From left, Adm. Michael M. Gilday, chief of naval operations, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Torro, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger, testify during the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of the Navy's budget request for fiscal year 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, April 28, 2023.

From left, Adm. Michael M. Gilday, chief of naval operations, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Torro, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger, testify during the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of the Navy's budget request for fiscal year 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, April 28, 2023. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers pressed Navy and Marine Corps officials on Friday to make quality-of-life improvements for sailors and Marines, from mental health care to gender parity to child care.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee said they continue to hear from service members who complain of long waitlists for child care, poor living conditions, sexism and insufficient access to suicide prevention services.

Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., said troops in her district are contending with a military child care waitlist that has ballooned to 4,000 children. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a Marine Corps veteran, said the services are also failing to properly advertise a new 988 suicide prevention hotline. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said he constantly hears about junior sailors struggling with subpar housing.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., admonished Navy and Marine Corps leaders for failing to properly address the hazing, harassment and sexual assault of women in naval aviation. She focused on Naval Air Station Pensacola, where she said men make sexual jokes and pull down women’s flight suit zippers and male instructors forcibly kiss female trainees.

“The part that makes me see red and the part that truly speaks of the dearth of leadership in the Department of Navy and in our Marine Corps is when these women step forward to report these things, they're shut down,” said Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot. “Is this the price that women are expected to pay to serve our nation?”

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, who appeared before the committee to defend the service’s fiscal 2024 budget, said both services need far more women in their ranks. He disputed they would face a hostile environment in the military, however.

“I’m looking for tough women to join the Navy and the Marine Corps and inspiring them in ways that proves to them that despite what Ms. Sherrill said, actually that there is hope for women, that they will be able to advance to the highest ranks in both the Marine Corps and the Navy,” he said.

Navy and Marine Corps officials did acknowledge persistent problems with providing troops and their families with access to child care and mental health services, describing them as among the top quality-of-life issues plaguing the services.

Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, said the average wait time for child care is an “unacceptable” 100 days. Much of the delay is due to the slow pace of hiring child care providers and competition with private child care centers that might offer more competitive wages, he said.

“We have got to cut down the application time,” Berger said. “We have brought up the pay now to be corresponding with outside the gate but the wait time is a real challenge.”

Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, said child care provider staffing is at about 80% and the waitlist for child care across the Navy has decreased from 8,000 last year to 5,500 this year. Still, the service is sometimes offering providers wages that are $5 above the market median and recruiting from colleges to help alleviate a surge of demand for child care in the summer, he said.

Efforts are also continuing to a mitigate a similar shortage of mental health care providers, service officials told lawmakers.

Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Va., said she heard mental health professionals aboard the USS George Washington are overwhelmed with the needs of sailors. The aircraft carrier, which has been docked for repairs since 2017, has become known in recent years for a spate of suicides among its crew members.

“Unfortunately, these sailors are not alone and several sailors assigned to other ships undergoing refueling and complex overhaul at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center in Norfolk have died by suicide within the past five years,” McClellan said. “I know for many of our sailors this seems like an unrelenting tragedy.”

Del Toro said the Defense Department is aggressively recruiting mental health professionals from the private sector but he believes the solution is for the Navy to “grow our own” mental health staff by training corpsmen to become mental health technicians.

“We need to actually train far many more corpsman and we're moving in that direction, it may take a year or two to get the number of mental health technicians that we need,” he said. “But it's tough to compete with the private sector… they're also extremely short-handed.”

In the meantime, the Navy is placing more chaplains on ships to offer sailors guidance and trying to minimize time spent aboard docked ships, Del Toro said. A government watchdog report last year found morale dropped among crew members who lived on ships undergoing maintenance.

Gilday said the services are doing their best to get sailors into barracks despite constraints in the law that do not allow junior service members on sea duty to receive a basic housing allowance, which forces them to stay on docked ships. Some of those restrictions are being waived, Gilday said, and the Navy is working with landlords to offer below market rents on apartments.

He implored Congress to approve the Navy and Marine Corps’ request for a significant bump in construction and restoration spending and said service members should be a top priority for lawmakers as they craft the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that lays out Pentagon priorities.

“I ask for your help now to invest in their quality of life,” Gilday said. “We’ve got to invest in where they live, where they work, where they eat, where they work out, all of that. They’ve earned it. We have to deliver.”

House lawmakers will address these issues in more depth on a new quality-of-life subcommittee, led by Bacon, that will launch in June.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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