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For many of the uniformed folks who defend America, military housing
is a nightmare. Maybe it’s always been that way. Back in the 1920s, Ike,
Omar Bradley and Joe Stillwell had less than good things to say about
the armpits they were issued for their families to live in.

We can thank our lucky stars these three brilliant future senior
leaders didn’t turn in their soldier suits to take high-paying civilian
jobs during the Roaring ’20s. Positions that would’ve rewarded their
families with the proverbial white trophy house on the hill. But despite
the miserable housing, lousy pay and sticks for weapons, all three hung
on, went onward and upward — and became the main men who did a number
on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Today, one of the central reasons young professionals are hanging it
up in all of our services is because of the same kind of inferior
housing Ike and his peers endured. But unlike them, our warriors are
Generation Xers whose tolerance for mediocrity runs thin — especially
with employment conditions on the outside just too temptingly juicy to
grin and bear it.

Then, too, Ike and his mates didn’t have to sweat the many
separations brought about by all the peacekeeping operations. Today, our
warriors are frequently away on missions in places like Kuwait and
Kosovo. Their families, for all intents and purposes, are left stranded
in government quarters surrounded by crumbling walls; asbestos-wrapped
leaking pipes; peeling, lead-based paint; and ceilings that are mold
farms.

Quitting has become almost a no-brainer. When mommy’s not happy,
daddy starts polishing his resume. An unparalleled number of expensively
trained and skilled noncoms and young officers are checking out of all
the services. A lot of factors are driving this exodus, but poor housing
is high on the list.

A Pentagon report says that more than half of the 1.4 million
active-duty members of our armed forces live in housing older than their
commander in chief and in serious need of triage.

The Army says more than half of its housing units are wrecks and that
it will take $6 billion and about 40 years — at current spending levels
– to get the job done. A congressional study says it will take 30 years
and $20 billion to refurbish 200,000 houses.

Last week while visiting Fort Benning, Ga., which repeatedly wins the
award for “Best U.S. Army Installation in the World,” I visited a friend
at his base house. It looked like it hadn’t been renovated since I was
stationed there in 1952.

The electrical system could have been out of a WWII submarine — with
wires running amuck. The window-installed air conditioner wheezed,
rattled, sent out puffs of white smoke and was so loud that I had to
spend the evening yelling in order to yak with my pal — who was sitting
right next to me.

My friend, his wife and child shared one 1950-plumbed bathroom. The
porcelain sink and toilet were cracked in many places and leaked. The
medicine cabinet was rusted through, and the tile floor looked like it
had been beaten by a hammer.

The kitchen was Motel-6 small, with little cabinet or counter space.
And it was made even smaller by the numerous coats of paint that caked
the walls like pancake makeup on an aging circus performer.

I had better digs as a reporter in a bombed-out village in war-torn
Bosnia. If my son, his wife and kids lived in such appalling conditions,
I’d call a van and move them from those shameful conditions quick-smart.

Fort Benning’s chief of housing, Ken Hankins, is doing the best job
he can. But, he says, “Money is in short supply.” He’s spending “$13
million this year renovating 120 homes” like the one I visited — with
“1,700 homes that need renovating.”

Al Gore recently spent more than $2 million in taxpayer dollars
renovating his VP’s pad in Washington, D.C., while Dubya’s building a
palatial mansion on his Texas spread.

Maybe these two presidential wannabes should mosey down to Fort
Benning to see how the other half lives.

And then tell these good men and women who serve America so proudly
just what they’re going to do to fix this insulting mess if they get the
job.

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