Army Secretary apologizes to military families living in dangerous housing conditions

Report on military families' living conditions gets response

The Pentagon — Secretary of the Army Mark Esper on Friday apologized to thousands of families living in dangerous conditions in military housing, which has long been maintained not by the military but by private contractors. 

Families like that of Jana Wanner, who testified Wednesday before Congress.

"Mold was growing out of the wall of our shower," Wanner said. "They told us, and this is a direct quote, let the mold just fall out."

Other major problems: lead in the water, asbestos, leaking ceilings, roaches, mice and rats.

"I am infuriated by what I'm hearing today," said Sen. Martha McSally. "This is disgusting."

Esper said he wants to renegotiate contracts with property management companies to give tenants more power, including "a clear bill of rights for our families — for our soldiers and our families."

"So they know what they can do what their rights are that they can bring to the chain of command if they feel that the contractors are not meeting their needs," Esper said.

One change would hit those companies right where it hurts.

"If a family isn't getting the service they want then I think they should have the ability to withhold their basic allowance for housing payments," Esper said.

Senators outraged by testimony about living conditions on military bases

Sgt. Major of the Army Daniel Dailey worries contractors' neglect could affect recruiting and mission success. If soldiers are worried about how their family is surviving in the U.S. with mold and rats, how can they do their job overseas?

"We need our soldiers focused on doing their job fighting and winning our nation's wars," Dailey said.

Wanner, whose family lives at Fort Meade in Maryland, is encouraged by the new focus on military housing conditions but worries if it will last.

"I don't want the steam to be lost and I want to keep moving forward and I want that change made and I want families to be heard," Wanner said.

Just four years ago, the Pentagon investigated military family housing and found "pervasive health and safety hazards" — but the conditions continued to fester. CBS News asked Esper if that might happen again, and he said no. This time, he vowed, "we're going to get it right."

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.