ARLINGTON, Va. — It's been a year since military families made their voices heard on Capitol Hill – describing in painful detail the dangerous conditions they're living in on bases across the country. Now, WUSA9 had a chance to question the Army leader brought in to fix military housing and make sure those families are safe at home.
General Gustave "Gus" F. Perna is the Commander of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. He's also one of only about a dozen four-star generals. For the military families affected, having someone of that high rank focused specifically on this mission is a big deal.
Perna says the job is straightforward: take responsibility and fix the problem of military housing.
Photos from bases like Virginia's Fort Belvoir are hard to look at. They show the disgusting, and sometimes dangerous, conditions military families face inside their homes. General Perna has seen them firsthand when he visited families there.
“Our spouses are all serving the country and they're willing to die for their country, we should all at the very minimum be able to have a safe home,” Amanda Brewer, who lives on Belvoir, told us.
That's a line of thinking Perna understands. This isn't just a set of orders for him.
“My son is a lieutenant married to my beautiful daughter-in-law, who is the daughter of a master sergeant,” he said. “They have three girls: 11, 7 and 1. Every day I do this housing thing I think about those three girls. It's not about the housing I grew up in. It's about what do they have to live in and what is the future for them."
In order to ensure a safe future, the Army has to counter problems revealed in data we've been digging through. It shows specifics about issues reported on each base across the country. For example, on Belvoir, 75% of the people who responded to a survey said they had issues with maintenance. Thirty percent reported concerns about mold.
So, in the last year, Perna said he has inventoried concerns in all 87,000 Army privatized homes, tracked issues and their fixes and monitored displaced families. He also has monthly calls with the CEOs of the seven private companies that own and run the base housing, which the military calls "partners."
“We are responsible, and we are going to lead our way through this,” he maintained. “We are not going to abdicate our responsibility to the partners.”
The families who we talked to on the ground said they are getting a different tone. They believe the relationship they experience with the private companies and sometimes with Army personnel on base is difficult.
“One family or 87,000 families, it doesn’t matter to me,” Perna said. “One family is not being treated right. One family is not in a home that is quality and safe, that’s all I’m worried about and so that’s our tone, my tone, through the chain of command. It’s 60 installations. It’s 87,000 homes. It takes a lot of effort to get it out and see all those and reinforce what I just said to you. We’re building momentum on that. It’s a change.”
On that change of culture note, we showed General Perna excerpts from documents families living on Belvoir gave to us. They are from the most recent revision of the Resident Responsibility Guide on Fort Belvoir.
"Family Housing on Fort Belvoir is provided as a privilege to military members and their families," it reads.
We asked Perna if that is the tone he expects.
“No, absolutely not,” he said. “I'm not familiar with that document that you just read to me, but I'll be glad to take it and look at it, but that is absolutely 100% not the tone.”
Spouses have shown us video, in which their security cameras inside their homes are tampered with or taken down. Another part of the guide states a “resident will obtain permission from Landlord before installing any additional security device.”
Perna responded he doesn’t think that’s OK.
“What I need is to have families to bring this up to us through their chains of command, through the advocacy groups, through the garrison commander, and guess what, then leaders can step in and be involved and get us to solutions,” he said.
We wanted to know how this gets to a point where what Perna is saying is what the families inside base homes feel.
“That's a fair question,” Perna answered. “It's not going to happen overnight. A year is a long time, but this didn't happen in one year. This happened over numerous years.”
One update military leaders hope will make a difference for military families on bases across the country is the newly signed Tenant Bill of Rights. The Secretary of Defense, along with the heads of each service branch signed the document Tuesday.
"The Department commits to providing the full benefit of the following 15 rights by May 1, 2020," a note said.
They include things like the right to live in a home that meets health and environmental standards, the right to report concerns without fear of retaliation and the right to an advocate or legal assistance for dispute resolution.
What is still in the works is the right to withhold the Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, which is essentially rent, until disputes are resolved. The Department of Defense said they have to work with the private companies running the housing in order to make that a reality. They're also still working on access to maintenance history and a process for dispute resolution.
"The Department will continue to work with the MHPI companies and, as necessary, Congress to ensure the benefits of these rights are fully available," the secretaries wrote. "While the Department develops standardized, formal processes for these rights, service members and their families will be able to leverage the support available from their respective Military Departments to address and resolve relevant housing issues. Tenants seeking assistance should continue to engage their housing office, installation leadership, or chain of command."
This is part of the defense spending act, which we’ve been telling you about as part of our WUSA Original "Dangers at Home." Congress passed several requirements to help make sure military families are living in safe homes.