came here today, and it got even worse when I heard what these other residents were experiencing," Machado said. "I have a family and kids. Is this another thing I have to worry about; them getting asthma and having breathing problems?
"Then I realized who was at the table - a senator, a general, our sergeant major all backing us up. That gave me confidence. I know something is going to happen, and it gives me hope. It's going to get better."