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Military scrambling to improve living conditions for the youngest sailors and Marines

Sailor inspects a living area inside the USS Ramage. Aug. 30, 2023. Department of Defense
Sailor inspects a living area inside the USS Ramage. Aug. 30, 2023. Department of Defense

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. 

“Yeah, 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.”

Redding is staying with a former shipmate now that he’s home. His other option, like most junior sailors, is to live 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 an extended deployment.

“We don't have barrack 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,” he 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. 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 the boat year-round makes life tough for junior sailors. Some said they lived in their cars until they found a spot in the barracks or qualified for off-base housing allowance. They also said that living in overcrowded barracks can be just as bad. 

Complaints of poor living conditions echoed on social media over the past several years as the military came to terms with substandard housing. 

“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 the study General Accounting Office report released in September.

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. Field said that idea won’t bypass the need for better barracks. 

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

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. Setting aside complaints that have been documented with privatized family housing over the last decade, sailors don’t lease space in the barracks. The military will have to find a method to pay contractors to house troops, Field said. 


The Navy is strapped for space in the barracks, though the Marines have a surplus. The Marines estimate only 55 percent of their barracks are full. Responding to complaints, the Marines recently ordered a service-wide inspection of all of its facilities by March 15. 

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

The idea is to start by abandoning the worst facilities and spending the savings on the barracks that are in better shape. It will be easier to move Marines around at large facilities like Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where the Marines have empty beds.


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.

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.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. 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 to give up on,” Brown said. “And we continue to work and improve to make sure we do all the things, 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.

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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