A scam older than Sgt. Bilko

By David Hackworth

Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

I doubt if there’s one serving general or admiral who as a young officer wasn’t ripped off by one of the oldest military scams going: The sting that kicks in whenever a warrior clears post or base quarters and needs to pass inspection quick smart.

Even though the brass could stop this decades-old racket still going down at almost every U.S. military installation in less than a drill-sergeant minute, they haven’t. The probable reason: CRS (can’t remember “squat”) syndrome, an institutional disease endemic to the upper ranks.

If the brass can’t remember the hard lessons of the Vietnam War, with its many scary parallels to our bloody quagmire in Iraq, because of institutional Alzheimer’s, why wouldn’t CRS apply to quarters’ inspections as well?

Retired Army Maj. John D. Storer explains how the sorry scheme works:

You could try to clear your quarters yourself, even though you’d never pass when the Housing Inspector came, or you could use a list provided by the housing office of “approved” housecleaners who “guaranteed” you’d pass first time. The fee to these cleaning services was anywhere from 250 to 500 bucks, and there was always a link between one of the inspectors and a housecleaning company.

Because the standards of “clean” are grossly skewed – very low for the cleaning teams vs. old-Army-first-sergeant high for everyone else – service members are forced to use the post’s or base’s preferred cleaning team. No amount of do-it-yourself scrubbing will pass the housing inspector’s crooked white-glove inspection.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Jack Kingston, who was victimized by this extortion for 30 years, says:

Inspection-failing gigs were: grease or dirt on/under the stovetop, oven grill, air filters, exhaust fans and stained rugs.

Frequently the inspectors’ relatives or friends were part of the for-hire cleaning team. Every time the good wife and I tried to clean it ourselves, it was an absolute no-go.

A Navy wife named Betsy, who understandably asks to remain anonymous, says:

The inspector always goes through our homes with a fine-toothed comb, even using a urine-o-meter. Yup, they actually have invented such a thing, and if the alarm goes off on one small spot … the entire carpet must be replaced!

A neighbor brought over a puppy two years prior, and the little thing piddled on our carpet … We were told that the entire downstairs carpet had to be replaced at a cost of $800! I argued over the unreasonableness of this … The small patch, which was no longer visible, could easily be replaced … and the carpet was not worth $800 even when new. The inspector said she knew of a contractor who would do the job for $650 … and of another contractor who would install a new dishwasher because of one small rust stain … for $500 … and for $350, a landscaper would replace my entire backyard lawn because of a spot that was bare – much of the base’s soil is alkali-laden and hard to grow grass in.

I refused to go along with this “kickback” game … I stated that I wanted the old carpet and would replace it myself, as well as the small patch of lawn … and scrubbed off the offending rust stain in front of the inspector. I then asked her for her superior’s name … She backed off quickly, gave me an A-plus passing … and that was the end of that.

I’m older than many of the wives … and I’ve heard many a horror story about the thousands of dollars some of these young enlisted kids are forced to pay … and they do so without reporting it for fear of harming their career. We are all told that if the house is not up to specs, at any given time, not just when we move out, that our husbands will be brought before their chief, and a “black mark” will be on their permanent record. Over a rust stain? Hmmm.

Former Marine base-housing inspector Thomas Calabrese says, “Criminal misconduct by base-housing officials was rampant during my day, and our leaders knew about it and did nothing to prevent it.”

It’s time the top brass deep-sixed their CRS and stopped the cleaning cabal from cleaning out our service personnel’s already-thin wallets with this shameful scheme. Maybe officers, captain or higher, can afford the payoff. But as Maj. Storer says, “Joe Tentpeg can’t.”