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Secretary of Army tours Fort Irwin barracks
Some problems identified; many rooms in good condition
FORT IRWIN — In the aftermath of a controversy over the poor conditions of soldiers’ barracks at Army posts, Secretary of the Army Peter Geren took a look at the rooms where Fort Irwin soldiers sleep when they are not training troops in the desert during a stop at the post.
After visiting barracks at Fort Bragg, N.C. on Wednesday, where the controversy first came to light, Geren toured barracks at Fort Irwin on Thursday, seeing some of the best and worst rooms the post has to offer. While Geren said all the barracks he saw were livable, some needed attention.
“One of the barracks here does have some issues that we’ve identified. There’s no health, life or safety issues. They’re all safe; they’re all healthy. There’s no threat at all to the soldiers,” Geren said. “There are some modifications that would be important to improve their quality of life.”
The Army ordered a worldwide assessment of barracks after the father of a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division posted a video on Youtube showing peeling paint, broken plumbing and mold in his son’s barracks at Fort Bragg. As part of the assessment, Garrison Commander Col. Chris Philbrick was asked to talk to The Desert Dispatch about the condition of the barracks.
“We have some barracks that are in need of some revitalization,” Philbrick said. “No one’s health, life or safety is being compromised.”
The heating, ventilation and cooling system raised concern in one set of barracks lived in by soldiers from the first squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Philbrick said.
Soldiers have complained about temperatures, a concern during the chilly winters and blazing summers at Fort Irwin, and mold growing in the bathrooms. Philbrick said post maintenance workers were aware of this problem before the Fort Bragg incident and said a contract to completely reinstall the heating and cooling system will go out for bid soon.
In the meantime, Philbrick said crews scrape the mold off walls and tiles and add a mold-resistant paint.
However soldiers who live in the barracks said the conditions are terrible. Pfc. Sean Borchmann said a fellow soldier who had lived in the barracks for the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg was shocked when he saw the condition of the Fort Irwin rooms. Borchmann said the rooms at Fort Irwin are outdated, run down and much worse than the new barracks that soldiers in the second squadron of the 11th ACR live in.
Spc. David Orrell said there are leaks in some of the bathrooms, mold growing under sinks, and something breaks in the barracks almost every week. He said when soldiers make a work request, the repair is made quickly, but he is tired in living in sub-standard housing.
“It’s pretty much like living in a jail cell,” Orrell said. “It’s demoralizing.”
Orrell and Borchmann said they would like to see their barracks demolished and a new one built.
Geren said they Army is looking at how much it would cost to update barracks in the Army right now.
“We’re working to put together a plan to address those concerns,” he said. “We want to do everything that we can do to make sure that our soldiers and their families have the quality of life equal to the quality of their extraordinary service.”
Another issued raised in the video of the dilapidated barracks at Fort Bragg was how the Army could allow a soldier returning from a war zone to live in such conditions. Philbrick said it is policy at Fort Irwin that when a unit deploys to Iraq or Afghanistan, workers begin fixing up their barracks. When the 21 soldiers of the 171st Movement Control Team Detachment deploy this month, repair work will begin, Philbrick said.
Many of Fort Irwin’s barracks have been built in the last 20 years. Last year, the post spent $2 million to update an older set of barracks for wounded soldiers. Spc. Joseph Michel lives in one of these rooms, complete with flat screen televisions mounted on the walls and wireless Internet connection. During his deployment with the 101st Airborne Division in 2005 and 2006, arthritis in his knees flared up, he said. He is a week away from completing his rehabilitation and said the wounded soldier barracks at Fort Irwin have been some of the nicest.
“It’s a whole lot better here,” he said. “The other rooms that I’ve been in on post look like prison cells.”
Sgt. Terrell Scott also thinks his room looks like a prison cell. He stays in Fort Irwin’s second oldest barrack, built in 1967. Scott’s sink stopped working a few days ago, but beyond that and the size of his room, he had no complaints about the conditions. He said he put in a work request to fix his sink and said the repair staff responds quickly.
“Barracks are going to be what they are — barracks,” Scott said. “There are going to be negative things somewhere, and there are going to be positive things somewhere.”
Scott’s barracks, where a majority of soldiers in the operations group stay, is first on the list for a $2.9 million renovation, said John Wagstaffe, spokesman at Fort Irwin. The work was scheduled before the Fort Bragg photos became public.
Geren: A piece of Iraq right here in the desert
While sitting down for a cup of tea in one of Fort Irwin’s Iraqi towns in the desert, Secretary of the Army Peter Geren asked the mayor of the town if he enjoys working at Fort Irwin.
“I love what I am doing. It’s the least I can do for my brothers and sisters,” the Iraqi man said.
During the secretary’s visit to Fort Irwin, he met with many of the Iraqi roleplayers, soldiers and contractors who pool together to offer realistic scenarios for soldiers’ training. He said that the contributions of all who have carved out a little piece of Iraq in the Mojave Desert have had a large impact on the war effort.
“It’s just remarkable what has been accomplished here,” Geren said, “and the results are soldiers who hit the ground running over there, hit the ground prepared.”
Geren also met with the wives of soldiers from Fort Irwin deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and voter readiness and retention staff during the visit. Following Fort Irwin, Geren will travel to Fort Lewis in Washington.
Fort Irwin has 18 different barracks buildings. There are a total of 1196 rooms that can house 1822 soldiers. The Army has set a goal that by 2013, each soldier will have his or her own room.
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