U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned witnesses yesterday morning at a SASC hearing to receive testimony on the chain of command’s accountability to provide safe military housing and other building infrastructure to service members and their families.
Witnesses included the Honorable Mark T. Esper, Secretary of the Army; the Honorable Richard V. Spencer, Secretary of the Navy; the Honorable Heather A. Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force; General Mark A. Milley, USA, Chief Of Staff of the Army; Admiral John M. Richardson, USN, Chief Of Naval Operations; General Robert B. Neller, USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps; and General David L. Goldfein, USAF, Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
Inhofe: I'll have my first two questions to address to the Army and to the Air Force, not the Navy at this point. And those questions are, and you decided which one is the best one to respond — number one, when were these issues first brought to your attention and who should be held accountable because you were not aware of what was going on in your own service. Secondly, since these issues were brought to your attention which installations have you personally visited and specifically about the issue? Secretary Esper.
Esper: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. On the first matter, I think with regard to the full realization of the size and scope of this issue first came up the week that the committee held its hearing. I think the media report coupled with the report of the Military Family Association and then culminating in the hearing was what I think brought home to us the size and scale. That said, of course, last summer we were aware of the lead based paint issues at some of our homes such as Fort Benning. We quickly took a number of actions, we can talk about that, to address that problem and had been working on it pretty diligently throughout the fall. Then at a family forum in October, the chief and I, as we meet with families to discuss issues, there were some housing issues in singular homes at Schofield Barracks, Fort Gordon, and West Point where we quickly attacked those problems and re-mediated them. But nothing with regard to the size and scope that you heard from the witnesses that appeared before this committee.
Inhofe: The second part of that question was, since these issues were brought to your attention, how many instillations have you and the Chief either supervised or personally visited?
Esper: Yes sir. I personally visited Fort Meade, Fort Bragg and I’m supposed to go down to Fort Belvoir next week. And of course every time I visit an instillation, I meet with families and do town halls so I talk about this quite often.
Spencer: In terms of the timeline, Chairman, similar. The July, August time frame for the lead paint. Then in October, November started becoming aware of some reports on mold and then it really came into fruition with the time of the hearings and meetings.
Inhofe: Let me tell both of you, I appreciate the briefing that you've given me and I know that you've been very busy since the last meeting that we had. I appreciate that very much. Secretary Wilson.
Wilson: Mr. Chairman, since your hearing I have visited MacDill, Tinker and Shaw Air Force bases. With respect to awareness of the problems, Air Force was aware of construction defects at four bases and on page seven and eight of the handout in front of you it highlights those dates on where we were aware of construction defects and the actions that were taking there. I think though that while the Air Force was managing those projects and getting construction defects taken care of, what we really didn't understand was the decline in trust and confidence in the airmen that problems would get fixed. That is, to me, the most important part of the hearing that you had that brought that forward to us.
Milley: Yes ma’am and I'll just add that Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Chief Wright and I went to Keesler and Maxwell Air Force base and our findings were very consistent with the testimony that you heard from the families that came forward. And I'll second what the Secretary said that the most concerning to me, that I found, was the breakdown in trust that we've got to rebuild as you've said Chairman.
Inhofe: Yes. Was there anything, exercising back your memory of the previous testimony, that came from the homeowners? Was anything found to be inaccurate from their testimony?
Milley: No sir. Very accurate.
Inhofe: Okay. Secretary Spencer would you respond to the same questions and I have a separate question for you.
Spencer: Yes, Mr. Chairman. Since the hearings, I personally have visited three communities in the Hampton Roads area. Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point to visit housing and meet with people there. We stepped right out, right after the hearings. Went out the West Coast, our office did, to inspect what was going on out there and hearing from the families of their concerns. Nothing we found that they reported was inconsistent.
Inhofe: Admiral do you want to add to that?
Richardson: Sir, I personally visited the Patuxent River and facilities around the naval district in Washington area and have flag officers who have also gone to the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest. So we've got good eyes on this problem and nothing that we have seen is inconsistent with the testimony and the witness of the residence. I would just echo that we became aware of this, I think about the time that everybody else did, in terms of the magnitude of the problem. And the fact that the actual truth on the ground was differing to a great degree from the information that we were responding to which is why we’re getting after 100 percent awareness.
Inhofe: Alright, I appreciate that. Secretary Spencer, a recent news article states that the navy is moving forward with creating a new Assistant Secretary for Information Management, which by default would eliminate your Assistant Secretary for Energy Installations and Environment. Now that second one I mentioned is the part of the bureaucracy that is responsible for what led to this meeting now. You came to our committee, both the majority and the minority, and said you wanted to make an announcement when we told you not to and you did it anyway. I would like to know, first of all, why you did it and then secondly, would you be in a position right now to commit to this committee to not dispose of the position that is responsible for the problems that led to this committee today at the conclusion of this meeting.
Spencer: Senator, I will take full responsibility for what my office does. I did speak to your staff and the ranking staff about the idea that we wanted to put together in light of the cyber report which you will soon be exposed to that we did in the Navy after we had our exfiltrations, it's a risk that we have to manage. I apologize for my office, getting ahead of the lights, that was not my intent. We are marching along that we will keep everything in place as is.
Inhofe: Will you commit to keeping that position, your current Assistant Secretary for Energy Installations and Environment?
Spencer: I will.
Inhofe: Very good, thank you. Senator Reed.