Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland became the focus of national media attention in late July after a Facebook page, amn/nco/snco, shared photos of rampant mold growth in its technical training dormitories.
The images showed blooms of mold on a pillow, as well as patches on shoes, bedding, uniform items and walls.
The resulting firestorm of criticism prompted the 502d Air Base Wing, responsible for logistics at JBSA, to launch an inspection of all 77 dormitory buildings on base. Approximately 1,300 rooms total had some presence of mold, with nearly 1,200 at Lackland. Some 500 individuals across JBSA were temporarily relocated.
Workers from the 502d Civil Engineering Group tried to remediate the mold by putting up ceiling fans, ripping up carpet and installing vinyl planks in its place. Bleach and bio-agents were also used to inhibit further growth.
Ten people reported minor symptoms in connection with the mold, according to Maj. Gen. John DeGoes of Lackland’s 59th Medical Wing.
“So the primary health concern with exposure to mold are allergy-like symptoms. It'd be itchy, watery eyes. Runny nose. Sore throat. Those who have asthma could have an asthma flare,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Laura Lenderman, commander of the 502d Air Base Wing, said mold has long been a problem in the dorms — due to factors like heat, humidity and aging infrastructure — and was the target of ongoing maintenance efforts
“What we didn't know was the extent of the problem. It's that social media blast that allowed us to understand the extent,” said Lenderman.
She pointed out that a dorm and campus improvement plan was in the works before photos of the mold were posted online. But she admits that social media helped speed up the process.
“We were able to implement pieces and parts of that plan as well as some other new ideas, based on the situation we're currently facing. To provide momentum and a catalyst to the solutions,” Lenderman said.
The military has long struggled to manage complaints about mold. In February, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a series of hearings that exposed problems that families were facing with mold in private housing on bases across the country. Lawmakers took military leadership to task over their lack of responsiveness — and passed a defense budget which includes certain housing protections.
Kelly Hruska of National Military Family Association said that, although the majority of those hearings focused on private housing, a bigger picture emerged.
“In bits and pieces, you would hear that privatized housing was just the tip of the iceberg. And that when you looked at some of the barracks, and you looked at some of the older work buildings, that they were facing similar problems with mold,” said Hruska.
She added the photos of widespread mold at Lackland have helped to spotlight the problem, and that the use of social media is telling.
“The fact that they were posting the pictures on Facebook tells me that there may have been a breakdown in the reporting,” Hruska said. “I will say that a lot of the focus has been on the housing. So this tells us that we need to expand some of these protections, and to make sure that it includes all installation facilities.”
In the weeks since Lackland’s mold problem exploded on social media, base leaders have used some of the same tools to respond. They’ve documented their cleanup efforts across Twitter and Facebook, and created a mold remediation website to keep service members and the public updated.
When asked about that concerted PR effort, Hruska said it likely had two purposes.
“I think leadership wanted to signal, ‘We take this seriously.’ But I also think they wanted to signal that not reporting this or taking appropriate action is a problem also,” she said.
Back at JBSA-Lackland, Brig. Gen. Lenderman said she’s committed to transparency, and is determined to rebuild faith in her wing.
“I trust everyone who works with me and for me. I trust them with my life. If we’ve lost any amount of trust with our airmen because of this situation with the dorms,” she said. “That’s my job to rebuild that trust.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.