Improving barracks to build trust at Fort Hood
By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 30, 2021
AUSTIN, Texas — When Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston met with leaders at Fort Hood earlier this month, one subject came up repeatedly – the barracks.
“I walked in and I was appalled,” one noncommissioned officer told Grinston during the Jan. 7 meeting.
The soldier had recently arrived at Fort Hood and she said the poor, crowded conditions of the barracks were shocking compared to other bases where she had been assigned.
“There are no walls,” she said. “They can’t get away from each other.”
Another NCO said soldiers put in maintenance requests, but no repairs are made.
“We have to kick doors in and say we need this to happen now,” he said in the meeting, which Stars and Stripes was allowed to attend under the condition none of the participants were named.
Grinston announced in October that the Army would spend nearly $10 billion on barracks renovations during the next 10 years. Fort Hood, one of the Army’s largest bases, has more barracks projects than any other base in the country, he told the group of about two dozen soldiers.
Congressional lawmakers also had noted Fort Hood’s barracks are overcrowded, outdated and in need of repair during their visit to the base in September. Lawmakers described conditions that included peeling paint, broken furniture, dilapidated window blinds and visible pest problems.
“In the military, the small things are big,” Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., who served as an Army Ranger, said during the congressional visit. “The command has a big job in front of it. They’ve got to get in front of units and fix this stuff quickly.”
At the same time, Fort Hood leaders are working to establish more trust with soldiers, a problem exposed following the disappearance and death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen in April. The leadership failures at the base were a major element of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee's report released Dec. 8.
The report, which was written by five civilians appointed by former Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to inspect the command climate and culture of the base, outlined how poor leadership at Fort Hood has led to circumstances where soldiers do not trust leaders, particularly when it comes to the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program. The barracks environment played a role in the report’s conclusions, with soldiers describing a lack of accountability for behavior in the barracks as well as poor living conditions.
Some female soldiers described situations where noncommissioned officers would walk into their room without knocking while they were partially undressed. On one occasion, the leader had to be forced out by another soldier.
“Soldiers in the barracks complained they were not afforded an appropriate level of personal privacy. Senior leaders barge in unannounced without regard for or respect for any personal boundaries. Several talked about the lack of doors and locks in sleeping areas of the barracks and bathrooms and the lack of shower curtains,” according to the report.
These concerns combined with the physical condition of some barracks contributed to a “disproportionate number” of soldiers living off-base, the report stated. The committee recommended the Army further investigate all housing at Fort Hood to “determine what actions might be taken to better address these quality-of-life issues.”
In October, Fort Hood’s commander, Lt. Gen. Pat White, began to focus in on the lack of trust to address many of the concerns highlighted by the report without waiting for any specific policy changes that had come from a level above his command. He ordered leaders take more time to re-engage with soldiers and get to know them on a more personal level, including visits to the barracks room or home of each soldier under their command.
Grinston's talk with soldiers on Jan. 7 was a review of this initiative.
Trying to be heard
Just hours after the Army released the Fort Hood report, White gathered nearly 2,000 soldiers to discuss the findings. He opened the microphone for questions.
The first one was about the living conditions of the barracks.
“Why are we forced to live in barracks with black mold, rats and water we can’t drink?” asked Pfc. Tony Chacon, a soldier assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
The next day, White visited the soldier’s room and agreed the conditions were not acceptable and pledged to get them fixed.
“Our soldiers deserve better. Period,” White said. “It’s important for us to hear from our troops -- their voice matters.”
Tyler Ewell, a former soldier who was stationed at Fort Hood, said he tried to raise these concerns before leaving the base in July, but he couldn’t get anyone beyond his first sergeant and battalion command sergeant major to listen.
Instead, he said his leadership posted cleaning procedures on how to fight mold and water damage that plagued many rooms inside his building and others of the same design. When crews did come to paint, barracks windows couldn’t be opened and fumes would linger for more than a week, he said.
“I absolutely loved everything I did in the Army. I loved going to work every day and the people I worked with, but the home environment I was facing was negative,” said Ewell, who left the Army as a promotable specialist.
He said the barracks were one of the factors in his decision to leave. He wanted privacy and the ability to close a door and not see one of his coworkers sitting next to him all the time.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Ewell said he wasn’t allowed to leave the building and the already difficult situation intensified.
“Being single in the Army was fun, but it was not the same standard that the Army gives to married soldiers. It’s the polar opposite,” he said. “The Army would never ask two families to occupy one home. But no one cares if single soldiers live in overcrowded or double occupancy housing."
About 12,500 of Fort Hood’s 37,000 soldiers live in the 99 barracks buildings on base and more than a decade of ongoing construction projects have forced units to cram soldiers together in rooms designed for single occupancy.
“This is due to a shortage of nearly 3,000 beds and having 17 barracks currently in renovation,” said Brian Dosa, director of Fort Hood’s Directorate of Public Works.
He estimates about 5,500 soldiers are doubled up and will remain that way until the base can build new barracks and renovate the remaining 21 in need of repair.
Five of those barracks recently began a $75 million renovation, Dosa said. Once complete, each soldier in these buildings will get their own room and a walk-in closet connected to a kitchenette and bathroom that is shared with one other soldier.
During Ewell’s two years with the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, he said he created an information packet, citing the regulation on the square footage of living space that the Army requires for soldiers and how Fort Hood was not meeting the standard. Specialists and below should get 90 square feet and sergeants and above should get 135 square feet, he said.
“There’s only one thing in Army regulations that makes a barracks room inadequate. That’s not the furniture, not the mold, none of that. The only thing measurable is the living space available,” Ewell said.
His room only had 176 square feet for two people to share, making it just short of the standard. Financial compensation is available to those soldiers who are living with less than the standard, but Ewell said he never received it.
Ewell would have small victories on occasion, “but it was similar to placing a Band-Aid on a broken leg,” he said. More often, he said he was told to “suck it up.”
Now out of the Army and living in Louisville, Ky., Ewell said he’s continuing to push the issue because his friends still enlisted can’t speak freely about the problems that they are facing.
Finding space, making it work
The failings highlighted in the report, including the conditions for soldiers living in barracks, “cut deep to the core,” said Col. Kevin Bradley, who took command of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment in December after its previous commander was fired following the report’s release.
In just a month on the job, Bradley said he’s already taken steps to help soldiers struggling in the barracks. He even recognized Chacon in a video on social media for his “courage” to address his living conditions with the base commander.
“Some of those bigger issues are going to take time and I know I can’t influence that piece of it,” Bradley said. “We are working to make the buildings we have better.”
That includes cleaning up common spaces, personalizing buildings with unit insignia, and adding lighting in areas where soldiers have said it feels unsafe at night.
“We want that when soldiers’ families come to visit, or friends, that they are proud to take them there and take a picture in front of where they live,” Bradley said.
Some in the regiment live in buildings where the private rooms were built without doors – a previous base commander’s idea that removing doors could help prevent suicides. All work to install doors in these rooms should be completed by April, Dosa said.
Single soldiers of the rank of sergeant and below are typically required to live in the barracks. To ease overcrowding, Bradley said he’s approving more waivers to move off base and asking Dosa’s department for more buildings. The focus is reducing the number of soldiers who share a bathroom.
Bradley is also allowing soldiers to choose their roommates.
“It’s important that the person you’re living with and coming back to on a day-to-day basis is someone you’re comfortable with and feel safe with and that person can be your confidant, your buddy, the person who picks you up when you have a bad day,” he said.
Public Works has also pledged to clean the ventilation ducts in some of the base’s oldest barracks, known as the Hammerhead barracks.
“This is in addition to upgrading the bathroom ventilation fans to better evacuate warm, moist air that results from four soldiers sharing one bathroom,” Dosa said.
As funding continues to trickle toward the remaining 21 barracks in need of repair at Fort Hood, Dosa said maintenance remains a top priority for Public Works. He also encouraged soldiers use the newly released smartphone app, titled the Army Maintenance Application, to submit requests.
“Communication is critical, and I believe that this tool will help keep those lines open and information flowing, in order to facilitate more timely repairs in our barracks,” Dosa said. “However, we do ask that requests impacting soldiers’ health or safety be submitted by telephone to minimize any potential delays.”
After his listening sessions with soldiers, Grinston completed his visit at Fort Hood by touring the barracks for soldiers in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
During the tour, he visited the room of two women in the infantry, who he believed had really put in time to make their shared room a better space to live in.
Pfc. Kaitlynn Willoughby and Spc. Heavenlee Trip also expressed enthusiasm for their work, so Grinston, with the support of Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, promoted both on the spot. He posted a video on Instagram of the impromptu ceremony in their barracks room.
“Sometimes, our soldiers are out there just doing the right things and it’s easy to miss it,” Grinston wrote.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston promoted two soldiers on the spot this month during a tour of the barracks at Fort Hood, Texas. He believed they had put in extra effort to make their barracks room a home and were also enthusiastic about their work in the infantry.
After hearing concerns from leadership at Fort Hood, Texas, about the conditions of the barracks, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston toured the living space of soldiers in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment. He also spoke with leaders about how to address soldiers’ concerns while waiting for pledged funding to be released for renovations.