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Reporting on military life and veterans issues, in collaboration with the American Homefront Project.

A lack of base housing is forcing Navy sailors to live on ships, even when they're home in the U.S.

Commander Robert Molinaro, Executive Officer of the USS Ramage, inspects the ship's sleeping quarters March 22, 2023.  Though the Ramage is back in port in Norfolk, Virginia, some sailors have to live on the ship because of a shortage of barracks space on base.
Adriones Johnson
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U.S. Navy
Commander Robert Molinaro, Executive Officer of the USS Ramage, inspects the ship's sleeping quarters March 22, 2023. Though the Ramage is back in port in Norfolk, Virginia, some sailors have to live on the ship because of a shortage of barracks space on base.

The USS Ramage returned to Norfolk in January after eight months at sea, including a stint off the coast of Israel after war broke out in Gaza.

It was Petty Officer Matt Redding’s first deployment, and he said he was eager to come home.

“I was pretty ready those last few months,” he said, standing on the pier in front of the destroyer. “We didn't have any port visits for two months, so I was pretty ready to jump off the brow.”

But even though they're back in port, many of the Ramage sailors have no place to live on the base. While Redding was able to find a place to stay off base with a former shipmate, many of the junior sailors are still living on the ship.

The Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, James Honea, told Congress that on average 800 sailors have to live on board ships even after they come home from extended deployments.

“We don't have barracks space. We are not allowed by law to pay them a housing allowance for them to go find themselves an apartment in town, so they live on board the ship,” Honea told the House Armed Services Panel on Quality of Life Issues.

“That's a number one quality of life concern of our sailors who are currently on deployment," Honea said. "'Am I going to continue to live on this ship, or will I be able to find a barracks room and move into a bed and have some separation from this workplace?'"

The Master Chief’s comments went viral on social media. Current and former sailors echoed his position, saying sleeping on ships year-round makes life tough for junior sailors. Some said they were so eager to get off the ship that they lived in their cars until they found a spot in the barracks or qualified for off-base housing allowance.

Some also said living in barracks is also bad option, because of crowded and substandard condition

“We found that none of the military services’ standards even met the standards that they are supposed to be meeting,” said Elizabeth Field, the lead author of a September General Accounting Office report about base housing across the armed services.

The GAO found evidence of mold, cockroaches, no running water, and sewage on the floors in military barracks. The services told investigators that 5,000 Navy and 17,000 Marines live in substandard housing.

The Master Chief of the Navy asked Congress for money and authority to allow the Navy to house junior sailors in the community. But Field said that won’t eliminate the need for better barracks.

“First of all, there may not be enough housing at that very low rent level in the local economy," said Field, director of GAO’s Defense Capabilities and Management team. "But also unit commanders don't necessarily like it when their most junior enlisted service members are out; there's a concern about it impacting unit cohesion."

The Navy has authority to run pilot projects in Norfolk and San Diego to build privatized barracks. The military privatized nearly all family housing beginning in the 1990s with mixed results.

'Get them out of the bad barracks'

While the Navy is strapped for space in the barracks, the Marine Corps has a surplus. The Marines estimate only 55 percent of their barracks are full. The Marines recently ordered a service-wide inspection of all of its facilities.

“The inspections are going to identify where we can move Marines now, improving the occupancy of the good barracks and get them out of the bad barracks that we don't necessarily need,” said Sergeant Major Jason Hammock of Marine Installations Command.

The idea is to start abandoning the worst facilities and spend the savings on barracks that are in better shape.

Inspectors walk through a Marine Corps barracks in Quantico, Virginia, Feb. 9, 2024. The Marines are conducting a wall to wall inspection of all barracks to be completed by March 15.
Ethan Miller
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U.S. Marine Corps
Inspectors walk through a Marine Corps barracks in Quantico, Virginia, Feb. 9, 2024. The Marines are conducting a wall to wall inspection of all barracks to be completed by March 15.

The Marines are also hiring civilians to maintain the barracks, instead of relying on squad leaders to manage the facilities.

“We struggle with that because Marines kind of come and go. And now I have actually a trained workforce that is meant to take care of barracks instead of a Marine, that's kind of his second job,” Hammock said.

For instance, civilians will now be in charge of making sure washers and dryers are working. Marines will have someone they can contact to make repairs, even as units move in and out of the barracks, he said.

Housing for younger sailors and Marines has become a recruiting and retention issue, right up there with pay, Hammock said.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Charles Q Brown, Jr., visited the USS Ramage and the USS Ford in Norfolk after their long deployment. He acknowledged that the military needs a way to allow sailors to live off their ships.

“It's not something we're going to give up on,” Brown said. “And we continue to work and improve to make sure we do all the things to support particularly our most junior service members and their families, with adequate housing and support.”

Any of these ideas will come with a significant price tag. The Pentagon estimates the services have $134 billion in deferred maintenance from all of its facilities, from housing to repairing shipyards.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.
Copyright 2024 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.