U.S. military personnel serving at an air base in Qatar appreciate perks like a swimming pool, gym and the chance to help defeat ISIS, but they also face 120-degree temperatures, sandstorms and - worst of all - mattresses covered with black mold and restroom facilities where broken plumbing spews raw sewage.
The issues plaguing the Al Udeid Air Base in Doha, where more than 9,000 service members and civilians live and work to support the fight against terror, have been extensively reported on by Air Force Times. But they were raised once again last week during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the nomination of Brad Carson to serve as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
"I recently learned that our airmen . . . are being forced to live in potentially unhealthy facilities and may be getting sick from black mold exposure," Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who chairs the Readiness and Management Support subcommittee, said at the hearing. "Despite efforts by the local command there, and repeated requests of our airmen, the situation's not been fixed."
"No airman, let alone any soldier, Marine or sailor, should be exposed to this kind of living condition."
- Maj. Gen. William Reddel, New Hampshire Air National Guard
Ayotte’s staff has fielded complaints of "unacceptable" living conditions at the base, where about 100 New Hampshire Air National Guardsmen are stationed. Problems with black mold have reportedly plagued the base for years, and Ayotte said she has been told that black mold "is coming out of showers, it's in the bathrooms, it's in the curtains, and that some of our airmen are becoming sick and having symptoms as a result of it."
Maj. Gen. William Reddel, adjutant general of the New Hampshire Air National Guard, told Air Force Times he saw the disgusting conditions when he visited the base last November.
"I spoke to the base commander and he has been trying to address this issue, which has been years in the making, as best as he can, to include a replacement plan for the most severely affected housing units," Reddel said.
"No airman, let alone any soldier, Marine or sailor, should be exposed to this kind of living condition," Reddel said in a statement. "This can have a detrimental effect on morale and negatively impact the mission."
The complex, in some form, has been used since the 1990s. Ongoing construction on a permanent base began during the Iraq War, and another 20 new barracks are expected in the summer of 2016, Maj. Angela Webb, spokeswoman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, told Air Force Times on Feb. 18.
"This is an inexcusable failure at the senior level," said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony Carr, who spent a year at the base and now maintains the military blog JQPublicblog.com. "Either the generals haven’t created a healthy enough organizational climate to avail them of the knowledge of these problems despite their long-term predominance … or they haven’t responded energetically and effectively enough to remedy a glaringly unacceptable problem impacting the morale and welfare of airmen."
One problem may be that building materials used for the base cannot withstand the hot and humid environment in Doha, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees. Heavy rains and sandstorms cause problems as well, and residents are told to clean their facilities regularly.
“[Air conditioning] units, the most important thing, would break or overheat,” an airman identified as Anthony wrote to Air Force Times. “Just to be met with the response from the dorm managers by telling us to turn them down or turn them off briefly. This meant allowing the . . . heat to slowly cook your room rotisserie-style as you toss and turn all night.”
"It is not uncommon for there to be fires because the A/C units are so old and filthy that they overheat and catch fire," an airman, who asked he not be identified, added.
Contaminated water is another common complaint.
“I got extremely sick and was hospitalized for several days,” Master Sgt. Scott McKenzie, who left Al Udeid this month, told Air Force Times. “I was asked NUMEROUS times by the attending staff if I ‘used the sink water to brush my teeth?’ My initial reply was yes because we were never informed that the water could be a problem or potential health risk.”
At Thursday's hearing, Ayotte asked for a commitment to address the problem.
"I don't want to hear from my Guard that they're getting sick from mold,” Ayotte said. “Obviously, they put their lives on the line," she said.
Carson said he had been unaware of the problem, but would take immediate action if confirmed.
"I will immediately look into it and try to have something back to you by the end of next week with an explanation of what we're doing and mitigation strategy," he said.