As more members of Congress question the deplorable conditions at Al Udeid Air Base, the Air Force is scrambling to clean up.
On Thursday, Rep. Martha Roby, R-Alabama, joined the Udeid inquisition. Roby said she recently received a text message from a fellow service member stationed at the Qatar base citing media reports that the conditions of the base is in decline due to mold growth.
"He told me these reports are not made up, they are real," Roby said, addressing Miranda Ballentine, Air Force assistant secretary for installations, during a hearing Thursday.
"I know our National Guard members have been exposed to this unhealthy environment and I have read the internal document of how this is going to be addressed, but clearly it's not being addressed quickly enough," Roby continued. "What can I tell my friend, who's there for a short time,...but who is concerned for those who are there for [a longer] duration?"
Ballentine, who said she had recently visited the base, said there are a range of challenges the Air Force faces in expeditionary facilities.
"There is a four-point program that the team has instituted on the ground and the [Air Force] secretary has asked the team to expand on and accelerate, including maintenance, repair, renovation and replacement," Ballentine told Air Force Times in a phone call after the hearing.
Elements of the plan, Ballentine said, were initiated on Feb. 15 by Brig. Gen. Darren James, commander of 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid.
"When Gen. James assumed command last summer...he identified the need to focus more on the facilities and facility challenges at large," said Maj. Gen. Tim Green, Air Force director of civil engineers during the phone call. "I think he would say he's been working on this for a longer period of time, and now the investments and the funding are just starting to catch up."
Green explained that out of the 30,000 work orders the the 379th Civil Engineer Squadron responded to in the last 14 months, only 149 were for a request for mold. About 104 were related to air conditioning and HVAC units.
Green and Ballentine said they urge airmen "not to sit on" putting in work requests. She also encouraged them to seek medical treatment for mold exposure, given its tendency to grow in the humid environment.
"Every single one of these requests are assigned an urgent priority and addressed within 24 hours," Ballentine said. "It is a problem, and we address every one urgently."
Maj. Gen. Dorothy Hogg, Air Force deputy surgeon general, also on the call, said that all airmen who have come forward with concerns or with symptoms presenting allergies have been evaluated, but to date, no follow-up care has been needed.
Out of 165 airmen who recently came back from the theater, only 34 documented "some concern of mold exposure," Ballentine said. No follow-ups were required, she said.
No cases can definitively be linked to the mold exposure because the deployed environment also presents health changes, Hogg added.
"There are over one thousand species of mold that are in our environment today, and the type of mold is not what we need to be focusing on," Hogg said, addressing whether the mold has been tested for detrimental side effects. "We need to be focusing on getting rid of the mold."
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James "have asked that [Air Forces Central Command] to continue to step up the pace" to maintain and clean the facilities, Ballentine said.
More help to repair and renovate
"We have also changed the custodial contract there, and that has already started to show some benefits...and then replace, repair and then start to move people into more permanent facilities this summer," Ballentine said during the briefing.
The contracting office at Al Udeid established a new five-year custodial contract which gives more government oversight to the 379th Expeditionary Contracting Squadron that includes ground maintenance, according to a release from the base. The contract, not immediately specifying a provider, is $2 million cheaper than the previous one.
The Air Force has previously held installation service contracts with DynCorp International.
The service is also soliciting another maintenance contract to aid "sustainment, alteration, repair, renovation, and minor construction projects at Al Udeid AB, Qatar," according to a pending request on FedBizOps.gov.
In the next six months, over 2,500 people should be moved into the 20 new living quarters, Ballentine said.
The older living trailers, which have only been built to withstand five to 10 years of service, were built with expeditionary service in mind. But now as the Air Force transitions from "partially expeditionary to partially semi-permanent," Ballentine said the service is aware the quarters are well past their expiration date.
But the new facilities to replace them are still a work in progress.
"In August 2015, during inspection of the first eight buildings for turnover, several fan coil units associated with the air conditioning had scorch marks due to mis-wiring," Maj. Angela Webb, spokeswoman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, told Air Force Times on Feb. 18.
"In January, after the units were re-wired and the motors were replaced, approximately 50% of the units were still operating in an over-amperage condition," she said. "The 379th Air Expeditionary Wing is not willing to put any residents into these units without a definitive cause and fix of the overheating, ensuring that the structures are safe for personnel."
Roby, on the House Appropriations Committee, requested that the Air Force keep updating her and members of the subcomittee on Veterans Affairs and Military Construction as more information becomes available.
Ballentine said airmen are also pivotal to helping leadership address the issue, and are also the Air Force's top priority.
"My goodness, I hope they're coming forward when I see there have been 149 work orders submitted...for mold, but then I see they're expressing concern in public forums," she said. "I worry that there may be a disconnect, and that's also something we're taking a look at.
Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East, Europe and Pacific for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at email@example.com.