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Thousands of troops live in 'substandard' barracks, exposed to sewage, toxic water, diseases: GAO

Should we ask servicemen and women to risk their lives on the battlefield while they may be risk simply living in U.S. barracks? The GAO report comes as the military is already facing concerns about morale, recruitment and "woke" ideology amid serious security threats.

Published: September 22, 2023 11:00pm

Thousands of U.S. service members live in barracks that are in "substandard conditions," including exposed sewage and non-existent heating, as officials raise concerns about potentially serious safety and health risks that could impact military "readiness," according to a new government report published this week by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO is a congressional agency that examines how taxpayer dollars are spent and provides Congress and federal agencies with "objective, non-partisan, fact-based information."

According to the report, high-ranking service members at all 10 facilities visited by the GAO said the "poor living conditions contributed to reduced productivity at work, had negative effects on training, or negatively affected perceptions about serving in the military."

Additionally, officials at all 10 sample barracks said the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems were "broken, malfunctioning, or non-existent," according to the report, titled, "Military Barracks: Poor Living Conditions Undermine Quality of Life and Readiness."

All of the barracks inspected were located in the U.S., including four installations in the Washington, D.C. area and other installations across the continental United States including Fort Carson, Colorado (Army); Joint Base San Antonio, Texas (Air Force); Naval Base Coronado and Naval Base San Diego, California (Navy); and Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego and Camp Pendleton, California (Marine Corps).

Service members at half of the inspected barracks said there were issues with water quality. For example, in one discussion group the accountability office held, service members said tap water in their barracks was often brown and did not look safe to drink.

In another example, an installation visited by the watchdog had recently closed barracks after legionella bacteria, which causes potentially fatal Legionnaires' disease, was found in the building plumbing systems. GAO officials also said that only barracks with health care patients undergo water testing that could reveal legionella. They do not test water in other buildings "because they are not required to."

Officials at three of the 10 barracks told the watchdog that "service members are generally responsible for pest control, or for removing hazardous material from barracks, such as mold and sewage. Further, officials at one installation told us service members are responsible for cleaning biological waste that may remain in a barracks room after a suicide," the report said.

As of 2019, about 40% of active-duty service members were satisfied with military housing on base, including barracks, according to a survey cited in the report. The military manages nearly 9,000 barracks worldwide, and last fiscal year nearly 280,000 service members lived in barracks.

The government office made 31 recommendations to the Defense Department, most of which deal with updating standards and keeping better track of facilities. The Defense Department agreed with 23 of the recommendations and partially agreed with eight, and all recommendations are still open and will be updated when the agency takes actions in response to the recommendations.

Poor and potentially dangerous barrack conditions have plagued servicemen and women for  years.

The Defense Department said in a 2022 report that it found in 2019 that an estimated 175,000 people across two dozen military locations  where drinking water contained concentrations of what the Environmental Protection Agency calls "forever chemicals" that exceeded the EPA's advised exposure levels. The actual number of soldiers and their families who live on bases and were exposed to the toxic chemicals may be more than 640,000, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit health organization.

One of the most well-known examples of service members being exposed to chemicals in the drinking water occurred in U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina from the 1950s through the 1980s. Officials at the base initially denied any water problems, despite being warned otherwise by officials who conducted laboratory tests.

The Department of Health and Human Services estimated that as many as one million people may have been exposed to the toxic water chemicals from Camp Lejeune, and attorneys estimated last year that as many as half a million claims may be filed, according to Reuters. Thousands veterans have said their Veterans Affairs claims regarding Camp Lejeune have been wrongly denied, according to

The latest report comes as the military is already facing concerns about morale, recruitment and "woke" ideology amid serious security threats.

The Camp Lejeune Claims Center, a public-interest group that assists veterans and their families in getting legal and medical help, says that more than "1,100 individual Camp Lejeune federal lawsuits have been filed, though as of September 2023, none have reached a conclusion. In addition, more than 90,000 administrative claims have been submitted." 

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