Okay, BRAC is a four letter acronym, but for folks in my circle, it is typically uttered as an epithet. In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission was formed in accordance with the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990. The Commission was tasked to work with the Department of Defense to identify and close unnecessary military installations. Part of the job was to create a more efficient system by moving or combining units between installations. For example: Fort Benning now conducts all Infantry and Armor training for the Army. Fort Sam Houston now conducts all medical training for every branch of the military. Those schools are no longer spread out at installations around the country.
On paper, it is a great idea. Perhaps five years from now, the benefit will be worth the cost. However, the planning and execution of BRAC was a nightmare for soldiers, families, units and installations.
As I mentioned before, our entire Brigade moved from one post to another. It had already temporarily moved from overseas to a major Army post in the states. Everyone was aware that the unit would be moving again to its permanent post at the end of our deployment. Our unit was scheduled to replace a major school which was moving away from our new post. They were scheduled to leave just before we arrived.
The housing office from the new post sent representatives to give information to the families. They called it the “Road Show.” They brought maps, school information, forms to fill out, pictures of all the new housing they were building “just for our unit.” Before an auditorium of seasoned military wives, they fielded questions. “I have a five children and we need four or more bedrooms. Do you have large homes available and how long do you project the wait will be?” The lady went on to explain that her family had the option of transferring to another unit and staying in their current home. Their decision was largely based on housing availability at the new post. The speaker assured her that plenty of large homes were available and they did not expect any wait time when we arrived. They reiterated that new housing was being built just for us. The transition would be smooth.
My family was one of the first to arrive at the new post, as I described yesterday. What we discovered was an entirely different situation than was promised by the Road Show. As the housing representative informed me after we were already en route, the “waiting list” was not actually a waiting list. “We can’t put you on a list before you arrive,” she admonished. “This is just a courtesy list so we know how many families to expect!”
The day after we arrived at the campground, we went to the housing office. We met with the representative and turned in the necessary paperwork to get ourselves on the real waiting list. The wait for a four bedroom home would be six months to a year. The wait for a three bedroom would be significantly shorter. We could not be on both lists. Before the move, I had already looked for off-post rentals that would suit our needs. Everything within an hour of post exceeded our budget. We decided to wait for a three bedroom. The camper would be our temporary home for the foreseeable future.
I scheduled a meeting with the general housing manager. I also sent an emergency message to every person of influence I knew who was still at the old post. I informed them about the reality of the housing situation. Hundreds of families were scheduled to move to this area in the next month or two months and they would have no place to live. They needed to be warned. The unit needed to slow down the move if possible.
My meeting with the manager revealed that the reason for the housing shortage was the unit which was scheduled to leave post hadn’t left yet. Their BRAC move had been delayed for at least a year. The planning for their move didn’t consider the weight of the vehicles they used. The receiving post had to build new roads in order to support them. Other similar delays meant that this unit was here to stay. They were not vacating housing. In fact, they were busy moving into the new homes that were built “just for us.”
I learned from the manager that hundreds of homes on post were scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt. They were older townhomes in need of renovation and/or replacement, but they were functional. Considering the hundreds of families that would be arriving soon to homelessness, they were downright attractive. The Common Sense Fairy suggested that they delay the destruction of those homes until the post was no longer double occupied. The manager explained that it would take a literal Act of Congress to change the scheduled destruction. They were bound by contract to tear them down within a certain period of time. An Act of Congress was not feasible.
So let’s summarize: BRAC dictated that a large unit leave the new post so that our unit could move in. The large unit was unable to move on schedule because BRAC failed to account for their particular needs. Our unit was unable to stay at the old post, because we were being shoved out by another unit. Hundreds of families were moving within 60 days and would have no homes. Hundreds of old homes were vacant on the new post, but the private housing office was contracted by Congress to tear them down. Local off-post housing exceeded the housing allowance for an E5 with dependents.
I looked into the housing manager’s eyes and asked, “If a sergeant’s family can’t afford housing here, where are the private’s families going to live?”
“In some terrible places,” he answered as he shook his head.
I met with him several times over the course of the month. He was a retired sergeant major and had true concern for our families. He managed to fix up some of the old townhouses to be used temporarily. Everyone in the area who had signed in at the office was offered temporary housing. They brought us all in as a group, gave us the forms and the keys. Two weeks in the camper were enough “vacation” for my family and we were grateful to have a little more space until our names came up for a permanent home.
It didn’t occur to me that I would need to examine the temporary quarters before signing for them. The Army is meticulous with move-out policy–everything has to be pristine before a soldier is allowed to vacate. I was understandably tired. I was relieved to have a bedroom with a door. Layout and location were irrelevant. Basic furnishings were provided. It would have a real bathroom. Sweet.
I should have known better. When I arrived at the home, I discovered urine in the toilet, broken glass on the floor and a thick layer of muck on the bottom of the bathtub. Food remnants were on the stove, in the refrigerator and on the counters. I immediately called my housing representative. Her response was, “Well, you wanted to move as quickly as possible. I guess I can have a cleaning crew come out next week.”
“No, that is not acceptable. I will clean this house and you will pay me to do it. Now transfer my call to the manager.” He was duly obsequious and cut a check to pay me for cleaning the house before I could allow my family to set one foot in it.
Sharing our experiences helped our unit set up systems to take care of our soldiers and their families. A unit liaison was given space in the housing office. They assisted incoming families in procuring acceptable temporary and permanent housing. The housing office had several staff turnovers until they had the right people in the right positions. Our early intervention helped, but didn’t completely solve, the issue. With everyone working together we were able to help our families avoid the worst of the available places to live.
Telling you about this today is not a call to action. Phone calls don’t need to be made, letters don’t need to be written. This is an old story and all of its issues have been addressed. My point is that this is what homecoming looks like. This story is specific to my experience, but every military family is faced with bizarre hurdles to overcome during the time they are supposed to be pulling together to heal. Movies, commercials, “reality” shows and heartwarming news stories show only snippets of what we experience. In those, the happy ending is the reunion photo, when the family embraces and before they walk out of the frame. Homecoming doesn’t end there, though. Not only are we dealing with reintegration, we are often moving across the country, trying to find a decent home and a good school for the kids. We are fighting battles with huge, incompetent entities to make sure our comrades have what they need. And within a month of their boots being parked outside our front door again, our soldiers are training up again for the next deployment.