Military spouses Crystal Cornwall and Jean Coffman are the June Milspouse Influencers of the Month.
They are the women who went to Capitol Hill to speak up on behalf of military families.
A group of military spouses is taking on Capitol Hill to bring attention to what they say are dire conditions in on-base housing.
“I have felt the helplessness of a fellow Marine Corps spouse as she held her new baby and sobbed while we stood under a collapsing, moldy ceiling,” Crystal Cornwall told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 13. “And I have been to the town halls where families were dismissed and they also feared retaliation for reporting their concerns.”
The experience was an emotional one for Cornwall, who held back tears through parts of her testimony.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking because we were on television, but at the same time it was kind of liberating because finally people were hearing families,” Cornwall said in a recent interview with Military Spouse. “It was time for them to be heard, so that was the most important part of that.”
Tales of military housing woes run the gamut from worn carpet to black mold to lead paint to rodent infestations, and beyond. Cornwall and another military spouse, Jean Coffman, are the leaders are of a group of spouses fighting back. They are taking on not only the private companies that make hundreds of millions of dollars managing military housing, but also military leaders who they say let this situation happen in the first place, and turned a blind eye to decades of complaints from families living on bases around the world.
“The military has really skirted some of their culpability with this,” Cornwall said. “I think it’s shared blame.” The women recently formed a nonprofit called Safe Military Housing Initiative, “so that someone’s always watching.”
Cornwall and Coffman first tried to bring the issue to the attention of military officials in 2017. No one seemed to listen, until a series of scathing reports called “Ambushed at Home” by the news organization Reuters. Those reports detailed not only the stories of dilapidated housing that are well known among military families, but also dove deep into the lucrative private housing military housing industry and how it came to be.
Cornwall and Coffman had been sending information from their own investigations to Reuters for two years, hoping that media attention would bring military housing issues to the attention of leaders both inside and outside the base gates. And it did. What’s followed since the Reuters reports has been a rash of on-base town hall meetings and congressional hearings, with housing officials sometimes passing the buck and sometimes promising to do more, and with military officials pledging to set things right.
Cara Barber, another Marine Corps spouse, also traveled to Capitol Hill for the recent hearings and submitted written testimony to the committee about her experiences in on-base housing, including a lawsuit she and a group of fellow residents filed in 2014 over high levels of pesticide in the soil at Marine Corps housing in Hawaii.
In an email interview, Barber said military families often suffer without anyone to advocate for them because they are such a small minority of the overall population.
“Military families sacrifice a great deal to protect and defend our country and freedoms, so the least our country can do is make sure their health and safety is adequately protected in their assigned homes at U.S. military bases,” Barber said. Cornwall, Barber, and their group of dedicated spouses are champions for those who are too afraid of retaliation to speak out.
They say they have seen families, including some members of the group, suffer harassment, be unfairly evicted or receive backlash from their command after complaining.
“I think that’s probably the scariest thing because I’m really concerned about my husband’s career right now,” Cornwall said “I understand the fear because we fear it, too.”
After the flurry of attention, and promises by military leaders of more hearings and more investigations, will anything actually change? Cornwall is not optimistic.
“I think that things are essentially the same business as usual,” she said. “We know it’s not going to go away. We’re going to be back in this same spot in five years, I guarantee it. “What is the plan? Who’s getting these houses up to code? How? Who’s paying for it? There’s a lot of unanswered questions.”
But yet she will continue the fight, while raising her own family and juggling a career as a bank loan officer, because she believes someone has to take the lead and stand up for what is right.
“You are stronger when you are among other military spouses who are advocating for the same thing,” Cornwall said. “We have an obligation to each other to stand up and speak up for those who can’t.”