Decent housing for our military

August 11, 2010

Our report on military construction (see page 50) brought back some bittersweet memories. In the summer of 1955, my mother took me on my first trip beyond the Hudson River. We were on our way from New York to Washington, D.C., and — what luck! — we had two seats "upstairs" in our Greyhound "SceniCruiser," right behind the big front window, the best view of all. Our final destination: Quantico, Va., where my brother, then a staff sergeant in the Marines, was stationed with his family.

My brother was named Arthur, after my father, but he was known in the family simply as Brother. He was the second oldest of the seven of us, and the craziest. Once, during the Depression, my mother gave him all the money in the house to buy two cans of soup, milk, and a loaf of bread to feed the whole family. He came home hours later, having spent the money at the movies.

In the last months of the war, not even 17 years old, he forged my mother's signature and enlisted himself into the Navy. After the armistice, he decided the Navy was too soft and re-upped with the Marines, in which he served for 26 years. If you've read Pat Conroy's powerful novel The Great Santini, or have seen the movie with Robert Duvall, my brother could have been the title character, minus the air wings.

The week at Quantico was a ball. My sister-in-law took me and my two nephews, who were nearly my age, to the PX, where everything was dirt cheap compared to what we civilians paid. The swimming pool was the biggest and most beautiful I had ever seen, but I nearly died when my nephews made me to jump from the 24-foot-high deck. Best of all was dinner at the NCO golf club, which my brother ran, and where my mother and I were treated like visiting royalty. In fact, every so often during my brother's years at Quantico, the call would come in from Washington, and he would get to caddy in President Eisenhower's foursome.

Looking back, the wonderful memories of that trip were tempered by recollections of the appalling housing conditions in which my brother's family had to live. In those days, housing for the families of NCOs and enlisted men at Quantico was nothing short of slum like, nor did it get better elsewhere. I remember my mother reading letters from my sister-in-law, describing the gargantuan mosquitoes that found their way through broken screens into their house — a shack, really — in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was like that for more than 20 years.

That's why it is encouraging to see, as we report in this issue, that the Defense Department has elevated the importance of decent housing for enlisted personnel and their families. With nearly two-thirds of military facilities in substandard condition, according to the General Accounting Office, it's high time that we give our service personnel, their spouses, and their children, a decent place to live. Who deserves it more?


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