FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Calvin and Rachael Kilpatrick never imagined living in private military housing might put them and their four children in harm's way.
But they started noticing problems as soon as they moved in.
"When you turned on our shower head, green sludge came out of it into the shower," Rachael said.
That was just the beginning. Water was leaking from ceilings and from the air conditioning unit. There was termite damage. And worst of all: mold in the carpets and walls.
Their multiple requests for repairs went to Corvias, one of many private companies that run military housing.
"We kept being told to stay in our lane, that we didn't know what we were talking about," she said.
The couple said they started battling health problems, including trouble breathing and other symptoms that doctors said were brought on by the mold.
"I've had to go to the ER four or five times," Calvin said, adding that he's been diagnosed with permanent asthma.
About 30 percent of military families live on bases, and most family housing on the bases are operated not by the military, but by private contractors like Corvias. In all, private companies provide homes for 700,000 service members and their families at more than 100 U.S. bases. Alleged problems with that housing — including lead poisoning, mold, and poor construction — drew national attention after a Reuters investigation last year.
"We're not alone"
At the suggestion of her command, Rachael Kilpatrick posted an online petition last October. So far, more than 3,000 people have signed it. In addition to Kilpatrick, NBC News has spoken to six other military families with similar stories.
"We realized that we're not alone," Rachael said. "And we also realized that it wasn't just here at Fort Bragg. It's bigger than we thought."
The Military Family Advisory Network conducted a survey and got more than 16,000 responses. Fifty-five percent of the respondents had a "negative" or "very negative" experience with privatized military housing.
Respondents across the country — in housing under different management companies — described instances of black mold, lead and even asbestos. Some reported "chronic illnesses" including respiratory ailments.
John Picerne, Corvias' founder and CEO, testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month.
"We let down some of our residents," he said. "I am sorry and we are going to fix it."
In a written statement to NBC News, the company said it was working "to reduce the backlog of work orders and improve our response time to service requests." It also said it was moving resident call centers back to local installations instead of remote third-party call centers — and hiring consulting firm to review its mold and mildew procedures.
But the Kilpatricks, who were at the hearing, were upset by something else Picerne said under questioning.
"Our net profits are closer to $12 to $14 million," Picerne revealed.
Several senators have now introduced a bill would require tougher oversight of private landlords.
"It made me really angry, really angry. Because I don't understand how you could treat people like that," Rachael Kilpatrick said. "It's a slap in the face."
At another Congressional hearing on Thursday, one senator also suggested the matter warrants a criminal investigation.
"There are clear indications of fraud," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D.-Conn., said. "I would recommend that these issues be referred to the United States Department of Justice."
Assistant Defense Secretary Robert McMahon told senators that the private contractors had improved on the housing that they took over from the military. "We know that privatization was the right decision," he said, "and that the quality of privatized housing is significantly better than when DOD managed it."
McMahon said most in the military were too young to have experienced "the poor housing conditions of the past." He also said the Defense Department's own "independently generated satisfaction rate" showed that in 2017, 85 percent of respondents living on base were satisfied with their housing.
Tenant Bill of Rights?
Corvias said it supports the development of a new tenant bill of rights that the Department of Defense is proposing. According to a Pentagon spokesperson, it's intended to increase the accountability of privatized housing companies by putting more oversight authority in the hands of local military leaders.
But at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday, senators pressed the service secretaries on the fine print of such a bill of rights, including how to renegotiate decades-long contracts with landlords hired the military's privatization program. The military started privatizing its housing in the 1990s.
Last week, Secretary of the Army Mark Esper visited Fort Bragg and held a town hall with soldiers and their families. He also toured homes on the installation.
At the Thursday hearing, Esper admitted the Army could have done more.
"In too many cases," Esper said, "it is clear the private housing companies failed to uphold their end of the bargain — a failure that was enabled by the Army's insufficient oversight."
The Kilpatricks’ complaints have drawn attention in recent weeks as members of the committee, including chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., toured Fort Bragg.
"You've never seen government work as fast as it's worked in the last three weeks," Inhofe said.
Just days after NBC News toured the Kilpatricks' house, Fort Bragg officials moved them out and offered them another home on base at no cost.
"We have been deeply troubled by the deficient housing conditions," Col. Kyle Reed, the garrison commander, said in a written statement. "Corvias' performance has been poor and inadequate up to this point. However, we are seeing improvements daily."
Fort Bragg officials also said they'd looked into the response rate for the privatized housing management team.
"Although the response time was appropriate," Reed said, "we found that the workmanship and quality of work in the Kilpatrick home was poor and unacceptable, compounding the problem and resulting in further damage behind walls and ceiling."
Reed said that an air quality test was conducted on the home in October 2018, but the results of that test returned acceptable levels in the home. Still, more investigation of the couple's home revealed "additional water damage not previously addressed and termite damage within the walls."
For Calvin and Rachael Kilpatrick — a couple serving their country — it's a battle they never expected to fight on the home front.
"These families deserve to have a livable home," Calvin said. "It just needs to be fixed."