Army moves some $115M to fund rapid closure of Fort Bragg’s troubled Smoke Bomb Hill barracks
Stars and Stripes September 9, 2022
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Pfc. Austin Robertson was conflicted when he learned last month that he would have to leave his barracks room for another on the other side of the Army base because senior leaders had elected to condemn his and 16 other buildings housing mostly junior soldiers.
The 18-year-old is just five months into his tenure at the sprawling post — his first duty station since finishing initial military training. Robertson said he felt packing, moving and unpacking would be an unnecessary hassle. But he added he knew he was moving to a nicer barracks that was not known to have the issues plaguing his 1970s-era quarters at the now condemned Smoke Bomb Hill complex — relentless mold and an outdated central heating and air condition system that “hardly worked at all.”
“My [air conditioning] when it would even work, would barely push out any air,” Robertson said Thursday of his room at Smoke Bomb Hill — Fort Bragg’s oldest barracks from which the Army is now working to move nearly 1,200 soldiers. “I saw the new barracks and all, and I know the air conditioning works. And, really, I don’t have that much stuff anyway. It’s all just going in a couple duffle bags.”
Army leaders said Thursday that they would spend some $145 million in the next 12 to 18 months to demolish 12 of Smoke Bomb Hill’s 17 buildings and refurbish five others, which were deemed salvageable. Maj. Gen. Brian Mennes, the deputy commander of the 18th Airborne Corps who has led Fort Bragg’s efforts to address the dilapidated barracks, said the post had already secured the funding needed to address those projects, including an unplanned $115 million that was reallotted within the Army budget.
Further planned projects to build some 12 new barracks buildings by 2028 to replace those being demolished will require the consent of Congress. Post officials did not say Thursday how much those projects could ultimately cost.
Speeding up new barracks
The Army had been planning to replace the Smoke Bomb Hill barracks before a late July inspection by the service’s top enlisted soldier, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, kick-started the installation’s efforts to shutter the buildings, officials said.
The primary issue was an antiquated and inefficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, which was going offline regularly and proving too costly to repair, according to Col. John Wilcox, Fort Bragg’s garrison commander. The systems are designed to pull water out of the air. But because they were not functioning properly, soldiers were forced to live in hot rooms and mold grew in the barracks.
Army leaders did not plan to demolish or replace most of those barracks for several more years.
“We got to where it was the height of summer, it’s superhot, we’re seeing more mold growth than usual, more HVAC technical problems than usual … with the [system] going down,” Wilcox said. “The question became not just can you [refurbish] this [HVAC system], can you refurb it using old technology that we were beholden to in this location, and the assessment was done, and it became … ‘OK. We’re moving these soldiers out.’”
A walk through one of the condemned Smoke Bomb Hill barracks buildings on Thursday showed mold in bathrooms, and on refrigerators and air condition ducts. The rooms also had other problems including missing floor tiles, beat up cabinets and small holes in at least one wall.
Five of the buildings were deemed “decent enough” to be refurbished, Mennes said.
Two of those buildings had already been designated for renovation, said Lt. Col. Jon Klink, the 18th Airborne Corps’ senior engineer. Those renovations, estimated to cost about $30 million, were included in the Army’s fiscal 2022 budget and are scheduled to be contracted by the end of the year and then completed in 18 to 24 months, he said.
After Grinston’s inspection, Fort Bragg leaders also determined the other three barracks were in good enough shape to be renovated, but officials tagged them as needing a “rapid renovation,” Klink said. The Army intends to spend some $75 million rebuilding those barracks within 12 months once contracts are filled by the end of September.
The remaining $40 million will pay for the other building’s demolition, Klink said.
That process is not as simple as just knocking the buildings down, the lieutenant colonel noted.
“A lot of people think that there's going to be wrecking ball, and it's not that way,” Klink said. “You actually tear it down from the inside out. There’s a lot of stuff that gets salvaged, stuff put in storage, and you have to build all of that into the cost for the demolition contract.”
Suddenly shuttering 17 of Fort Bragg’s 129 barracks is not simple, Mennes said. The post had already been crunched for space for single soldiers without the housing cushion that it had for many years as units regularly deployed overseas. Now it is asking soldiers to move across the installation and share buildings with other units.
“It is real difficult,” the general said. “But we are going to make sure every soldier has a place to live, and that it’s a place to live that gives them a good quality of life.”
For example, Robertson’s unit — Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion of the 18th Airborne Corps — is moving into space in the barracks for the 82nd Airborne Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade. The quarters are somewhat larger and slightly newer, having been built in the 1980s.
Robertson said the air conditioning worked well in the room that he expects to move into Friday. On a media tour Thursday of Robertson’s new barracks, Fort Bragg leaders noted the quarters were not perfect. Several rooms had signs posted for needed fixes, for example. The rooms all contain dehumidifiers, as one effort to combat potential mold problems.
So far, the Army has moved more than 320 soldiers out of the Smoke Bomb Hill barracks and into new quarters elsewhere on post. Mennes said the pace of movement was accelerating, and he still anticipated moving some 700 soldiers to new barracks by the end of this month.
Almost 500 soldiers are expected to move to private housing either on or off the installation, the general said. It will likely take longer to find adequate housing for those soldiers, Mennes said, noting he hoped to have them moved by October.
“Our hope is not to rush anybody out to a place that they're not comfortable with,” he said.
Lt. Col. Teresa Pearce, Fort Bragg’s public health director, said despite the condemned buildings’ myriad problems, the health of the soldiers remaining in the old barracks is not likely at risk. Pearce, a medical doctor, said no soldiers from Smoke Bomb Hill had made any official reports of health problems related to the mold, which can cause allergic reactions in some people.
The Army is paying for soldiers to move out of the barracks, providing housing allowance for those who move off post, and granting stipends to help them pay any fees associated with setting up a new house, such as utility fees or security deposits, Mennes said.
Fort Bragg soldiers with the most seniority are allowed the first opportunities to move off the post, he added. Most of those who will move are sergeants, though Wilcox noted a small number of specialists or corporals were also granted the opportunity.
“We really wanted to make sure we weren't going to disadvantage soldiers by moving them off post,” Wilcox said. “A young [private first class] is not going to make enough money to be able to live in good housing off post, so we don’t want to unintentionally harm a soldier by doing that. A senior sergeant, though, is probably in a better position financially and experience-wise to live safely off post.”