This story won the 2023 Society for Professional Journalists Dateline Award for investigative journalism in a newsletter or trade publication and a finalist for non-breaking news in an online publication.
Hundreds of junior-enlisted sailors and soldiers have gone for years without hot water in their barrack rooms aboard the Maryland Navy base that is home to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Others have been left to broil in barracks with broken air conditioning during humid mid-Atlantic summers, or been assigned rooms without working fridges, thermostats or even locking doors, according to sailors who spoke with Navy Times and who voiced concerns to base leadership during a townhall meeting Thursday.
During that meeting, Naval Support Activity Bethesda’s commanding officer, Capt. Scott Switzer, encouraged affected troops to keep submitting “trouble tickets” for issues like hot water.
But he also admitted that those trouble tickets had been improperly handled.
“We just discovered a problem with our reporting process from some of our people who were not taking care of these trouble tickets the right way, and we screwed that up,” Switzer said in a recording of the townhall obtained by Navy Times. He took command of the base in May 2021.
The issues center around two barracks buildings housing nearly 500 junior service members, dubbed “Comfort Hall” and “Sanctuary Hall,” respectively.
Comfort Hall was built in 1986, while Sanctuary Hall “opened to occupants” in 2014, according to base spokesman Jeremy Brooks.
Both barracks are mostly occupied by low-ranking Navy corpsmen and Army medical personnel who work at the massive Walter Reed medical complex.
Those who spoke with Navy Times requested anonymity as they feared being punished for publicly speaking about their situation.
Their experiences suggest the barracks have been providing neither the comfort nor sanctuary that their names promise.
“I’m not new to living standards in the military,” one corpsman said. “I’m a military kid and I lived in base housing, but this is just ridiculous. We’re not in the field and we’re not on a ship. There’s no viable reason as to why we should be forced to live without the basic qualities of life.”
One corpsman said the substandard living conditions affect not only morale, but mental health.
“I already work super-long hours in a high-demand clinic with a huge patient volume,” the corpsman said. “We’ve been short-staffed for a long time and there’s no telework for us. It sucks to have to grit your teeth through a cold shower and go back to the grind.”
“They call Walter Reed the ‘corpsman killer,’” a corpsman noted. “You come home after 10 to 12 hours and you can’t take a shower after working in a hospital with constant germs, it doesn’t feel like you’re getting clean, and we’re in a pandemic.”
One corpsman said they had been assigned to Walter Reed for 19 months and that the water in Comfort Hall has been “constantly cold.”
Comfort Hall also went without air conditioning for several months last summer, and shipmates roasted in room temperatures that reached 95 degrees, which ironically made the cold showers a welcome reprieve.
Base leadership put down cots in the lower-floor common areas for troops seeking relief, but no one took them up on it.
Some said they expected a Walter Reed tour to be tough, with one recalling instructors at corpsman school telling them that Walter Reed “sucks and to be prepared.”
But the whole mess has some young sailors questioning their plans to make a career in the Navy, and they wonder whether anyone in the sea service gives a damn about their well-being.
“I think that people like to try to lift up their junior sailors, but in this situation, if senior-enlisted people aren’t directly affected by these issues, they don’t care to put in the effort to fix it,” the corpsman said.
Both corpsmen and base leadership say the issues in Comfort and Sanctuary halls have existed for some time, and that leaders have previously promised fixes that never materialized.
But the issue took on renewed urgency this week, when one afflicted sailor posted about the problem on Reddit and how they had reached a “breaking point” after more than a year without hot water.
“I understand the ‘you’re in the military, get over it’ mentality but, holy shit, I don’t think a warm shower is a whole lot to ask for at a shore command that calls itself ‘the flagship of naval medicine,’” the anonymous post states.
“What can I do to get this fixed? Or is my only other option marrying a stripper to get out of the barracks?”
Switzer soon convened the townhall with the junior sailors and soldiers and told them leadership had been working to fix the hot water issues plaguing Sanctuary Hall since 2015.
While Sanctuary Hall is less than a decade old, Comfort Hall has been around for 40 years, and aging barracks are not a problem unique to that installation.
A January report by the Government Accountability Office watchdog detailed how nearly one-third of Defense Department buildings worldwide have outlived their lifespan, creating a $137 billion “deferred maintenance backlog” in the process.
“Maintenance is most often delayed for lower-priority facilities such as living quarters and childcare facilities,” the report states.
Nearly 15 years ago to the day, The Washington Post revealed black mold and other filth at lodging for the war wounded receiving treatment at Walter Reed.
‘Not fair, I know’
Switzer began his 40-minute townhall session Thursday by acknowledging the frustrations of troops living in Comfort and Sanctuary halls.
“I understand you’re not here because you’re excited or happy,” he said.
In a nod to the Reddit post, Switzer also promised that his command “will not take repercussions against anyone who says anything or complains about anything.”
While sounding sympathetic to their plight, Switzer cautioned the junior sailors and soldiers at the meeting that solutions won’t come quickly.
The hot water issues at Sanctuary Hall have been known about for years.
Left unsaid was precisely why no one has bothered to fix the problem.
A main issue there has to do with the building’s mixing valve, which ensures that hot water is at the right temperature.
“There were some engineering decisions that were made in that building that do not support the population that’s in that building right now,” Switzer said. “That’s not fair, I know. And we’re working to try and fix that.”
Part of the issue is capacity, he said, and the fact that most troops living in that building all shower around the same times.
The CO then went on to school his junior charges on the numbing complexities of federal contracts.
Fixing such problems isn’t a matter of just finding a contractor and cutting a check, Switzer said, noting that one contractor slated to make repairs to Comfort Hall ultimately backed out.
“These aren’t excuses, folks, I just want you to understand what we sometimes have to deal with to make what seems to be an easy repair,” Switzer said. “It’s not as easy as having the plumber come in and change out a valve or quickly fix the system. That’s just our reality, unfortunately.”
One service member pushed back on suggestions that affected members just go shower somewhere else that has hot water.
“To be honest, sir, I just got here … and I don’t feel comfortable with using someone else’s shower,” the female service member said. “We’re all shipmates and everything, but it’s a fine line with the privacy thing.”
“I would just like to take a shower in my own room.”
“I don’t blame you,” Switzer replied.
A resident advisor for one of the barracks suggested working out in the morning and then showering at the gym.
“I don’t know that those gyms have working hot water, I imagine they do,” the RA said.
“They don’t,” several voices in the crowd answered.
One sailor said a sign at the gym indicates there is no hot water there either, which base officials confirmed to Navy Times.
One attendee said he microwaves his water to shave.
“The gym is an option, the hospital is also an option,” Switzer said. “I don’t have any other place that I own that I can use.”
When it comes to the valve that needs replacing in Sanctuary Hall, Switzer said he was not sure if it is currently in stock.
One sailor said they were given similar excuses in recent years.
“We kind of got the runaround and we were told that a part was ordered, we’re waiting on a part,” the sailor said of previous townhalls. “So, it just feels like we’re kind of gaslighted in a way. We got the part coming, then it’s a year later.”
Switzer said ongoing efforts to solve the hot water problems extend back to 2015, meaning that an untold number of junior-enlisted troops have cycled through there without hot water.
“If you feel like you’re getting the runaround, that’s on me, we need to communicate with you better about what’s going on,” Switzer said. “I don’t expect you guys to walk out of here and feel good about this.”
Comfort Hall’s hot water issues are “a completely different animal,” he said.
When that building was built, no hot water loop was installed on the third floor, which leaves the third and fourth floors without hot water, Switzer explained.
They have since built a hot water loop for those upper floors, but cold water backflows into it, he said.
To fix the hot water in Comfort Hall, crews are going to have to cut all water to the building and its hundreds of residents for five days, Switzer said.
They could cut the water for five days in the near future, he added, or wait another four to five months and then only have to cut the water for two days.
“That sucks, no ifs, ands or buts,” Switzer said. “No hot water is bad. No water at all is really bad.”
But even that won’t completely solve the issue as dozens of rooms have their own mixing valves that need to be replaced, although that effort could be done piece by piece, the CO said.
“That system, when it was designed, it wasn’t built the way it was designed,” Switzer said. “We’re kind of trying to fix it right now.”
As of this week, Switzer said they plan to cut the water to Comfort Hall for five days in the coming weeks.
“Is there a plan of action for how the 300 or so corpsmen are supposed to live with this?” one attendee asked.
“We’re trying to formulate a decent way to make this at least livable,” Switzer replied. “I’m not going to say good, because it’s not going to be good. But we’re going to do the best we can to make it a less-odious time.”
He added that he was “not prepared” to say when the system would be fixed.
“There’s a lot of legalities associated with that as well,” Switzer said, and that sending everyone off base “is not a trivial matter.”
‘We’re just little E-3s and E-4s’
“Sir, I just really wanted to reiterate the transparency you mentioned earlier,” one sailor noted near the meeting’s end. “I’ve been here for a minute and kind of had these meetings before, and then after these meetings we’re still left in the dark.”
“I know we’re just little E-3s and E-4s,” the sailor added.
“You’re not just little E-3s and E-4s,” Switzer replied, adding that anyone with such issues who is not getting answers should contact him directly.
“There is a perception out there, and I get this, too, that you don’t trust senior people, you don’t trust officers,” Switzer said. “You get to be the E-3 that holds the O-6 accountable.”
As the meeting progressed, a female service member noted that the lock on her room door broke and she was concerned for her safety.
Another female service member told Navy Times that several sailors have had issues with their door locks not working.
They were told repairs would take a few days and to leave their door propped open with the deadbolt out so they could get back in, which has raised safety concerns among some.
“Especially with coed barracks,” she said.
A leadership member who is not identified in the town hall recording said they heard “there was a rumor that the staff solution to that was to prop your door open during the day.”
“If that was ever recommended to you, that is not the acceptable answer,” the leader said.
Another attendee brought up issues with troops not being able to adjust their thermostats, while another said a shipmate didn’t have a working fridge and was living off canned food.
Switzer said they would get the member a fridge.
Another sailor said that when they first checked in, “the fridge was not working, the sink itself was leaking and the shower was not working at all.”
“I was put into that room … as if it was suitable, and had to move out the next day,” the sailor recalled. “So, is there any way we can get accountability?”
“It shouldn’t have happened,” Switzer said. “You’re right to be a little annoyed by that.”
“When can we expect room inspections?” another service member asked. “I had a roommate that was awful for six months, 23 pizza boxes in the room. I was getting sick. I finally moved.”
“That is a great thing to bring up with your chain of command,” Switzer said.
“That former roommate is now in charge of checking people out of the barracks,” the service member added.
Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated the year Comfort Hall was built due to erroneous information provided by the Navy. It was built in 1986.
Geoff is the editor of Navy Times, but he still loves writing stories. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James R. Webb is a rapid response reporter for Military Times. He served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. Additionally, he has worked as a Legislative Assistant in the US Senate and as an embedded photographer in Afghanistan.