CAMP ROBERTS – Most California Army National Guard members who deploy to the killing fields of Afghanistan first train here, a sprawling landscape of barracks, assault courses and firing ranges straddling San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties.
Before those soldiers encounter the depredations of war, they face the deprivations of Camp Roberts.
In Building 4001, service members routinely see raw sewage bubbling up from shower drains and toilets and spilling onto the floor, according to a February report by Sgt. Dustin Shepherd, noncommissioned officer in charge of camp operations.
Building 6038, where soldiers check in for training, recently lacked heat despite temperatures dropping to 30 degrees, and had no air conditioning for blazing summer days.
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"I am literally sick over this," Shepherd wrote to superiors in a February e-mail obtained by The Bee, "and completely disgusted with the lack of soldier care."
Similar disrepair typifies much of California's largest Guard base.
Scores of buildings created as temporary structures during the urgency of World War II are still in use with jury-rigged plumbing, missing floor coverings and peeling paint. Some are falling apart.
Yet a Bee investigation found that millions of dollars in building materials, appliances and other supplies sit unused or ruined in Camp Roberts warehouses. Inventory controls are so poor, according to internal Guard reports obtained by The Bee, that officials don't know what they have or what is missing. Meanwhile, the camp routinely orders dozens of unneeded items.
The decrepitude of what Guard officials call a "State of the Art Readiness Center for Deploying Soldiers," say service members who know the camp well, stems from decades of deferred maintenance and neglect. Other state facilities – including nearby Camp San Luis Obispo, which boasts a well-appointed officers club and picturesque chapel with gazebo – have been updated and expanded.
"It's a travesty – their lack of care for soldiers," said retired Col. William Hatch, who commanded Camp Roberts from 2003 to 2004. "If we are sending them to war, we owe them the best training facilities. We owe that to the soldiers, their families and the citizens of the state of California."
Deterioration and waste
Camp Roberts' namesake is Cpl. Harold W. Roberts, a tank driver in World War I who won a Congressional Medal of Honor for valor. The camp opened in 1941. A now-shabby parade ground at its heart reflects early pride – at 1,400 yards long, it's the largest in the nation, according to the camp's official history.
Camp Roberts is by far the largest of the California Guard's three major training camps. On average more than 1,100 soldiers train here per day. Counting salaries for 560 full-time employees, modernization and federal stimulus funds, camp officials project its annual economic footprint at $58 million.
The Guard licensed Camp Roberts in 1971 from the U.S. Army as a training site for marksmanship, tank maneuvers and other battle skills. In recent years, it has upgraded firing ranges and utilities; cleaned sewer lines; replaced roofs, siding and windows on some barracks; and enhanced a fitness room and a recreation center. Federal stimulus funds paid for $14 million of the improvements.
Yet during a recent tour of the camp, signs of overall dilapidation were evident.
A storm had reduced terrain around some barracks to mud. Inside some buildings, linoleum floors were torn up, many walls battered and stained. Splintering handrails led upstairs, bare bulbs lighting the way. Some showers were rusted and filthy, some windows boarded up.
The camp swimming pool has been defunct for years. In a gymnasium "fight house" used to teach soldiers hand-to-hand combat, aged floor mats no longer align – a serious safety hazard.
Some employees line office doorways with sticky mousetraps in a vain effort to keep out mice.
In a recently prepared slide presentation, the camp's commander, Col. Barbara A. Nuismer, called the antiquated electrical distribution system unreliable and in some cases unsafe. She noted that some buildings lack interior wiring or fire alarms.
"Admittedly, Camp Roberts is in need of significant improvements, and our leadership will not rest until they are realized," Guard officials said in a written statement.
They called barrack upgrades a top priority, for which they were seeking $75 million in federal funds. Even so, they said all barracks have smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, and troops housed in them patrol throughout the night, partly to watch for fires. They discounted suggestions that the camp is "overrun by mice" or "saturated by 'raw sewage.' "
Nearby, the camp ghost town features 658 long-condemned structures with collapsing walls and shattered windows that gaze blankly at passing jeeps. Signs warn of toxic contamination, such as lead, asbestos and hantavirus, an often deadly rodent-borne disease. A decaying building marked "NBC" – nuclear, biological chemical defense – and a sagging chapel serve as grim sentinels of a bygone training metropolis of the first rank.
Guard officials want to tear down the old buildings and fix two condemned bridges, they said, but lack the funds for those jobs and many others.
They said camp maintenance had been ignored by the federal government before the Guard took over. The problems are a legacy of early federal management, they said, and 40 years of Guard stewardship has not been sufficient to remedy them.
"Funding we receive has only allowed for a portion of what is needed to properly maintain the site," Guard officials wrote, "let alone bring it back from disrepair."
But a June 2010 inspection report obtained by The Bee suggests that some of the shabbiness stems from a breakdown in storing and tracking millions of dollars of supplies and tools in a row of 70-year-old, rundown warehouses where appliances and office furniture rust outside on loading docks.
The report says accounting for much of the property was impossible, in part because more than half of all contents, valued at millions of dollars, were not logged. Sorely needed building materials, worth an estimated half-million dollars, had aged past their usable life span. Sheetrock and wood doors rotted outside, according to the report, and vehicles damaged in accidents were left untouched for up to a year.
Another camp report says only one warehouse worker was employed to maintain the camp's entire inventory in buildings with jumbled shelves and leaky roofs. Even four full-time workers, the report indicated, would need more than 18 months to put the warehouses right.
Meanwhile, Camp Roberts purchased dozens of unused weed trimmers and 31 sets of 100 drill bits, the inspector indicated, "even though they have hundreds of spare bits on hand."
"If the people of the state of California knew how their tax money is being spent but then not used," the inspector wrote, "there would be an uproar."
Officials responded that the warehouse problems were overstated, and "limited manning and funding has forced us to be selective in which ills we would remedy first, but we have been neither inactive nor neglectful in that effort."
Follow the money
Camp Roberts' lowly status in the eyes of Guard leaders seemed clear in December 2003, Hatch said, when a powerful earthquake damaged camp structures, including a large warehouse and an ammunition bunker. The former commander now directs a training center for the state Emergency Management Agency.
His staff at Camp Roberts estimated $17 million in repairs were needed. The Army Corps of Engineers conducted its own assessment and confirmed only $4 million in damage, Hatch said.
He didn't fault those figures, he said, because "it was really hard, due to the state of degradation of Camp Roberts, to see what was really caused by the earthquake."
But the $4 million never trickled down to Camp Roberts during Hatch's tenure. After he left in 2004, he said, he asked the new commander, Col. John Smith, whether the money had ever arrived. It hadn't.
Guard officials said $4.7 million for quake repair was received in fiscal 2005, of which $2 million went to Camp Roberts to fix a theater, a propane leak and sewer lines, among other problems. The rest went to Camp San Luis Obispo and other facilities.
A former director of operations at Camp Roberts, retired Lt. Col. Russell A. Smith (no relation to John Smith), attributed the camp's condition to larger, routine diversions of funds. Last week he told the California Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that, since 1989, $550 million has been taken from funds designated for Camp Roberts to pay salaries to top Guard officers and for improvements at Camp San Luis Obispo and another base.
Guard officials called Smith's figures "egregiously inaccurate," because they exceeded the overall federal allocation for all facility improvements, and because such funds are not earmarked by facility.
This year, Camp Roberts will get nearly $5 million from a $12 million allotment.
The California Bureau of State Audits in recent years has issued three reports about possible diversions of funds, without directly addressing Camp Roberts. Some federal money – which comprises the vast majority of the Guard's roughly $1 billion annual budget – might have been shifted improperly to pay employees who did not work on funded projects. Since at least 2007, auditors wrote, the Guard had not properly tracked spending for operations and maintenance, violating federal law.
Auditors repeatedly warned the Guard that it "lacked internal controls" to detect improper payments for work unrelated to the goals of the funding. The Guard promised to fix the problem by last August but has still not done so. Officials called the issue a "microaccounting" recommendation, rather than "an example of misappropriation of funds or unethical practice."
Somehow, other states have been able to improve their training sites despite similar challenges, Hatch said, adding that neglect and mismanagement have caused Camp Roberts to fall far behind. Hatch said he protested the conditions but was rebuffed without explanation.
" 'We don't have to tell you what we're doing,' " Hatch said headquarters told him when he was commander. " 'We don't have to be accountable to you.' "