<![CDATA[Army Times]]>https://www.armytimes.comFri, 14 Jul 2023 04:23:10 +0000en1hourly1<![CDATA[Here are the rules to get reimbursed for shipping a pet in 2024 ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/06/29/here-are-the-rules-to-get-reimbursed-for-shipping-a-pet-in-2024/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/06/29/here-are-the-rules-to-get-reimbursed-for-shipping-a-pet-in-2024/Thu, 29 Jun 2023 21:30:38 +0000Editor’s note: This article has been updated with new information from Air Force Aid Society.

Service members will be able to get reimbursed for shipping Fido to their new duty station starting next year.

Troops on PCS orders may be reimbursed for the eligible costs of relocating one dog or one cat per move, under a new Defense Department policy. Reimbursement can be up to $550 if the move is made within the continental United States, and up to $2,000 if the move is made to or from overseas.

The new policy, set to take effect Jan. 1, 2024, doesn’t apply to the current PCS season and isn’t retroactive. However, the military relief societies are continuing to provide assistance for eligible families to help pay for pet shipping costs. Since 2021, the three relief societies have provided a combined $813,000 in this assistance for military families.

The reimbursement was authorized in the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. Although the law authorizes up to $4,000 per pet for transportation to and from overseas, DoD officials set the maximum at $2,000. A Marine Corps administrative message signed June 9 cited “significant unbudgeted costs of this new authority” as a reason for pushing the benefit to Jan. 1, 2024.

Over the past few years, transportation of pets during PCS has become increasingly difficult and expensive for military families.

Realizing the financial hardship military families were facing to transport their furry family members to and from overseas, the military relief societies have stepped up to help service members with the cost. According to Army Emergency Relief and Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, their average assistance for pet travel is around $3,000 per client. That’s not necessarily $3,000 per pet. According to AER spokesman retired Army Col. Sean Ryan, officials don’t have information on how many pets the clients are transporting, but they cap their assistance at $5,500.

Air Force Aid Society’s average amount per client is $1,000.

The fine print

♦ “Reasonable and substantiated” costs that can be reimbursed include mandatory microchipping, boarding fees, hotel service charges, licensing fees at the new permanent duty station, and pet shipping fees, if the service member flies rather than drives or the pet is shipped separately. Troops should keep their receipts.

♦ For those outside the continental U.S., eligible costs also include quarantine fees and fees for testing titer levels (antibody blood tests) for entry, as well as the costs above.

♦ When transoceanic travel is involved, the service member must use government or government-provided travel for the pet, if available, or the service member won’t be authorized reimbursement for transportation costs. These government options are lower cost, but space is limited and available only on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, visit the Air Mobility Command pet travel page.

♦ Service members are responsible for following all the rules for importing and exporting a pet, in order to be eligible. If the pet is denied entry, the service member could be denied reimbursement, according to DoD.

♦ The changes are scheduled to be published in the Joint Travel Regulations on Jan. 1, 2024, when the new benefit takes effect.

Military relief societies’ assistance

Army Emergency Relief plans to continue its assistance for pet transportation costs, which they began in 2022.

“We will reevaluate after the new DoD policy is implemented,” said AER spokesman Ryan. “We also realize many Army households have more than one pet.”

The organization’s “zero-interest bridge loan or grant will help reduce the financial burden until the soldier is reimbursed for their travel,” he noted.

The average amount of assistance provided has been $3,000 per soldier, he said.

Since the AER program started in 2022, they’ve helped 48 soldiers with $144,000 in assistance, Ryan said. That includes 45 zero-interest loans, two grants and one loan-grant combination.

Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society began its pet travel assistance program in May 2021 and has provided $252,973 in zero-interest loans to 87 sailors and Marines, said spokeswoman Gillian Gonzalez. They, too, will continue to provide assistance and will reevaluate the program once the DoD reimbursements start. There may be continuing needs as service members wait for reimbursement or need to pay for more than one animal.

Air Force Aid Society is continuing the pet assistance it started providing in 2021. By August of that year AFAS had provided $90,550 in financial assistance to 95 airmen and guardians. In 2022 and 2023 to date, the organization has provided $325,937 in loans and grants to 332 airmen and guardians.

“Pets are an extended part of the family, and even more so for our airmen and guardians,” said Robert York, chief mission advancement officer for Air Force Aid Society. “It’s an important part of our program and we’re happy to provide this assistance.”

Airman 1st Class Taylor Slater
<![CDATA[DoD aims for more consistent support for special needs families]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/2023/06/28/dod-aims-for-more-consistent-support-for-special-needs-families/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/2023/06/28/dod-aims-for-more-consistent-support-for-special-needs-families/Wed, 28 Jun 2023 17:37:48 +0000Military families with special needs should expect more consistency and better support in the Exceptional Family Member Program in the wake of new Defense Department guidance.

All branches of the military offer an Exceptional Family Member Program, which includes a variety of personnel, medical and family support functions. About 110,000 active duty service members are enrolled. But up to now, each service established its own guidelines, and the rules could even differ from one installation to another in the same service.

As before, a service member’s enrollment in the EFMP is mandatory when a family member meets the enrollment criteria. But the updated DoD-wide policy not only standardizes those criteria, but also spells out the enrollment process.

For years, military families with special needs have detailed their problems with the availability and quality of medical care and special education. Following a February 2020 congressional hearing, lawmakers mandated EFMP standardization and improvements in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

“This is exciting news for families enrolled in EFMP,” said Patricia Montes Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military and community family policy, in DoD’s announcement of the changes. “These enhancements demonstrate that we are listening and focusing on ways to help families thrive in military life.”

But some knowledgeable observers argue the new policy doesn’t go far enough.

Michelle Norman is executive director and founder of the nonprofit Partners in Promise, which works to protect the rights of military children in special education and disability communities to ensure they receive equal access to education.

“While we had hoped standardization would minimize program variability, this instruction still puts many important decisions back in the hands of individual service branches,” she said.

But the new instruction is a step in the right direction, she added.

“We appreciate the hard work and many hours DoD and military service leaders poured into standardizing processes of the Exceptional Family Member Program,” Norman said.

One of its good points, she said, is requiring “warm hand-offs” during permanent change of station moves. The losing installation’s EFMP family support office hands off the family to the gaining installation’s office. That cooperative approach will, she hopes, decrease the wait times for specialized medical care and special education services and support after a PCS. Their 2022 survey data shows families are waiting more than four months for those services.

“However, we are disappointed to see the lack of standardization of special education support and resources that vary greatly between the military services,” Norman said. “Military children in special education face delays in identification, eligibility and receipt of special education support and services. EFMP parents face inconsistent support during every PCS.”

Norman said it’s “frustrating” that the instruction didn’t include requirements to collect and report data on special education disputes and their outcomes.

DoD officials say their work isn’t finished.

“Enrollment in EFMP provides families access to critical services and support, no matter their service branch or location. We will continue our work to enhance EFMP to better serve our military families,” said Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in the DoD announcement.

One of the improvements is in the assignment coordination process. The instruction lays out the responsibilities and processes of the services’ personnel offices, the designated EFMP staff and the service member.

“This ensures the family’s special needs are considered during the assignment process,” said Tomeshia S. Barnes, associate director of DoD’s Office of Special Needs, in the announcement. “Enhancements include each service branch using the same criteria for determining the availability of services and the ability for service members to request a second review of assignment decisions.

“Importantly, service members now learn the reason for declined orders,” Barnes said.

Other actions taken to standardize the rules include:

♦ At least one personal contact with every family must be completed each year by the EFMP family support provider assigned to them. All families using their service’s respite care program will also get at least one personal contact annually. These providers help families become their own advocates by helping them identify and connect with resources, expert consultants, and education and community support. The warm hand-off during PCS can’t be counted as the annual personal contact.

♦ Requirements for disenrolling a family from EFMP are spelled out.

♦ Respite care changes will be implemented in a phased approach. These include providing a consistent number of respite care hours across the services, which will mean hours will increase for some families and decrease for others, depending on the service branch. There’s also a standard mechanism for determining eligibility and how many hours. Adult dependents are now eligible for respite care. Families will also be able to ask for additional services based on exceptional circumstances.

The services won’t be allowed to limit the availability of the respite care benefit when eligible families are also receiving external respite care services.

The instruction notes that respite care is a program benefit, not an entitlement. The instruction requires the services to monitor the provision of respite to care to ensure the programs are compliant with DoD and service-specific policies.

“While we had hoped standardization would minimize military service variability, we are hopeful that each military service takes to the opportunity to offer much needed clarification as they write their own instructions,” Norman said.

“At the end of the day, all EFMP families want is for the program to add value, not confusion.”

Staff Sgt. Kevin Iinuma
<![CDATA[Pre-K for 4-year-olds to start in the fall at this DoD school in Japan]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/06/22/pre-k-for-4-year-olds-to-start-in-the-fall-at-this-dod-school-in-japan/https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/06/22/pre-k-for-4-year-olds-to-start-in-the-fall-at-this-dod-school-in-japan/Thu, 22 Jun 2023 22:31:04 +0000Prekindergarten is opening for 4-year-olds this fall at M.C. Perry Primary School on Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan — the first in what officials hope will be universal pre-K for military children attending Department of Defense schools.

Students who turn 4 on or before Sept. 1 are eligible, subject to the existing eligibility and enrollment policies at Department of Defense Education Activity schools.

To date, 46 students are registered for pre-K at Iwakuni, and officials estimate that total enrollment could reach around 95 to 100 students, said DoDEA spokesman Will Griffin.

This will be a test run of sorts for DoDEA’s plan to bring pre-K to an estimated 6,000 eligible students across the 60 military communities served by DoDEA schools. Officials continue to plan and analyze the resources and facilities to determine what’s needed to start the pre-k programs, but all is contingent on funding.

Defense officials have asked for $90.4 million for a full-day program for all eligible 4-year-old children at DoDEA schools, according to budget documents. The defense policy and funding bills are making their way through the legislative process now.

If the funding is approved, DoDEA will start phasing in the program during school year 2024-2025. Schools in the first phase would have appropriate facilities already available; those in the second phase would require minor facility adjustments, such as bathrooms and playgrounds, according to an earlier DoDEA announcement. Those in the last phase would need more extensive modifications or construction to increase classrooms.

Officials have said the programs would be implemented over a five-year-period, but the analysis is ongoing.

“It would be premature to announce a date for full implementation until the analysis is complete and the full scope of requirements” is known, Griffin said. That could include significant renovation or construction of facilities at some locations.

Defense school officials are using funds from their fiscal 2023 budget for the early implementation at MC Perry, Griffin said.

“Early implementation in Iwakuni provides DoDEA with the opportunity to test and validate procedures and plans developed for the later system-wide rollout of universal pre-kindergarten,” Griffin said. The existing classrooms and facilities at MC Perry required minimal changes to meet specific requirements, he said.

Supporters of universal pre-K contend that earlier, high-quality education can make a positive difference in a child’s future. Some states have pre-kindergarten programs, but it’s a patchwork of different programs and eligibility.

A full-day program for 4-year-olds would also help address the critical shortage of child care at many installations, advocates have said.

Separately, President Joe Biden’s administration has proposed funding for a federal-state partnership to provide free, universal preschool for all American children.

Parents at MCAS Iwakuni who want to register their 4-year-olds can visit https://dodeasis.myfollett.com/aspen/logon.do. That log-in page says the system will be unavailable through July 3 as officials prepare for the school year.

According to the school’s Facebook page, the pre-K school day will run from 7:55 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays except Tuesday, when it will end at 1:15 p.m.

Iurii Kuzo
<![CDATA[More families file claims against Navy for Hawaii water contamination]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/health-care/2023/06/21/more-families-file-claims-against-navy-for-hawaii-water-contamination/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/health-care/2023/06/21/more-families-file-claims-against-navy-for-hawaii-water-contamination/Wed, 21 Jun 2023 18:28:56 +0000Another 1,002 military family members and civilians filed administrative claims against the government Tuesday, seeking monetary damages related to fuel-contaminated drinking water in Hawaii.

Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, they allege the Navy released jet fuel and other contaminants from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility into the families’ drinking water at least twice in 2021 — May 6 and Nov. 20 — and didn’t immediately disclose the incidents.

This brings the total to 1,499 administrative claims filed against the Navy, said Kristina Baehr, founder of Just Well Law, one of three law firms representing nearly 3,000 people affected by the water crisis. These SF-95 administrative claims are required before individuals can sue the government. If their claims are denied, they will join the pending federal court lawsuit in Honolulu. To date, the government hasn’t granted any of the administrative claims, Baehr said. The claims are generally seeking monetary damages related to medical issues and medical monitoring now and possibly for the rest of their lives.

“The Navy has accepted responsibility for contaminating our clients’ drinking water with jet fuel,” Baehr said. “But the Navy refuses to accept responsibility for any long-term harm. These claims offer the Navy an opportunity to make it right, just as they have promised.”

Navy officials in Hawaii didn’t comment before publication, but in the past officials have declined to comment on these cases, citing pending litigation.

More clients are contacting the attorneys every day, Baehr said. The statute of limitations for filing the administrative claims expires in November, and the attorneys expect to continue taking clients until Aug. 15, to allow enough time to meet the deadline. “I want to be sure we get what we need from people to file their claims,” she said.

There are currently 296 plaintiffs in the federal case, she said. Baehr’s firm, Just Well Law, the Hosoda Law Group and Motley Rice LLC are representing the people alleging they were affected by the tainted water.

All told, more than 93,000 individuals were affected, from 9,715 households in 19 different communities on the Navy water system of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. They include residents of two Army communities and Air Force communities in the Hickam side. Some Hawaiian civilians were also affected, living in homes supplied by Navy water.

On Nov. 28, 2021, military families reported smelling fuel odors and seeing an oily film in their tap water. But some had reported mysterious abdominal pain, vomiting, memory loss, skin rashes, eye irritation, and teeth and gum issues even before the signs of fuel appeared. At first, Navy officials told residents it was okay to drink the water.

“The Navy knew that there was fuel in the water and yet reassured residents for days that ‘there was no indication that the water was not safe to drink,’” Baehr said.

'Why weren't you there to protect us?' Hawaii military families grill Navy leaders about toxic water

She said 67% of her firm’s clients are still experiencing health problems after the 2021 contaminations.

“The majority of my clients are still sick more than 18 months later,” she said. “And yet this was entirely preventable — if only the Navy had told them to stop drinking the water that the Navy knew was contaminated.”

Two-thirds of their clients have experienced neurological symptoms, and two-thirds have had skin problems; 56% have had reported gastrointestinal problems; and 41% respiratory problems, Baehr said.

Nearly half of the firm’s clients have moved out of their contaminated houses. Of those who stayed, 83% couldn’t afford to leave. Of those who moved, 87% moved off the island, she said. In addition, 12% of their clients have lost wages related to the crisis.

In early December, 2021, military officials offered families the option to move to hotels at government expense, and thousands did so. Water, laundry services and shower facilities were provided to those who chose to stay in their houses.

After massive flushing operations and testing — overseen by a joint working group of experts from the Navy and Army, the Hawaii Department of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency — the water in the last of 19 zones was declared safe to drink on March 18, 2022.

On March 7, 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced his decision to close the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, and to remove the fuel reserves from the 20 underground tanks, redistributing the fuel across the Indo-Pacific region. Officials have begun the process to defuel and shut down the tanks.

Cpl. Hannah Adams
<![CDATA[Employment proposal may help military spouses, but it could hurt, too]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/21/employment-proposal-may-help-military-spouses-but-it-could-hurt-too/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/21/employment-proposal-may-help-military-spouses-but-it-could-hurt-too/Wed, 21 Jun 2023 14:24:43 +0000A U.S. lawmaker wants to give military spouses employment protections similar to those given to activated Guard and Reserve troops returning to civilian jobs, but some experts worry it will cause more harm than good.

The legislation, introduced June 7 by Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Pa., a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would incorporate spouses into most of the provisions of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act — and go further.

This new proposal, for example, would add a provision giving spouses reemployment rights if their absence from a job is due to a permanent change of station move and the absence doesn’t exceed two consecutive years, or up to five years cumulatively.

USERRA protects military members and veterans from public or private employment discrimination on the basis of service, and allows them to return to their civilian jobs following a period of uniformed service.

The Department of Labor included the request for proposed changes to USERRA in its fiscal 2024 budget request, asking for 10 positions and $5.8 million to implement it.

Although military spouse unemployment isn’t tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on a regular basis, surveys show the unemployment rate among military spouses has remained at above 20% for more than 10 years.

“Maintaining traditional employment and advancing in careers while relocating every few years — often while raising a family — has historically been an enormous challenge for military spouses,” Deluzio said in a statement provided to Military Times. “By expanding USERRA protections we can make sure military families have more options and military spouses can more easily find employment and feel confident in their job security.”

But lawmakers and advocates had questions — and mixed opinions — about the proposal during a June 14 hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs economic opportunity subcommittee.

“I have deep reservations about this,” said Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wisc., the panel’s chairman. “I don’t think it’s the United States government’s place to exercise these mandates on companies when the person that’s involved didn’t sign [a military service] contract.”

Biden looks to boost military spouse employment with new order

Van Orden also questioned whether it could have unintended consequences for spouses and employers.

The Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States supports the change, said Kevin Hollinger, the group’s legislative director. “We believe if there was a contract that was signed with the United States government, it was called ‘I do,’” he told lawmakers.

In his written statement, Hollinger said the change could benefit National Guard spouses who face increased family hardships when the service member deploys. “Spouses often must take time away from their employment to figure out new schedules. At a moment’s notice, they become the sole head of the house. Handling time off is often the only way for spouses to get acclimated.”

But under the Family and Medical Leave Act, “military spouses already have the right to take time off of work for deployment and reintegration specific needs,” said Meredith M. Smith, government relations deputy director of the National Military Family Association, in written testimony.

“We are concerned that the requirement to hold a position open for a military spouse following a military-ordered move would be seen as burdensome by employers, potentially making them less likely to hire spouses,” Smith said.

While USERRA aims to meet the needs of reservists who return to their civilian community when not activated, that’s not necessarily the case for military spouses.

“Most active duty military spouses, in particular, do not have a reasonable expectation they will return to a duty station if they have to leave their job due to military orders,” Smith said.

And more generally, businesses might become hesitant to hire spouses because of potential litigation, costs, administrative burdens and questions about how the legislation possibly conflicts with state laws relating to pension systems.

“We are concerned about the unintended consequences,” Smith told lawmakers. “We think the spirit of the legislation is good, to ensure military spouses are able to find and maintain employment, but we have questions about whether or not USERRA is the appropriate tool to ensure that is a reality for military families.”

The USERRA expansion might be helpful in federal government employment, however, Smith noted. Under the proposal, the federal agency would have to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that military spouses would be reemployed.

“Adopting this provision would be an important step to helping the federal government reach its goal of becoming an employer of choice for military spouses,” Smith said. But further clarification is needed on which reasons for leaving a position would qualify for the reemployment provisions, she noted.

James Rodriguez, the Department of Labor’s assistant secretary for Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, said the department “wholeheartedly supports” the idea.

“Expanding USERRA’s anti-discrimination and reemployment protections to eligible military spouses would limit barriers to military spouse employment,” he said. These protections “would also help military spouses build successful careers without frequent interruption and restarts; bolster the financial stability of their families, especially during their service member’s transition from military service to civilian life; and promote long-term financial stability for military families.”

Asked by Van Orden whether he thought there is potential for waste, fraud and abuse, Rodriguez replied, “I don’t believe military spouses would take advantage of the system that’s there to support them. I believe they actually want to work, and they’re looking for opportunities to work and looking for opportunities to keep their jobs so they can support their families. I think that’s a misrepresentation of military spouses.”

As for concerns about the federal government overreaching into private industry, Rodriguez said, “think it’s important for us in the federal government to help work with our private industries to get them to understand why spouses’ retention and employment is so important to the service of the individual.”

Smith at NMFA suggested two alternative steps that have long been advocated by various groups: tracking military spouse unemployment and adding military spouses as a target group under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. This would give employers a tax credit for hiring military spouses.

“It is also an incentivizing tool for employers rather than one that could be viewed as causing potential staffing burdens,” she said.

Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL senior chief, said he understands the hardships of spouses, having been married to his Navy wife for 30 years.

However, he said, “we have to balance fiscal responsibility with also making sure the civil liberties of individual companies are not violated. They are entities with people, too, and we have to make sure we don’t upset the apple cart of the workforce by creating unintended consequences,” he said.

“Let’s see if we can get this right.” In military spouses, he said, “We have the most highly educated and highly unemployed demographic in the country. If we can do something, I’m more than happy to do that. I just want to make sure we get it correct.”

<![CDATA[Proposed housing council would give military families a voice ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/20/proposed-housing-council-would-give-military-families-a-voice/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/20/proposed-housing-council-would-give-military-families-a-voice/Tue, 20 Jun 2023 18:58:48 +0000Lawmakers are seeking to strengthen oversight of privatized military housing by creating a new Defense Department council that deals specifically with military families’ residential issues.

“It is unacceptable for any of our service members and their families to live in unsafe military housing with black mold, collapsed roofs or exposed electrical wires because DoD is failing in its oversight responsibilities,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., chair of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, in a statement. The bill she introduced in the Senate Tuesday is co-sponsored by Sens Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the House by Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., with co-sponsor Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla.

“My bipartisan bill with senators Shaheen and Hirono and representatives Jacobs and Bice will mandate increased oversight of military housing, including DoD’s creation of a public complaint database, and report its work to Congress so that military families receive the safe housing they deserve,” Warren said.

A number of improvements have been made by defense and service officials, and privatized housing landlords. But some issues with military housing continue despite the massive reforms enacted by Congress more than three years ago, which required the Defense Department and military services to address a raft of tenant concerns and improve their oversight of privatized housing.

The proposed Defense Military Housing Readiness Council would review and make recommendations to DoD regarding policies for privatized housing; monitor compliance and implementation by DoD, including the requirement for the tenant bill of rights and to establish a complaint database; and would make recommendations regarding the accommodations for families with special needs.

The council would include, among others, representatives from the military services, including enlisted members and spouses, and representatives of advocacy organizations that specialize in military family housing.

“Armed Forces Housing Advocates is thrilled to see a bill in line with our calls for third party oversight of privatized military housing,” said Kate Needham-Cano, executive director of the organization. “As a nonprofit, we continue to advocate that an impartial group of experts would be a common-sense solution to improving living conditions and providing support to the DoD and housing companies to provide safe and habitable housing. Readiness starts with a safe home.”

Similar bills were introduced last year, but didn’t become law.

'Poop falling from the ceiling' shows military housing issues persist

Under the proposal, the Defense Military Housing Readiness Council would provide annual reports to the secretary of defense and the congressional defense committees with:

♦ Assessments of the adequacy and effectiveness of privatized housing and DoD in meeting the housing needs of military families;

♦ Analyses of tenants’ complaints;

♦ Data on maintenance response time and completion of maintenance requests;

♦ Assessments of dispute resolution processes;

♦ Assessments of overall customer service;

♦ Assessments of results of housing inspections;

♦ Any survey results conducted on behalf of the council or received by the council;

♦ Recommendations on actions to improve privatized military housing.

The council, which would meet twice each year, would include professionals with expertise in state and federal housing standards in the fields of plumbing, electrical, heating, ventilation and air conditioning; certified home inspections, roofing, structural engineering and window fall prevention and safety.

It would also include individuals appointed by members of Congress, and representatives of professional groups such as the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification, among others.

The assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment would chair the council and would invite a representative of each privatized housing landlord to attend the meeting, as appropriate.

Susan Walsh
<![CDATA[Health officials reverse decision on pregnant women at Kadena Air Base]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/health-care/2023/06/09/health-officials-reverse-decision-on-pregnant-women-at-kadena-air-base/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/health-care/2023/06/09/health-officials-reverse-decision-on-pregnant-women-at-kadena-air-base/Fri, 09 Jun 2023 17:32:18 +0000Defense Health Agency officials say they have found a way to fill personnel gaps at Naval Hospital Okinawa and have reversed course on a decision that would have forced pregnant women at Kadena Air Base to deliver their babies elsewhere.

The naval hospital, a 16 minute drive from the air base, is the only U.S. military medical option on the island. The women had been notified that, due to a staffing shortage, they would either have to deliver their babies at a Japanese hospital, where they wouldn’t be guaranteed admittance, or return to the continental U.S. when they were 7½ months pregnant.

Pregnant women at Kadena Air Base in Japan facing tough decisions

“Additional military, civilian and contracted staffing is being actively worked to fill the gaps caused by personnel moves and to ensure the same level of care is readily available in support of our service members and families,” DHA officials announced June 8, just hours after a Military Times report on the women’s plight.

The hospital is “not on divert, and there is no change in current capability,” they stated.

The staffing constraints at the hospital were caused by the “summer permanent change of station cycle and unanticipated early departure of civilian staff,” officials stated.

Advocates welcomed the change.

“It’s what we were hoping for, that the pregnant mothers would be able to deliver on Okinawa,” said Elayne Saejung, an Air Force wife who has been an advocate for families on Okinawa.

“There are still questions that remain about the original staffing shortage, and whether they have resolved the staffing issue,” she said. “But this is definitely great news for the families on Okinawa.”

The chief of medical staff at Kadena’s 18th Medical Group had issued a detailed, two-page memo June 7 stating that pregnant women with an estimated due date from August through November would have to choose whether to deliver their babies at a local Japanese facility or be flown back to a military treatment facility in the the continental United States — no later than 34 weeks into their pregnancy. Medical personnel had already begun contacting patients about the requirement.

Advocates described this as a “logistical nightmare” for women.

The memo also included caveats regarding Japanese medical facilities, including that, unlike medical facilities in the U.S., Japanese law doesn’t require hospitals to accept patients in labor or to provide health care in an emergency.

In response to Military Times’ questions earlier Thursday, DHA officials said they were “fully aware of the situation at Naval Hospital Okinawa” and were “working with hospital leadership as well as the leadership of the DHA Region Indo-Pacific to determine the best next steps for those in need.”

Military must find new ways to deal with medical personnel shortages

That included “actively looking for expediting civilian hiring, contract solutions and temporary assignment of military personnel from across the Department of Defense to mitigate the acute shortage of obstetric support for the women in the Indo-Pacific area,” a spokesman said.

<![CDATA[Nearly $2M available for military families in Guam after typhoon]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/06/07/nearly-2m-available-for-military-families-in-guam-after-typhoon/https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/06/07/nearly-2m-available-for-military-families-in-guam-after-typhoon/Wed, 07 Jun 2023 02:58:56 +0000In the wake of Super Typhoon Mawar’s destruction on May 24, many residents of Guam, including hundreds of military members and families, are still without power. Now, military relief societies have stepped in with $1.7 million in grants to help families after the devastation, including replacing food that spoiled during the power outages.

Since the storm, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society has provided more than $820,000 in grants to 1,748 active duty members and 55 retirees, according to an announcement from the relief society.

“As the extent of the damage becomes clear, service members are in dire need of support,” the announcement read. “Naval Base Guam realized incredible damage, has no power and our military personnel have suffered immeasurable losses and disruptions to their lives.” The grants for immediate needs are for basics such as shelter, food, water and gas.

Direct donations to help those affected by the storm can be made by visiting support.nmcrs.org/a/typhoonmawar

According to the installation’s Facebook page, as of 12:30 p.m. Guam time June 6, “Due to the island wide power outage, [Naval Base Guam] is without power throughout the installation. Critical base services are running on generator power.”

Here’s how other agencies are helping:

Air Force Aid Society: As of June 6, the relief society has provided $715,200 in grants to airmen and guardians living in Guam who were affected by the super typhoon. That includes grants to retirees. The primary needs are food, water and incidentals, said Robert York, chief mission advancement officer for the relief society.

“We have had a tremendous need in Guam for support and our team is working 24/7 to assist our airmen and guardians,” York said. To donate, visit www.afas.org . About 2,000 airmen and guardians are stationed on Guam, mostly at Andersen Air Force Base.

Coast Guard: More than 800 Coast Guard members, including active duty, civilian employees, auxiliarists and their families have been affected in recent weeks. To date Coast Guard Mutual Assistance has provided $128,500 in grants to 164 clients, including 146 active duty, 14 Reserve and four civilians, according to Erica Chapman, fundraising manager for the relief society. Requests so far have been for food loss and property damage, she said.

The organization provides disaster grants up to $13,500 to help with recovery. Retired Rear Adm. Cari Batson Thomas, the organization’s chief executive, urges personnel who need assistance to contact the personnel support team at 833-872-4778, or CGMA at https://cgmahq.org/hurricaneassistance .

Those who wish to donate can visit https://secure.qgiv.com/for/dire/

Army Emergency Relief: While there are fewer soldiers based on Guam, Army Emergency Relief has received 60 applications from soldiers there. AER is providing $600 in grants, for a total of $36,000 thus far.

To donate, visit https://www.armyemergencyrelief.org/ .

Other assistance: The military exchanges’ Military Star card is automatically providing a 90-day grace period of 0% interest and no payments on existing balances and new purchases beginning on June 5. Standard account terms will apply after 90 days.

In addition, Navy Federal Credit Union is offering its nearly 38,000 members on Guam the ability to apply for an emergency assistance loan with an interest rate of 4.5%, with loan amounts from $250 to $5,000, and a maximum term of 24 months. Those who have existing loans with Navy Federal may be able to defer payments. For assistance, call 800-336-3767. Members who are existing cardholders can request a credit card limit increase, and can request that credit card late fees be refunded. Visit Navy Federal’s Emergency Assistance page for more details.

<![CDATA[How successful are military spouses in getting federal contracts?]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/12/how-successful-are-military-spouses-in-getting-federal-contracts/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/12/how-successful-are-military-spouses-in-getting-federal-contracts/Fri, 12 May 2023 20:45:14 +0000A group of 15 lawmakers have asked federal officials to start tracking military spouse-owned businesses in their contracting database.

More military spouses are becoming entrepreneurs to contribute to the family’s income and fulfill their personal goals. The lawmakers want the ability to track how many of these spouse-owned businesses bid for and win federal contracts.

“This change would ensure that military spouse entrepreneurs are adequately represented and accounted for,” said Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., in announcing a letter sent to the Office of Management and Budget May 10, on the eve of Military Spouse Appreciation Day. She is leading the effort.

While military spouse-owned small businesses can compete for federal contracting opportunities, there is no way to know whether they are doing so or being awarded contracts. The government doesn’t track military spouse participation.

As a result, there is no way for Congress to gauge trends in military spouse participation levels or address any deficiencies that might exist, the lawmakers stated. The information could also be used to help address the unemployment gap for military spouses, which has stubbornly remained at 20% for years, they said.

The lawmakers, all but one Democrats, have asked OMB to change policy to allow military spouse-owned businesses to self-identify in the Federal Procurement Data System, which is overseen by the Office of Federal Procurement at OMB. That data system includes entities registered to do business with the government. It recognizes many different self-identifiers, such as minority- and veteran- and woman-owned businesses, with codes assigned to each category. Congress, the administration, the Government Accountability Office and others use the information to identify trends and inform policy decisions.

Agencies can search what businesses and other organizations exist in the system and use the data to solicit Requests for Information from companies that might be interested in doing business with the agency, generally or on a specific type of opportunity.

The change, if adopted by OMB, would mean establishing criteria and eligibility for the military spouse-owned business category.

The change wouldn’t give spouses priority unless they qualified under another category such as veteran-owned. But agencies looking for a small business to handle a contract could express interest in those owned by a military spouse.

Talysa Lloyd McCall
<![CDATA[Advocates decry ‘chilling effect’ of housing companies’ subpoenas]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/05/12/advocates-decry-chilling-effect-of-housing-companies-subpoenas/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/05/12/advocates-decry-chilling-effect-of-housing-companies-subpoenas/Fri, 12 May 2023 20:16:42 +0000Several grassroot organizations that advocate for service members with housing problems have received far-reaching subpoenas of their records, and they’re worried it could have a chilling effect, discouraging military families from asking for help.

The housing advocates say two privatized housing companies that have been sued by military families — Balfour Beatty Communities and The Michaels Organization — are trying to force them to turn over most if not all communications regarding their housing issues, whether or not they are involved in the lawsuits.

“The subpoenas appear designed to harass [housing advocates], to drain their resources and to distract from their core mission of protecting military families from abusive landlords,” the nonprofit Armed Forces Housing Advocates stated in an April news release.

Dozens of military families are suing various privatized housing companies around the country over allegations of mold, cockroaches, sewer backups and other problems. Those include several lawsuits against Balfour and Michaels. But none of the advocacy groups are parties to the suits.

Over the past several weeks, as part of the discovery process, lawyers for the two companies issued subpoenas to National Military Housing Advocates, Armed Forces Housing Advocates and independent advocate Sarah Kline, who was previously affiliated with Armed Forces Housing Advocates.

Such subpoenas are unusual for nonprofits that aren’t part of a lawsuit, unless it’s a very large case, said John Hughes, an attorney representing some of the military families suing Fort Belvoir Residential Communities and Michaels Management Services.

Representatives of Balfour and Michaels say the subpoenas are more narrowly tailored than the advocates claim.

“The subpoena does not seek confidential information about any residents not involved in the lawsuit, and the accusations to the contrary are false,” Michaels officials said in a statement provided to Military Times.

Balfour Beatty Communities owns and operates family housing on 55 Army, Navy and Air Force installations. The subpoenas issued to Armed Forces Housing Advocates and to Kline relate to lawsuits filed by families at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma; and Lackland Air Force Base, Fort Bliss and Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.

The company argues that during the discovery process, “plaintiffs testified that [Armed Forces Housing Advocates] has relevant information related to their claims.”

“As is customary in litigation, a subpoena was issued requiring AFHA to share that information,” Balfour Beatty officials said in a statement to Military Times. “AFHA’s lawyer has not objected to the scope of the subpoena or said that a response would be unduly burdensome.”

The Michaels Organization, which owns and operates 11 military privatized housing communities, is the parent company of Fort Belvoir Residential Communities and Michaels Management Services, which are named in the Fort Belvoir lawsuit.

During the discovery process, “several plaintiffs testified under oath that a group called the ‘National Military Housing Advocates’ has information relevant to the lawsuit and to their personal claims,” Michaels officials said.

“Separately, the NMHA has filed at least one [Freedom of Information Act] request with the Army seeking documents relating to the lawsuit at Belvoir. Both of the individuals who filed that FOIA request on behalf of NMHA are plaintiffs in the case.”

“So, it is apparent that the plaintiffs, not the defendants, have involved NMHA in the lawsuit” Michaels officials said.

But the advocates insist company lawyers are asking for communications not just with families who are suing them, but any military families who have communicated with them about the companies.

The subpoenas include nearly identical descriptions of what the companies are seeking, with a list of nearly 100 items, including calendars, lists of people attending meetings, all forms of notes, medical records or reports, test readings, photographs, email, reports of telephone conversations and many more items.

Raven Roman, executive director of National Military Housing Advocates, formerly known as Belvoir Housing Advocacy Group, worries that general descriptions such as “any communications related to claims of mold or excessive moisture” would apply to any military family raising questions about housing at any installation, including those not owned by the two companies.

While Roman is personally involved in suing Fort Belvoir Residential Communities LLC and Michaels Management Services, the nonprofit advocacy group is not, she said.

“AFHA does not engage in any type of lawsuit or refer people to attorneys, and we try to work with the process that’s in place with the Military Housing Privatization Initiative because we want to avoid this exact problem,” said Kate Needham-Cano, executive director of Armed Forces Housing Advocates

“However, asking for the breadth of information regarding an entire company across the entire United States has nothing to do with those particular lawsuits, and that’s where it feels compromising … and that’s where it feels abusive to us as an organization,” Needham-Cano said. “We will use every resource available to us to lawfully participate and protect the families to the best of our ability.”

Families have a right to know “the housing company is trying to pursue information that they don’t have a right to,” Roman said. “Our main priority is to let families know what our stance is, and to let them know that we intend to oppose providing any information that might put them at risk, their communication with us.”

Both of the nonprofits are run by volunteers with limited resources. Armed Forces Housing Advocates was served with five subpoenas, Needham-Cano said, forcing them to choose between curtailing their services and grants to families for things like mold tests, food grants, window guards and reasonable accommodations, or paying for a lawyer to protect the families’ information. Luckily, they’ve had a small amount of money to be able to hire an attorney.

Roman said National Military Housing Advocates has been able to seek pro bono legal advice.

The issue could also have even broader effects, said Kelly Hruska, government relations director for the National Military Family Association. “I’m afraid the effects will be chilling on housing advocacy for military families and that it might spill over into other issues,” she said.

<![CDATA[Child care debate at Camp Bull Simons continues as families struggle]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/05/11/child-care-debate-at-camp-bull-simon-continues-as-families-struggle/https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/05/11/child-care-debate-at-camp-bull-simon-continues-as-families-struggle/Thu, 11 May 2023 22:47:25 +0000A child development center will be built somewhere, sometime, to meet the needs of Army, Navy, Air Force and other service personnel working at or living near Camp Bull Simons, Florida, who have long struggled to find child care.

But “the location is still officially undecided,” said J. Elise Van Pool, a spokeswoman for U.S. Army Special Operations Command. The Army and the families of troops with 7th Special Forces Group want the CDC on the camp where service members work.

In fact, the Army has budgeted about $16 million in fiscal 2025 for the center, anticipating it will be located on Camp Bull Simons. But the Air Force says it is concerned about the children’s safety because the camp is adjacent to an active bombing range. Air Force officials are planning to use military construction funds to build the center on federal land in the city of Crestview, just north of the camp, where most of the families live.

Despite the Air Force’s stance, Army Special Operations Command officials “feel confident in the current safety protocols for [Camp Bull Simons] and think the addition of a CDC doesn’t represent an increased risk,” Van Pool said. She noted that Air Force officials are still surveying possible locations for the CDC and no money has been appropriated to buy the land needed.

“A CDC in Crestview would be acceptable,” she said. “However, we have concerns that building off the installation will cause additional delays. The need for child care is an acute problem, and we are trying to avoid unnecessary delays.”

Many thought the issue was decided.

In October, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth announced that “working closely with the Air Force, we now have plans to build a new CDC at Camp Bull Simons” in fiscal 2025. More recently, at a public meeting on April 25, Army Lt. Gen. Kevin Vereen, deputy chief of staff for the operations (G-9) directorate, said, “I can assure, I can almost guarantee, that we’ll have a CDC at Camp Bull Simons and it will be an Army CDC.”

He did acknowledge, however, that “we’re in the middle of trying to figure this one out.”

Members of the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) conduct casualty evacuation training on Camp Bull Simons, Fla., Feb. 25, 2021. (Spc. Aaron Schaeper/Army)

Unusual beginning

As part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure action, Camp Bull Simons was carved out of an Eglin Air Force Base bombing range that the service uses in its testing mission.

Due to testing of hypersonic weapons, long-range standoff systems and other tests, the risk to children is too great to have the child care center on the Army camp, said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey T. Geraghty, commander of the 96th Test Wing at Eglin, in an interview with Military Times.

Geraghty serves as the installation commander at Eglin, as well as the range operating authority, responsible for mitigating risk and ensuring that nothing encroaches upon the test facility.

The ball is now in the Defense Department’s court, Geraghty said. “They’re doing a pretty comprehensive study to determine the risks on the range,” he said. The DoD Test Resource Management Center is doing the study “to make sure the Army concerns are addressed, Air Force concerns are addressed, national security and weapons test concerns are addressed, and encroachment concerns on our national defense ranges are addressed,” he said.

That study is expected to be finished in September; a decision will be made later in the year on the location, a process which could further delay construction.

“I believe this is going to find the right solution because the Army and Air Force are working together at the highest levels,” Geraghty said. “Perhaps the reason you don’t hear the Air Force coming out with as strong a position as the Army has, is that right now the ball is really in the court of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.”

“We do acknowledge that that’s a hardship for the Team Eglin families that live up there to have to come down here to Eglin main to get day care,” Geraghty said.

“So, that’s the problem we’re working on, big picture, the fastest we can, to get a child development center that services those families that live north of the range. That’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Space Force. We want to give them a child care facility up there.”

Families are “grateful that we’re working to bring child care up closer to where they live, up there in the city of Crestview,” Geraghty said. “Those who live up there but don’t work at Camp Bull Simons are especially excited about it.”

About 60% of 7th SFG families live in Crestview. He’s also been letting them know that the longer term plan is to take care of their medical needs closer to home, with a military treatment facility and a Veterans Affairs facility.

How bad is the child care shortage? Ask these Florida military families

“The good news is there’s going to be a child development center no matter what,” said Stu Bradin, president and CEO of the Global SOF Foundation, who has been an advocate for the families at Camp Bull Simons. “The bad news is there’s all these shenanigans going on to keep it from going to the optimal place. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not optimal,” he said.

Some service members live in lower Alabama and drive an hour south to the camp, “because they can’t afford to live there. They don’t have the money even to live in Crestview,” Bradin said. There are also families who live closer to Pensacola, who would have to drive 15 miles further north to Crestview to drop off their children.

7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) Soldiers participate in the 5th Annual Ruck for your Lives food-drive event at Camp Bull Simons, Fla., on Oct. 27, 2022. (Staff Sgt. Matthew Key/Army)

“It’s easier to drop your child off where you work. But anything is better than driving to Eglin, if it’s a government facility. The good thing about the military CDC is that they have high standards,” he said, and can adjust their hours to meet operational needs.

Families like the security of having their military child development center within a military installation, too. Geraghty said officials haven’t yet worked through the details on security. “But those are risks we are aware of, and we would certainly mitigate those as we build a child care center up there in the town of Crestview, too.”

Safety concerns rising

So, why are there safety concerns now if people have been living and working on Camp Bull Simons for more than a decade?

There have been no evacuations of the camp to date, Van Pool said, but they have been notified the 96th Test Wing may order one in the near future.

“The tests and the maneuvers, the weapons and the systems that we’re starting to test now are different than they have been for the past 15, 20 years that we’ve been focused on the global war on terrorism,” Geraghty said.

For years, the Air Force bent over backward to avoid having to evacuate Camp Bull Simons, he said, modifying its tests and employment of weapons. While normally they would test weapons at a certain altitude and air speed, they took some risks and tested at a lower altitude or air speed.

“We’d do some engineering analysis and say, ‘Hey in a war, it would probably still work even though we didn’t test it at the actual conditions.’

“We had accepted some risk, and our weapons weren’t as fleshed out as we are now making sure they are. That’s why we now have to move to start testing those weapons systems much closer to their full capability, which is drawing us to have to ask soldiers on Camp Bull Simons to … evacuate,” he said, noting that one such evacuation is coming in June.

“We are pivoting towards this preparation for this high-end conflict.”

They’ve worked with the commands at Camp Bull Simons to minimize any mission impact on them, he said.

Bradin questioned the concerns about a child care center, given that there have been barracks, a chapel, a troop clinic, a shopette and other services on Camp Bull Simons for years. “What is the risk mitigation for them? Are they putting bunkers there?” he asked.

Soldiers play foosball in the new BOSS Center on Camp Bull Simons, Fla. Oct. 14, 2022. The Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program supports overall quality of life, morale and readiness. (Spc. Taylor Zacherl/Army)

“Those facilities were put there to take care of the morale and welfare of the soldiers and the people who were supporting the mission on the range up there,” Geraghty said. “There is some level of aggregate risk that we take in service to our nation that soldiers are certainly cognizant of when they sign up to serve.

“The adults who work in support of the mission on the range are cognizant of those risks,” he said.

“Let’s take care of our children and our child care needs outside of the range,” he said.

Staff Sgt. Jerreht Harris
<![CDATA[Could troops get a 100% housing allowance Jan. 1? What that would mean]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/10/could-troops-get-a-100-housing-allowance-jan-1-what-that-would-mean/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/10/could-troops-get-a-100-housing-allowance-jan-1-what-that-would-mean/Wed, 10 May 2023 21:32:45 +0000Troops with families could get $100 to $184 more money each month, on average, if the Defense Department were to boost Basic Allowance for Housing levels from 95% to the full 100% of their housing costs — eliminating the cost share that troops now shoulder.

A recent DoD analysis, mandated by Congress, shows that if Pentagon leaders did decide to restore the full BAH level, as many lawmakers want, troops without dependents would get from $82 extra to $164 extra per month, on average.

In 2015, defense officials reduced the amount of housing allowances they pay to military families from the full cost to 95% of their rental costs, as determined by the Basic Allowance for Housing formula. The cost-saving measure was authorized by Congress, but it wasn’t required.

But due to economic conditions, concerns have grown about the affordability and availability of housing for military families. The rapidly rising cost of housing even persuaded defense officials to implement a temporary BAH increase at the beginning of fiscal years 2022 and 2023 to help service members find affordable, quality housing.

As a result, lawmakers have been urging defense officials to again have BAH cover 100% of troops’ housing costs, which DoD can do without legislation.

Congress also required DoD to analyze how much money the 5% boost would put in the pockets of average service members, based on rank and dependent status, as well as what it would cost the department. It won’t come cheap. Paying the full cost of housing would add up to $1.1 billion in DoD outlays in 2024 if the full BAH were restored in January. That’s in addition to the $26.8 billion in BAH currently paid to about 1 million service members.

DoD’s analysis, obtained by Military Times, shows, for example, that an E-5 with dependents would see an extra $111 a month, on average; an O-2 with dependents, would get an average of $118 more.

Department analysts also looked at the costs of gradually implementing a boost in the allowance, but their report doesn’t include recommendations about whether the department or Congress should act.

The current 5% out-of-pocket housing cost “reduces the buying power of service member families, especially in high cost areas of the United States,” lawmakers stated in their 2022 report requiring the DoD analysis.

Family advocates share their concern.

“Military families, like all Americans, have felt the financial pressure from the pandemic, inflation and a volatile housing market,” said Shannon Razsadin, president and executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network. “But military families don’t have the option to hunker down and ride it out. They move due to military orders, on average, every 2.5 years. From our extensive work on housing and food insecurity, we see a clear intersection between paying for housing and purchasing healthy food.

“At a time when nearly one-quarter of military families are experiencing food insecurity, an extra $100 per month could make all the difference,” she said. “We are encouraged by the options DoD presented and are hopeful Congress will lay the path for a full restoration of the housing allowance.”

Here's what that reduction in basic allowance for housing is costing troops

The DoD analysis also looked at what it would cost to restore the full BAH benefit over five years. The full implementation in 2024 would cost DoD an extra $1.1 billion in that year. Over the five years through 2028, it would add an estimated $7.5 billion (which includes inflation in housing costs).

If DoD increases the BAH gradually — by one percentage point each year for five years — service members would get less money at the start — ranging from $19 a month to $31 a month, on average. But it would cost DoD less: an extra $214 million in 2024 and an extra $4.4 billion over the five years.

The following chart from the report shows average BAH increases if DoD decides to restore the full BAH benefit.

Source: DoD report to Congress

While the monthly BAH increase would apply to all eligible for the allowance, troops living in privatized housing wouldn’t see it because their full BAH generally goes directly to their housing landlord. The rent for privatized housing is set at the BAH rate.

Generally, about two-thirds of service members live in the civilian community. Service members may choose to rent or buy a dwelling in the civilian community that costs less than the monthly BAH and can pocket the extra money. If they choose to rent or buy a dwelling that costs more than BAH, the extra expense comes out of pocket.

The allowance is designed to offset the costs of local median rents and average utilities. BAH rates are adjusted each January based on surveys and information collected about rent and utilities for different types of houses in more than 300 military housing areas in the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.

In 2023, BAH rates rose an average 12.1%, the largest year-over-year percentage jump in the allowance in at least 15 years.

The Government Accountability Office has reported that DoD needs to improve the way it calculates troops’ housing allowances and defense officials are in the process of reviewing those procedures.

Daniel Malta
<![CDATA[New Tricare dental rates take effect]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/04/new-tricare-dental-rates-take-effect/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/04/new-tricare-dental-rates-take-effect/Thu, 04 May 2023 20:34:05 +0000New monthly premium costs for coverage under the Tricare Dental Program have increased by a few dollars, according to Tricare officials.

The increases are generally in line with previous years’ increases and go into effect May 1.

This is a voluntary dental benefit for eligible active duty family members and National Guard and reserve members and their families. Active duty service members, including activated reserve component members, get most of their dental care from military dental clinics.

For active duty members with one family member enrolled the single premium is $12.36, up from $11.94 the previous year. The single enrollment premium is for the family member, not the active duty sponsor. The active duty family premium is now $32.13, up from the previous $31.04. This applies when more than one family member is enrolled.

The Tricare Dental Program is a pay-ahead program; each payment is for the next month of coverage. This voluntary Tricare dental coverage is separate from Tricare medical coverage and requires separate enrollment. The Tricare Dental Plan is administered by United Concordia Companies Inc.

Other rates:

Selected Reserve and Individual Ready Reserve (under mobilization orders)

  • Sponsor only: $12.36, up from $11.94
  • Single premium: $30.89, up from $29.84
  • Family premium: $80.33, up from $77.59
  • Sponsor and family premium: $92.69, up from $89.53

Individual Ready Reserve (not under mobilization orders)

  • Sponsor only premium: $30.89, up from $29.84
  • Single premium: $30.89, up from $29.84
  • Family premium: $80.33, up from $77.59
  • Sponsor and family premium: $111.22, up from $107.43

In addition to the monthly premiums, there may also be cost-shares for dental services. There are no cost-shares for diagnostic or preventive services.

There are also plan maximums, the most that Tricare will pay for certain dental services:

  • Annual benefit maximum: $1,500 per enrollee
  • Orthodontic lifetime maximum: $1,750 per enrollee
  • Dental accident coverage annual maximum: $1,200 per enrollee
<![CDATA[Proposal would expand free credit monitoring to military families]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/04/28/proposal-would-expand-free-credit-monitoring-to-military-families/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/04/28/proposal-would-expand-free-credit-monitoring-to-military-families/Fri, 28 Apr 2023 18:22:08 +0000A new legislative proposal would provide free credit monitoring for all uniformed service members and their family members, building on a five-year-old law that provided the free benefit to active duty members.

The monitoring, which generally costs around $30 a month or more, can help troops and family members keep on top of their finances, with information about new activity on their credit reports. With early detection, troops can take steps to nip fraud and other problems in the bud. The three credit reporting agencies are currently providing the service to all active duty members.

The bipartisan proposal, introduced Thursday by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota; Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota; and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, would amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act to expand the definition of those eligible for free credit monitoring to include all in the uniformed services, regardless of duty status, to include members of the National Guard and reserve components. It also would expand the free credit monitoring to their spouses and dependents over 18.

“We owe it to our service members and their families to make sure that their financial well-being is protected while they are protecting our country at home and abroad,” said Carper, a 23-year veteran of the Navy and the Navy Reserve, in an announcement about the proposal. “Military families are often more vulnerable to cybersecurity breaches, which can expose personal data like sensitive financial and identification information.”

Ensuring that military families have full access to credit monitoring services will help keep their information secure, said Cramer, in the announcement.

Credit files maintained by the credit reporting agencies include information about where you live, whether you pay your bills on time and the amount of debt your are carrying; whether you’ve been sued or arrested; or filed for bankruptcy. The information is used to make decisions on whether to lend you money, rent you an apartment, and, importantly for many in the military, whether you should be given a security clearance.

The legislation is endorsed by TransUnion, one of the three major credit reporting agencies, and by The Military Coalition, according to the announcement.

“The current law … provides a safety net for most but not for all of our uniformed services as we would intend,” said Jack Du Teil, president of The Military Coalition, in a statement provided in the senators’ announcement. “The key to oversight is to expand the current law to include all service members — a course of action TMC has long supported.

“We appreciate that this legislation also expands credit monitoring coverage to spouses and dependents of uniformed service members,” he said.

A proposal was introduced in the House in March to expand the free credit monitoring to all uniformed service members, but it didn’t include family members.

Wilfredo Lee
<![CDATA[Will Air Force concerns delay Army child care center in Florida?]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/04/25/will-air-force-concerns-delay-army-child-care-center-in-florida/https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/04/25/will-air-force-concerns-delay-army-child-care-center-in-florida/Tue, 25 Apr 2023 21:04:30 +0000Months after receiving authority from Congress to build a much needed child development center at Camp Bull Simons, Florida, Army officials are still having discussions with Air Force officials about their safety concerns with putting the center on the camp.

“We’re in the middle of trying to figure this one out,” Lt. Gen. Kevin Vereen, Army deputy chief of staff for the operations (G-9) directorate. “But I can assure, I can almost guarantee, that we’ll have a CDC at Camp Bull Simons and it will an Army CDC.”

“Thank goodness the [fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act] authorized us to be able to start design work for the facility,” Vereen said Tuesday at an Association of the U.S. Army event.

The camp was carved out of an active bombing range the Air Force uses in its testing mission.

Families at Camp Bull Simons have struggled with child care since 7th Special Forces Group was moved to Florida a decade ago under the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment action.

The camp has few amenities. Barracks, a chapel, a troop clinic, and an exchange shopette and services were built, but there’s no child development center, family housing or commissary. Army families want a child development center built near the chapel on Camp Bull Simons, where it would be convenient for soldiers.

But the Air Force has pushed back because of safety concerns.

Meanwhile, Vereen said, Army officials have placed a program manager in the area to look at interim child care options for families until they can get a CDC built. Right now, that center is scheduled to be built in 2025.

About 60% of 7th SFG families live in Crestview, 20 minutes northeast of Camp Bull Simons and 45 minutes to an hour from Eglin Air Force Base to the south. To get to child care on Eglin, they must pass the camp.

So, if they can get a spot, Army families spend three or four hours a day in the car to drive to and from an Eglin child care center, depending on traffic.

These Florida military families will finally get a child care center

In addition to the CDC at Camp Bull Simons, Congress approved 15 other child care centers across the services in the fiscal 2023 legislation, to include three Army CDCs. The Biden administration had requested funding for two CDCs across the military services; Congress added 14.

For years, service members across the country have struggled to find affordable, high quality child care for their children, with long wait lists in a number of locations. It has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the availability of child care in the civilian community, too. The services were trying to deal with staffing shortages at child care centers even before COVID-19.

And for a number of years, lawmakers have chastised military officials for not seeking funding to build more CDCs, which are trusted by military families to provide the level of care they want for their children.

The Army is now building five CDCs and another 10 will be built through fiscal 2025.

‘No shortage’ of Army child care centers?

“We don’t have a shortage of CDCs in the Army. We have enough infrastructure,” Vereen said, while noting that some centers need to be repaired or remodeled. The Army is working through that process, he said.

The number one issue is hiring enough staff members, he said.

“We have a lot of initiatives going on with regards to how we grow our CDC employment. So our installations are going after it, trying to incentivize our workers,” he said.

The Army provides opportunities for employees to develop their careers, through schooling, certifications, licensure, so they can transfer jobs when moving to another installation. Most of the CDC workers are military spouses, he said, so this provides employment opportunities as they transfer from one post to another.

In written testimony submitted to Congress for an April 19 hearing, Vereen noted that the Army’s child care strategy includes “increasing and sustaining child care infrastructure, recruiting and retaining additional quality child care providers, sustaining off-post care options, and exploring new initiatives and partnerships.”

However, ongoing staffing challenges related to recruitment and retention continue to limit child care availability at some locations, he noted, despite recent Army pay increases for child care employees which now start at $17.39 per hour plus bonuses and other incentives.

Vereen and Sgt. Major Michael J. Perry III, senior enlisted for the G-9 directorate said they talk with leaders, soldiers and families as they visit Army installations. During a visit earlier this month to Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington, they learned that child development centers there are experiencing a 60% employee turnover rate, according to an Army news release about their visit. It creates a long wait list, and in some cases, soldiers aren’t able to report for duty because of the lack of child care.

About 75% of the children currently in the JBLM child care centers are the kids of single service members or dual military couples, who have priority. But that leaves few spots available for couples that include the service member and a working civilian spouse.

<![CDATA[Expansion of commissary doorstep delivery program on hold, for now]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/04/21/expansion-of-commissary-doorstep-delivery-program-on-hold-for-now/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/04/21/expansion-of-commissary-doorstep-delivery-program-on-hold-for-now/Fri, 21 Apr 2023 20:08:07 +0000Plans for expanding the commissary doorstep delivery program to every stateside commissary are on hold as officials try to find a way make the program financially viable while keeping customers’ cost as low as possible.

The pilot program continues at eight commissaries in the continental U.S., at least through June, but the delivery fee has more than quadrupled. The new delivery fees, implemented March 1, now depend on the distance of the customer from the commissary and range from $15.99 for a delivery within one to five miles up to $29.99 for a 16- to 20-mile trip.

Previously, it was about $4 per delivery, which was the only cost to customers beyond the actual cost of groceries and the 5% surcharge. Customers also have the option of tipping the delivery driver when they check out online.

The commissary website notes that the pricing is determined by the delivery service provider, not by the Defense Commissary Agency.

With a $4 delivery fee — which was the only money the contractors received — the program wasn’t sustainable, said numerous sources.

The federal minimum wage for federal contract workers is $16.20 per hour. Add on the current mileage rate of 65.5 cents per mile, plus fringe benefits and other costs, and “it’s very difficult to make it work,” said Todd Waldemar, founder and CEO of ChowCall, the contractor providing the delivery service at all eight commissaries in the pilot program, in explaining the delivery fee increase.

Losses of $40 to $70 per delivery were cited in the questions asked by potential bidders in the contract solicitation for the expansion of the deliveries at all stateside commissaries.

“Expansion will be delayed until further notice as DeCA performs additional market research” to find an approach that’s sustainable and cost-effective for commissary customers, said commissary agency spokesman Kevin Robinson.

That means they’re trying to find a way to make the program viable for contractors, while keeping the cost for commissary customers as low as possible.

“DeCA has been working hard to make this work,” said Waldemar. “My interpretation is that they’re trying to find that sweet spot of how to make it viable for a contractor while staying true to their mission of improving quality of life for service members, families and other authorized commissary customers.

“It’s close to being viable,” he said.

Caitlin Hamon, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, said the program is still needed.

“This is a service that families want, that they requested during the pandemic,” she said. “We think it’s important those families who need the delivery have it still as an option and still have access to the low-cost grocery benefit of the commissary.

“We were told by families, and earlier by DeCA, that the delivery services were becoming more popular,” she said. “We would encourage them to explore other avenues of funding for the delivery. Obviously the federal government has restrictions, but there’s something to be said for looking at the civilian counterpart grocery setup.”

Here's how DoD is helping commissary shoppers save more money

Waldemar noted that pricing in the delivery service industry is challenging, not just for the commissary agency but across the entire industry. The increases in delivery fees have affected the number of people using the service, he said, without providing specifics.

“But it’s still a great program, and it’s still going well,” he said.

“We, as a contractor, want to be profitable, but we also want to minimize the fees,” Waldemar said. “Volume is important. The more volume, the better for us.”

The doorstep delivery program is an expansion of the Commissary Click2Go program, where customers at stores worldwide can order online and pick up their groceries curbside at their commissary.

But this test has taken the groceries a step farther — to the customer’s front door. Commissary employees pick the items from the shelves to fill the customer’s online order, then bring them to the delivery driver curbside.

The eight pilot locations have seen an influx of 17,503 new Click2Go customers since the delivery program started, said Robinson, the commissary spokesman. The store with the largest sales volume is Fort Belvoir, Virginia, with 5,013 orders totaling $643,169 from May 18, 2022, through March 31, 2023.

In addition to Fort Belvoir, the doorstep delivery pilot program is available at seven other locations: Scott Air Force Base, Illinois; Fort Bragg South, North Carolina; MacDill Air Force Base, Florida; Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Naval Station San Diego in California.

Rivet, another delivery services company that was part of the pilot program until February, was also successfully providing services, with military spouse employees.

“We were asked by the commissary to continue service without government funding and we shared, based on industry norms and pilot data, it is impossible to have a nationwide program without funding it, especially when federal regulation restricts revenue and adds costs,” said Harold Earls, co-founder of Rivet.

“Rivet was forced to pause services, letting go 41 military spouses” in late February, he said. But he’s optimistic that DeCA is working on a viable solution “and has a strong commitment to creating jobs for military spouses that transfer with them when they PCS,” he said.

Waldemar said 60% of ChowCall’s employees are military affiliated, including spouses and veterans.

When Rivet left the pilot program, ChowCall took over delivery services at all eight commissaries.

Limited options for the commissary agency

There are constraints DeCA has that other grocers who provide commercial delivery services don’t have. The agency, which relies on taxpayer dollars to pay for operations, to the tune of about $1.4 billion a year, is a benefit, not a business. Others in the delivery service industry have ways to earn revenue besides the customer fees they charge, according to questions and answers in the now-canceled solicitation. That includes marking up prices to pay for deliveries.

“The commissary cannot mark up pricing for groceries to cover or subsidize the cost of delivery,” commissary officials stated in the solicitation Q&A. “DeCA has statutory pricing and savings requirements that commercial grocery outlets do not have.”

DeCA officials have consistently said that all costs will be covered by customers using the delivery service. The agency won’t subsidize the program.

One questioner estimated a net loss of nearly $40 on each delivery, using the commissary at Fort Lewis, Washington, as an example. The estimate was based on a delivery fee of $11.99, which is the top of the range of the industry average.

Delivery from that commissary often takes drivers 45 minutes; plus there’s a 21-minute average wait time at the commissary for commissary employees to bring out the groceries. The local required wage rate noted for drivers is $20.90 per hour, along with the 65.5 cents per mile reimbursement.

Waldemar said the doorstep delivery is important to expand access to the commissary benefit. It’s especially important, he said, for spouses who may need to get their groceries delivered, for various reasons, when the service member is deployed.

ChowCall also partners with other businesses, expanding options for deliveries.

“Ultimately we want the military community to have better options than everybody else,” he said. “We want to tangibly make people’s lives better.”

<![CDATA[‘Poop falling from the ceiling’ shows military housing issues persist]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/04/20/poop-falling-from-the-ceiling-shows-military-housing-issues-persist/https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/04/20/poop-falling-from-the-ceiling-shows-military-housing-issues-persist/Thu, 20 Apr 2023 07:34:52 +0000Joy Viera and her family were excited to move into base housing at Fort Gordon, Georgia, last May after living in hotels for five weeks.

It didn’t last long.

“That night, things took a turn,” she said. Around 8 p.m., after an upstairs toilet had failed to flush, she noticed a liquid leaking from multiple spots in the kitchen ceiling.

It was brown, it was disgusting, and it was flowing uncontrollably, including into the bathtub.

“Water with poop was falling into our kitchen, with our groceries we’d just bought and onto our dog bed,” she said. She immediately notified the privatized housing company on base, Balfour Beatty Communities. Before midnight arrived, they were told they were being displaced, “that we should move to a hotel in an unfamiliar area, with two kids, two dogs and everything we had brought with us,” she said.

So, after moving from Washington state across the country in the middle of the school year and living in a hotel, she had to tell her children they had to move to a hotel again.

“We can’t use any of the bathrooms,” she said. “We can’t live with poop falling from the ceiling.”

Viera and two other Army wives spoke about their experiences during a military housing oversight session on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., conducted by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia. Since taking office in 2021 and meeting with troops and families, Ossoff and his staff have been investigating housing problems at Fort Gordon and across the nation.

Issues like those faced by the Vieras continue despite the massive reforms enacted by Congress more than three years ago, which required the Defense Department and military services to address a raft of tenant concerns and improve their oversight of privatized housing. The Army wives, all current or former residents of Fort Gordon, described their problems with mold, water intrusion, sewage backups and leakage within the past year. And their problems also occurred after the senator’s April 2022 investigation at Fort Gordon that spurred the Army to take action.

Ossoff said some progress has been made to resolve problems with mold evaluations, mold remediation and documentation of work orders uncovered in that initial eight-month investigation.

“We have seen some signs of apparent progress, as you noted, more technicians on staff, more full-time management focus,” Ossoff told Army leaders who participated in the session. “We still have a long way to go … the quality of the maintenance work, the timeliness of the responses to requests for work orders.

“We’ve heard from families about the emotional toll this takes on parents, the health impact on kids and on childhood development, and the impact it has on the morale and readiness of U.S. Army soldiers who defend the nation.”

Military families still suffer from lack of response to mold, leaks, report finds

Ossoff criticized Balfour Beatty officials for declining his invitation to participate, although they have met with his staff and provided documents in response to requests, he said.

“But given that this same company pled guilty to [Justice Department] charges for defrauding the U.S. military and [company officials] say they take seriously the need to improve their operations, their unwillingness to answer questions in a public setting calls into question their commitment to transparency and … improvement.”

In a statement provided to Military Times, Balfour Beatty officials said they declined the invitation “because we have multiple two-way communication channels in place to maintain transparency into maintenance requests, keep residents informed, and allow them to share their feedback and raise concerns. …” They also continue to meet routinely with the local military housing office and command “to ensure any resident housing concerns are being appropriately addressed by our team.”

It’s not clear why the sewage problems weren’t detected by Balfour Beatty or Army inspectors.

“Balfour Beatty Communities has always inspected every home before a new resident moves in,” according to their statement.

Viera said that when Balfour Beatty provided a second home on post, they found dead bugs on the floor, dust and dirt, and mold in the vents.

The wives’ descriptions were reminiscent of the 2019 testimony of spouses from around the country who told Congress about their frustrations with mold, sewage backups, water intrusion and vermin infestation, and dealing with privatized housing managers and maintenance staff who dismissed their concerns.

While this session was about conditions at Fort Gordon, the problems aren’t isolated to that post, said Breanna Barnhart, director of operations at the Safe Military Housing Initiative, a group that advocates for military families who have problems with their housing. “This is national in scope,” she said.

Gaps in military housing improvements lead to frustration, confusion

Living on the porch and in the car

And like many other families who have testified before, these spouses described hiring their own independent inspectors to evaluate their homes. Two of the homes were determined to be unfit for human occupancy.

Erin Greer said that rather than being concerned for her family’s health and safety, local company employees were “upset that we allowed an independent inspector to come in and drill holes in the walls.” In September, 2022, that independent inspector told them the home was unfit for occupancy, but Balfour Beatty didn’t agree to move them.

So they stayed out of the house as much as they could, limiting themselves to the front porch and sometimes sleeping in the car. “We didn’t have the financial ability to pay for a hotel,” she said.

The company later arranged for them to move while repairs were made. When the Greers returned, there were still problems, including mold on the carpet, she said.

On April 6, the Greers put in a work order for sewage that was flowing into the downstairs bathroom, and into the hallway and an area in the dining room. The repairs weren’t completed. “To this day, the bathroom floor is still covered in liquid sewage,” Greer said.

In their follow up investigation into housing conditions at the base, Ossoff’s staff also found there have been numerous incidents where Balfour Beatty failed to properly respond to or handle environmental hazards like mold growth. Ossoff said he held a town hall with enlisted personnel at Fort Gordon last week and heard about frustration with the quality of maintenance work, and the lack of professionalism of those who do the work, and the need for better communication with residents.

Many of the families want and need to live on base at Fort Gordon, which is a training base, and generally a short-term assignment. “They can’t afford to live off post. We were fortunate to find something we could afford short-term,” Viera said. “This is not an isolated incident,” she said.

“Our families are at the mercy of companies like Balfour Beatty,” Viera said. “It’s undoubtedly affecting soldiers’ morale. How can they focus on the mission when they’re unsure if their families have a safe living environment?”

‘Committed to fixing this situation’

Rachel Jacobson, the Army’s assistant secretary for installations, energy and the environment, listened to the wives discuss their housing problems.

“I’m very, very sorry for the hardship these families have endured,” she said. “What you have described today and what you’ve experienced is unacceptable. And we at Army are committed to fixing this situation.”

Following Ossoff’s initial investigation, Army officials launched their own investigation. They suspended incentive fees for Balfour Beatty at Fort Gordon and agreed to conduct home-by-home inspections of all living quarters, which began at the Georgia post the week of April 10. Ossoff observed the beginning of those inspections.

The Army has also revised language in ground lease documents, the foundation for oversight of the privatized housing program, specifically outlining the consequences for not complying with the requirements, which could lead to default, Jacobson said. She used this enforcement tool in July 2022 to inform Balfour Beatty it was in jeopardy of default at Fort Gordon.

Following the two investigations, “we demanded the development and implementation of a comprehensive quality assurance and quality control plan,” she said. Balfour Beatty complied with requirements and briefed Army officials on their quality assurance plan in December, she said.

Lt. Gen. Kevin Vereen, Army deputy chief of staff for the G-9 directorate, said Balfour Beatty has made significant housing leadership changes at Fort Gordon. A full-time manager with the needed expertise is now there on the ground, and that “has been a game changer,” he said, helping ensure not only the quality of the work but also the customer service.

Ossoff said he’s encouraged by the initiative to build 76 new homes at Fort Gordon because the underlying problem is the age of the homes. Although it’s no excuse for poor repairs, he said, the base needs new houses. But he questioned how the Army is going to ensure the homes will be well-built, which has been a problem with some of the privatized housing at Fort Gordon and elsewhere.

Jacobson responded that the Army is hiring 23 engineering specialists to focus on housing across the service. They will oversee construction activities and make sure it adheres to Army standards. The consultants who are overseeing the ongoing inspection program will also be on site to oversee the construction, she said.

“It will be y’all’s responsibility to ensure this construction is well-executed. If it’s not, we’re going to be right back where we have been,” Ossoff said.

“Apparent signs of progress need to become real, specific, measurable progress that is felt by the families on post,” he said. “When I return to hold another town hall with enlisted personnel, and I’ll do it again later this year, I need to hear from them that [their] experience has changed,” he said.

Viera urged Ossoff to hold privatized housing companies accountable “for the negligence and failure to maintain the housing our families live in.”

<![CDATA[Gaps in military housing improvements lead to frustration, confusion]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/04/15/gaps-in-military-housing-improvements-lead-to-frustration-confusion/https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/04/15/gaps-in-military-housing-improvements-lead-to-frustration-confusion/Sat, 15 Apr 2023 15:39:48 +0000Three years after laws were passed to provide more protections for military families living in privatized housing, military officials have fallen short in implementing the changes needed, according to government auditors.

The shortcomings have led to confusion, frustration and concern among military families.

The guidance from above has been especially problematic for two key initiatives required by law: the formal dispute resolution process and the roles and responsibilities of tenant advocates, according to an April 6 Government Accountability Office report.

While military officials have taken concrete steps to implement laws designed to address mold, water incursion, vermin and other substandard living conditions, they could do more, GAO auditors stated. By addressing those weaknesses, DoD could help personnel more effectively perform their duties and reduce residents’ frustration, they said.

“The bottom line is that there’s this feeling among residents that no one is watching out for them. That’s the crux of the entire problem,” said Kate Needham-Cano, executive director of Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a nonprofit organization that advocates for families living in military housing and helps them resolve issues. The GAO findings didn’t surprise her, she said.

The rush to implement protections for tenants is partly responsible for the problems, auditors stated. Military officials attempted to put the tenant bill of rights into place quickly, before policies were finalized and before reaching full agreement with the private housing companies to implement these rights.

Fourteen private housing companies are responsible for 78 privatized housing projects, encompassing 192 installations. These private companies own and operate 99% of military family housing at domestic military installations, with 34 Army projects, 31 Air Force projects; and 13 Navy and Marine Corps projects. DoD owns, operates and maintains family housing overseas.

The privatization of military housing began in the mid-1990s to address the inadequate, dilapidated family housing, which had suffered from lack of funding and maintenance backlogs for years. The military services entered into agreements with private companies to replace, renovate, build new homes, and maintain the homes. But nearly 20 years into the privatization effort, military families in some housing areas had reached a boiling point over ongoing problems that were compounded by their inability to get their problems fixed by their landlord or to get help from military installation officials.

So, laws were put into place to fix the persistent problems with the condition of the homes, to improve oversight by the military, and to institute a tenant bill of rights.

For their report on how that effort of going, GAO auditors analyzed DoD policies and guidance, interviewed military housing officials and private company representatives at five installations, and met with some residents.

More oversight needed

Auditors found the housing program needs to provide better oversight of the condition of the housing units. The law requires inspections of privatized homes before new occupants arrive, and the services are conducting them. But DoD doesn’t have clear or consistent inspection standards, and the services haven’t provided enough training for inspectors. This contributes to inconsistencies in how the inspectors rate homes. Military housing officials and private housing company officials told GAO that enhanced training requirements would improve the overall condition of homes over time.

Defense officials should establish DoD-wide turnover inspection guidance that includes clear and consistent inspection standards, auditors stated. In her response, Patricia Coury, deputy assistant secretary of defense for housing, agreed with that recommendation.

In a related event, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia, accompanied inspectors Wednesday to observe their work in privatized housing at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

Following an eight-month investigation by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations, Ossoff last year received a commitment from the Army to inspect all privatized housing at the post

He announced Wednesday that a Senate hearing will be held April 18 to hear from military families and Army officials about the progress made in the past year to improve conditions.

'Why should we believe your assurances?' Senators grill privatized housing company officials.'

Confusion about advocates

Needham-Cano said her organization have been challenging the effectiveness of tenant advocacy programs.

“We’ve been told we’re incorrect when we say residents are confused. Now, GAO is backing up everything we’ve been talking about — that it is a systemic problem within the housing community,” she said.

While the military services have designated personnel as tenant advocates, they haven’t clearly defined their roles and responsibilities or communicated useful information to tenants about how the advocates can help them, the GAO auditors found.

There are also different philosophies among the services. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps use existing military housing office staff to meet the requirement for tenant advocates, and didn’t establish new positions. The Air Force created a new resident advocate position separate from existing military housing office personnel. But even then, there is confusion about their roles and responsibilities, auditors stated.

Needham-Cano gave an example of the impact of this uncertainty.

“I’ve witnessed a family while on speaker phone be treated very poorly by the director of maintenance, and the resident advocate did not step in to stop that conversation and stick up for that resident,” she said.

It’s not that they are bad actors, she said, but they are not necessarily embracing the full scope of their responsibilities. She also knows of advocates who are fulfilling those roles well.

Her organization recommends a third-party, independent entity providing oversight, “so that the residents feel safe and that they can trust the person or group that’s helping them, and so DoD and the housing company have complete separation as well,” she said.

Needham-Cano noted that she is seeing more informal advocacy groups popping up in military housing neighborhoods to help neighbors deal with problems that they themselves have dealt with previously.

“There are other nonprofits being founded to help residents do the same exact thing that we’re doing,” she said. “If all of us were making this up, none of us would exist.”

In fact, GAO auditors found that at some installations residents are serving as self-appointed advocates, voluntarily helping residents with issues. But DoD and Army officials told auditors that other families are seeking these volunteers’ assistance, “not realizing that these self-appointed advocates may not have a full understanding of housing policies and practices, or access to the appropriate military housing official or private housing company personnel.”

One Air Force resident told auditors “she was confused about which advocate to speak to about a maintenance issue in her home because there are two or three individuals in her neighborhood who identify themselves as tenant advocates,” according to the report.

Some residents in Army and Navy privatized housing said neighborhood representatives had contacted them asking whether they had any issues with their homes. The residents were confused about whether these people were official tenant advocates who could actually help them with maintenance issues.

GAO recommended that defense officials develop a way to collect feedback from residents on the formal dispute resolution process and the tenant advocate position, and to incorporate that resident feedback in housing program initiatives. In the DoD response, Patricia Coury said she will work with the military departments to develop that mechanism.

Dispute resolution issues

In addition to the advocacy issues, Needham-Cano said her organization has for months been raising concerns about the dispute resolution process between military tenants and landlords.

Auditors reported that military housing officials haven’t received adequate guidance or training to help residents with this process, and the guidance given to residents lacks essential details, such as how and when they can file a formal dispute.

The auditors’ 19 recommendations for DoD and the services include improving and clarifying guidance for residents on how and when they can enter into the formal dispute resolution process; developing supplemental training for conducting these processes; and updating policies and tenant brochures to clearly define the role of the resident advocates.

While DoD agreed with 15 of the recommendations, there was only partial agreement on Air Force-needed actions. DoD responded, for example, that the Air Force has “robust existing training and formal guidance on the roles and responsibilities of the tenant advocates.” But the GAO auditors noted they found some disagreement among Air Force tenants, resident advocates and housing officials about just what the advocates’ roles and responsibilities are.

As of December, 18 of the tenant bill of rights provisions had been implemented at all but three installations that have privatized housing. Those three, all Air Force installations, are: Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. The housing companies haven’t fully agreed to residents’ rights to the seven-year maintenance history of their housing unit or the formal dispute resolution process, to include rent segregation during that process.

The law required the secretary of defense to submit a report to Congress by June 20, 2020, that evaluated the shortage of civilian personnel performing oversight functions at DoD’s military housing offices. That hadn’t been submitted as of January 2023. The services are now in the process of analyzing their manpower requirements in privatized housing, according to the DoD response.

<![CDATA[New DoD survey delves into the good and bad of military relationships]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/04/14/new-dod-survey-delves-into-the-good-and-bad-of-military-relationships/https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/04/14/new-dod-survey-delves-into-the-good-and-bad-of-military-relationships/Fri, 14 Apr 2023 19:43:06 +0000A new survey being emailed to about 200,000 active-duty service members and 100,000 military spouses aims to provide more insight into the strengths and challenges of military couples — including domestic violence.

It’s part of a broader Defense Department effort, mandated by Congress, to identify the risk of domestic violence at various stages of military service. The overall analysis will identify stages when there is a higher-than-average risk of domestic violence, and stages where implementation of domestic violence prevention efforts could have the greatest impact.

Depending on the response rate, the survey could provide more information about the prevalence of domestic violence in the military.

A scientifically -chosen, random sample of service members and spouses are receiving emails inviting them to participate in the survey, which launched April 10. An access code is included in the email.

The survey is expected to close in May.

The nonprofit Rand Corp.’s National Defense Research Institute is conducting the 2023 Survey on the Strengths and Challenges of Military Relationships. It’s voluntary, and confidential; DoD will never receive information about who responded, and the study team won’t link individual responses with names or identities, according to Rand’s frequently asked questions about the survey.

Researchers note that for most people, there are no risks to participating in the survey. However, they state, “for some people, topics in the survey may cause discomfort or distress. The survey describes serious forms of abuse, and some people might find these descriptions upsetting.”

“These descriptions are included to make sure the survey can accurately measure when these serious forms of abuse have occurred, and to show people who have experienced abuse that these events are included and taken seriously,” they stated.

The survey, which takes about 25 minutes to complete, delves into risk factors associated with domestic abuse and its impact on military housing, children’s education, and the short-term and long-term effects on physical health and mental health of military members and families.

“The survey results will have a direct impact on training and policies that affect service members, spouses, intimate partners and families,” said Patricia Montes Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, in an announcement of the survey.

“I know time is often in short supply, but I ask everyone who receives the survey to share their perspective and help us improve our support for families and the military community.”

The Defense Department doesn’t currently collect information on a number of family-related topics, according to the Rand FAQ. The survey will provide DoD leadership with the information to develop policies to ensure that service members and spouses get the support, security and resources they need.

Officials are calling for broad participation, to help ensure that all experiences of service members and spouses are understood. “If only some types of people complete the survey, DoD will be in the dark about the views of different types of people in different types of locations,” according to Rand.

Those who receive an email invitation can take the survey from a personal phone or computer. You can also forward the survey invitation to your personal email, to complete it away from work. If there are computer or technical problems, contact the research group at StrengthSurvey@rand.org.

Steve Earley | The Virginian-Pilot