Lack of workers in rural Louisiana delays construction and renovations to barracks at Fort Polk
Stars and Stripes April 26, 2023
FORT POLK, La. — Pvt. Camilo Garcia opened the door to his barracks room Tuesday to welcome Army Secretary Christine Wormuth into the small, well-maintained and fresh-smelling space.
To the left sat his neatly made bed with a row of baseball caps hanging on the wall. To the right was the refrigerator and kitchen counter complete with a small stove, a sink and a countertop cooking appliance.
Wormuth asked the soldier about his experiences with mold, air-conditioning and how quickly his maintenance requests are filled, and was happy to hear he’d had minor issues, which had all been resolved.
Garcia’s only complaints were the lack of privacy and the fact that the only window was in his roommate’s room, which has a door.
“I don't think I've seen anything that concerned me, which is a positive surprise,” Wormuth said about her visit to Fort Polk. “Compared to what I saw at Schofield Barracks (Hawaii) a few months ago, it’s definitely much better. I found that reassuring.”
Brig. Gen. David Gardner, commander of Fort Polk, said he chose Garcia’s room to show Wormuth as an example of the worst on post. Not because of the quality of the room but because Garcia is one of about 160 soldiers now living doubled up in a single-occupancy room because of long-delayed construction.
The base has 38 barracks buildings with six under renovation, Gardner said. In May, construction will finish on another building and allow the number of soldiers living doubled up to drop to about 50. The work is updating the living space for soldiers, the ventilation systems, improving energy efficiency and general upkeep for the buildings that were originally constructed in the 1970s.
That construction has faced major delays because of a lack of skilled labor in the area, acquiring supplies during the coronavirus pandemic and hurricanes that struck the region, project managers told Wormuth.
Wormuth visited the base to review quality-of-life issues that affect soldiers and their families. About 7,970 soldiers are assigned to Fort Polk, and about 60% of troops and their families live on the post, which is higher than most bases in the Army because there’s little housing available in the local community. The total population of the base is more than 32,300.
Nearly two years into the job as Army secretary, the visit was part of Wormuth’s ongoing efforts to get out to Army installations and see the conditions at bases for herself. She said she’s paid particular attention to quality-of-life programs because of the direct impact they have on soldiers’ work.
“I think that when our soldiers are content, they're much more likely to be performing well. I think soldiers who are distracted, worrying about their kids, worrying about child care … that's a soldier whose mind is on something else, and not their work,” Wormuth said.
In family housing and barracks, the age of facilities and lack of updates are responsible for some problems, such as mold growth. Lack of oversight on private contracts for maintenance of family housing exacerbated those problems, and the Army has since tried to improve oversight on the companies.
“I do think that [the private companies] are, they are stepping up to their obligations. They know they've got to produce on maintenance and work orders and things like that,” Wormuth said.
For barracks, the Army has dedicated billions for renovation projects, but those take time to complete. In the meantime, she said it’s important to make certain that housing for soldiers is safe and that commanders are doing everything that they can to work with what they have.
“There is very strong interest and bipartisan interest in Congress about the state of Army housing, both family housing and barracks. There’s also very strong support for greater investment in Army housing and barracks,” Wormuth said.
The focus of lawmakers has turned to understanding the importance of housing in the overall care and retention of soldiers as opposed to previous concerns about the mismanagement of living quarters, she said.
Fort Polk, which is in the piney woods of west Louisiana about 60 miles west of Alexandria, is one of four bases under the close watch of an Army quality-of-life task force because of its remote location, Wormuth said. The others are Fort Wainwright, Alaska, Fort Irwin, Calif., and Fort Hood, Texas. Fort Hood is also under review to make certain the Army follows through with recommendations of an independent review commission’s report in December 2020. The report of the Fort Hood Independent Review Commission found leaders at the base had neglected the barracks and quality-of-life issues in lieu of readiness, and ongoing problems, such as poor lighting in communal spaces, made soldiers feel unsafe.
After the tour of Fort Polk’s barracks, Wormuth said she was pleased overall with how base officials have worked to improve the experience of living in a rural community. The nearest city outside the post gate, Leesville, has a population of about 5,400. In the past year, the base has opened 10 recreational facilities, including an indoor play area for children, a renovated bowling alley and a space for soldiers to play video games, practice instruments and shoot pool.
While Fort Polk’s remoteness is ideal for the Army to test brigade combat teams at the Joint Readiness Training Center, it has made quality-of-life improvements a challenge. The construction to renovate the barracks is about 700 days behind schedule, primarily because of a lack of labor in the surrounding area, said Col. Sam Smith, Fort Polk garrison commander.
Typically, construction workers will surge to the area for 90-day stints from the East and West Coasts or the Houston area, he said. However, the post has about 30 ongoing construction projects that are competing for that same labor needed on the barracks projects. That includes about $92 million marked to renovate family housing at the post that dates to the 1970s and 80s.
“For every project that happens on the installation and outside, we are competing with ourselves,” Smith said.
Officials have also worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to encourage companies to bid on multiple contracts at Fort Polk to improve completion times, while also reviewing other monetary incentives that could be available to entice more workers to the projects.
Smith expects all barracks renovations to finish within the next year. Aside from doubling occupancy, units have also selected 328 high-performing sergeants and promotable specialists to live in two-bedroom houses in the Fort Polk family housing program. They must follow barracks rules, Smith said.
In Garcia’s barracks room, Wormuth teased the soldier, asking if he’d only washed the dishes because he knew she was coming. She also offered him advice to rotate with his roommate every few months, so they could both have times of privacy and access to the window.
Later, she said it’s so important that soldiers such as Garcia have a good experience in the Army. This concern has been heightened since the Army failed to meet its recruiting goal last year and is projected to miss it again this year.
“If soldiers go to a particular duty station, and have a suboptimal experience, and then they're coming up for potential reenlistment, where they are and the kind of amenities they have may directly impact their decisions,” she said. “When they go back to their hometowns, or wherever they may relocate to, they don't have a positive Army story to tell. That doesn't help us.”