What About This? By Wayne William Cipriano

Our Marine Corps family lived in base housing about half the time my father was an active Marine. Base housing for us, an enlisted (as opposed to officer) family was usually a house 1200 square feet of so, two or three bedrooms, one bathroom. Once we lived in a Quonset Hut when I was very young and my father was a D.I. All I can remember of that was the weird walls. The housing was never elaborate, but my mother, a born “Nest Builder,” made each duty station a warm and comfortable home.

Those quarters were always cared for by Marines – “Boots” at Parris Island; lower ranks at other bases like Camp LeJeune, sometimes trustee prisoners from the brig – who handled the general repairs and maintenance. Simple repairs for sure, but I can never remember anything really big going wrong and neither can my brother Jim. No broken water lines, electrical failures, leaking roof, or water heater.

I suppose that was because each time quarters were vacated, they were inspected, repaired, renovated as necessary, and always repainted. And they painted everything: door handles, light switches, receptacles, everything! All the same color. too. I’m surely not complaining. Living on base is a wonderful life for youngsters. The PX, the gyms, riding stables, hobby shops, bowling alley, movies, rifle range, and school are all a bike ride away.

We’re talking five or six decades ago, and I guess, according to the news, base housing has changed a lot since then. The problem as always, is money. Sometime between “then” and “now” a titanic change has occurred in the military. That titanic change (and titanic is the proper adjective) happened when someone decided that “outside” civilian contractors ought to be hired to do the housing repair and maintenance stuff that was once handled by service people.

When we were kids, if something went wrong  like a light switch stopped working, a window was mysteriously broken by a baseball, a doorknob loosened, Mom would mention it to Dad at dinner. The next day, around lunch time, a Marine would show up and fix whatever went wrong. Times have surely changed.

You can imagine the arguments as civilian contractors elbowed their way up to the Federal trough, aided by their well-supported elected representatives: “Marines shouldn’t spent their valuable time on non-military chores when we professionals can handle the work more efficiently, more inexpensively, and more responsibly than a bunch of Marines doing their best but untrained and inexperienced in these matters.”

Theoretically, that argument stands well. People who fix water heaters all the time should be able to do a better, faster, and cheaper job than a bunch of guys mostly trained to kill other guys. But the theory falls apart when oversight, supervision, responsibility are absent. And, of course, when the job is paid for by a monolithic entity hundreds or thousands of miles away used to dealing in million-dollar expenditures. No attention is paid to history when problems were fixed right, the first time, right now, because no corporal leading a detail of pfc’s doing something for a master sergeant’s  wife wants to hear how the job didn’t please the wife.

Now, we are told, repair and maintenance people show up when they are forced to, do as little as possible, often do it wrong, and split long before the work can be evaluated. And that’s if they show up at all.

When no one watches, no one demands, no one withholds payment, what do we really expect? Quality work based on a culture of craftsmanship and pride? Yeah, right.

It wouldn’t bother me as badly as it does if it didn’t strike so close to home for me personally. I can easily remember the way it was when we were in base housing. And it crushed me to hear how it is now.

I’m not going to go on very much about what military personnel have signed up to do for us; that they go exactly where we tell them to go, whether they think it is a good idea to go there or not; that they do exactly what we tell them to do, whether they want to do it or not; and they run the risk of coming back home in pieces or not at all. And while these military people prepare for that and then execute, their families live in substandard conditions? And have their complaints ignored? Really?

It was four or five years ago that this same issue surfaced and superior officers in the Army were “surprised”, and “angry”, and “indignant”, and “committed to fixing the problem ASAP.” So, what happened?

Now, that was the Army. But why should Marine families fare any better? I’d like to think that marines would not tolerate such behavior. But, given that drive to put more and more operations in the hands of civilian “professionals” who treat much of this as “government jobs” requiring the least quality, least responsibility, least alacrity, and receiving little if any supervision by those for whom the jobs are performed, can we really be surprised that military housing (and so many other aspects of military life) has degenerated?

Unlike civilian life where no one is ever responsible for anything, the military has a structure called the chain of command where responsibility is always very easy to locate. But when that structure is manipulated and bypassed to allow for profit-driven business people to operate within it, but avoid the consequences of poor performance due to “favorable” rules and regulations, “special” arrangements, non-existent quality control and oversight, the assurance of payment regardless of the quality of the work, all abetted by the almost universal military desire to avoid making waves that complaints to commanders might generate, you can’t fake amazement that business people act just as they do in civilian life – or even worse.

It frosts me that these housing problems have again arisen when several years ago those same problems were supposedly dealt with. I don’t know what has happened in the military to allow dependents to be treated this way. Is it just slime bag civilian contractors and the lack of oversight they enjoy? Or is it something deeper, something that ashamedly reflects how we feel about those who stand their posts on the wall to make sure we sleep safely at night?

Whatever the problem or its genesis, I know my old man could have fixed it. And I could fix it. And present commanders could fix it. All they have to do is act like commanders who take care of their troops first.

Maybe this time they will.