Nine Army families are suing their privatized base housing landlords at Fort Hood, Texas, over what they say were life-threatening levels of mold and "deplorable" conditions in their homes that ruined their belongings.
The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Antonio, charges that the problems occurred during and after a scandal erupted in 2018 and 2019 over living conditions in military housing communities nationwide.
Complaints from military families following a Reuters report detailing the disrepair and hazardous conditions in privately managed on-base housing prompted promises from the companies and pledges from military officials and lawmakers to fix the problems.
But the issues have not gone away, according to the families at Fort Hood. In an 83-page lawsuit, they charged that Fort Hood Family Housing LP, FHFH, Inc., and Lend Lease US Public Partnerships, LLC, failed to properly address issues in their homes, including hazardous states of disrepair, persistent dampness and high levels of mold.
The families reported developing asthma, skin rashes, nosebleeds, blurred vision, chronic respiratory issues and mental distress while living on base. One family said their oldest child is coughing up blood and has attempted suicide before being diagnosed with severe depression. That depression, the child said, started "when he had to throw out all of his mold-contaminated toys."
"Fort Hood is nicknamed 'The Great Place,' but service members and their families have discovered that living there is anything but 'great.' Instead, many service members' time living there has been marred by neglected, filthy living conditions in on-post housing that has caused the service members and their families injury, personal property damage, illness, heartache, and insult," said Ryan Reed, an attorney with Pulman, Cappuccio & Pullen, LLP., one of the law firms representing the group.
The suit is the latest in a series of legal actions taken by military families alleging that the companies that manage military housing have breached contracts, committed fraud, engaged in deceptive trade practices and are guilty of gross negligence.
Last September, a Marine family was awarded $2 million in a suit against San Diego Family Housing and parent company, Lincoln Military Housing, alleging that water damage, mold and dilapidated conditions in their home at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego caused health problems and damage to their property. But a judge ordered a new trial in December, saying the award was excessive.
Similar lawsuits have been filed over housing at Fort Meade, Maryland, and San Antonio.
In the Fort Hood suit, the families described attempts to have the issues resolved. But the post housing office, they said, brushed off the concerns, took shortcuts in making repairs or simply didn't fix the problems.
Sgt. Jason Kiernan and Sarah Kiernan, the couple whose oldest son was diagnosed with depression after living at Fort Hood, said they experienced respiratory distress living in their home, and all of their children had health problems.
Jason Kiernan, a Marine Corps veteran with combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, said he experienced migraines and had to destroy some of his military equipment and clothing due to mold contamination.
At one point in their house on Drum Song Trail, one of their children fell through a soggy wall in his bedroom, revealing extensive mold behind the drywall, according to the lawsuit. Their youngest child, born while the family lived in the house, allegedly experienced such extensive respiratory distress in the house that he was sent to the post hospital and then medevaced to a children's hospital, where at the age of two months, he spent 20 days in pediatric intensive care with pneumonia.
After a doctor expressed his concerns over the baby's health, Fort Hood Family Housing put the Kiernans in a hotel room with a queen bed and pullout sofa, where they, their three children, including the infant on oxygen, and two dogs lived until they moved out of state, according to the suit.
For Sgt. 1st Class William Hamilton and Courtney Hamilton, duty at Fort Hood got off to a bad start when the couple moved into a base house and immediately encountered fire ants in the backyard. They began experiencing odd health symptoms in the home, which they described as smelling constantly like "stale Fritos," according to the suit.
In June 2019, as Courtney Hamilton was cleaning a bathroom floor, a tile popped out, revealing a layer of dark mold underneath, according to the lawsuit. The mold had infiltrated the subflooring, according to the Hamiltons, but the Fort Hood Family Housing declined to remove the subflooring and instead simply replaced the floor and carpeting, the suit alleges.
A company spokeswoman said Fort Hood Family Housing believes it has "acted appropriately" and is prepared to "take all necessary steps to defend these allegations."
She added that the company has policies that ensure it responds to residents' requests for repairs and maintenance.
"Our teams are dedicated to providing quality housing to the military families we serve. This is a job that we take very seriously and one that we are honored to have," according to a statement provided by the company.
A Fort Hood spokesman said base officials were aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment on it or the allegations.
"Lend Lease [is] the majority (controlling) partner and the Army [is] the minority. Privatization of Fort Hood's family housing was approved by the Army in 2001 under the Residential Communities Initiative program," said Tom Rheinlander, director of Fort Hood Public Affairs.
Other firms representing the families in the suit include the Law Offices of James R. Moriarty, Houston; Watts Guerra LLP, San Antonio; and Johnson Reist PLLC, Plano, Texas.
Additional parties in the suit include Sgt. 1st Class Jesus and Emilee Brown; Staff Sgt. Stephen and Allison Shea; Staff Sgt. Adam and Tiffany Vaughn; Staff Sgt. James and Brittney Butler; Spc. John and Lily Kelley; Capt. Michael and Sarah Jo Proulx; and retired Sgt. Melissa and Samuel Douglass.
The lawsuit seeks a jury trial and compensation for the families for loss of their personal belongings, mental anguish, economic damage and future costs related to medical conditions related to exposure.
Fort Hood Family Housing manages 5,617 houses at Fort Hood. Across the country, according to the lawsuit, private companies manage more than 200,000 military homes, or 99% of the Pentagon's housing stock.
But while DoD and the services are supposed to exercise oversight over the contracts and agreements with the companies, they largely have failed to do so.
In 2019, the National Defense Authorization Act required the Defense Department to inspect homes, resolve issues and implement reforms to ensure that the problems did not recur. It also proffered a tenant bill of rights that included 15 conditions housing offices must agree to, including the right to have a house in working order, and prompt repairs.
DoD also is working on efforts to provide service members with the rights to receive a maintenance history of their homes and withhold rent if disputes with their landlords are not resolved.
The Military Housing Advocacy Network, a group formed after Reuters' award-winning series was published, called the Fort Hood suit "a step towards accountability" that is needed since the Defense Department or the housing companies have not fixed long-standing problems.
"These companies must be investigated on a larger scale, their blatant violations of service members and tenant rights are only currently being held accountable through litigation. Our military families deserve safe and accessible homes without needing to seek legal counsel," the organization said in a statement.