After daily physical training, or PT, S.C. National Guard troops stationed at the Sumter armory pray for nice weather.
Their shower rooms – even the ones that work – have no heat or air conditioning.
In Bamberg, the state’s adjutant general closed the armory after he visited on a rainy day and found soldiers working at their desks under umbrellas.
And in Greenville, soldiers returning from deployment in Afghanistan will come home to facilities worse than they had in the remote combat zones of Helmand Province.
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“I doesn’t make you feel good as a soldier,” said Maj. Quincy Busby, who until recently worked at the Greenville armory guarding the Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters that are now flying missions in Afghanistan. “But it’s disheartening to have to work somewhere like that and try to concentrate on our mission.”
The S.C. Army National Guard has 62 armories across the state, located in 41 of the state’s 46 counties. They are considered the Army’s anchor in the American landscape, and in the new “total Army,” their soldiers play larger roles in conflicts around the world.
In wartime, many Guard members leave the dilapidated armories and head for the battlefront.
But of the 62 armories in the Palmetto State – which serve as headquarters and training centers for units as well as storage facilities for expensive weapons and equipment – 26 percent have been labeled poor or failing by the National Guard Bureau.
And this in a state that bills itself as the most patriotic in the country.
“You can tell soldiers they have your support,” Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, the state’s adjutant general, told The State. “You can have parades when they come back from combat. But then they have to come to home to armories that have mold in them and the roof is leaking.”
The reason for the disrepair, of course, is money. Specifically, a lack of state money.
The armories, many built in the 1950s and 1960s, require an estimated $60 million or more in deferred maintenance built up over the past two decades. Those costs would be shared equally by the federal government, but the state has to pony up first.
The Guard received little or no state money for armory repairs during the Mark Sanford administration from 2003 until 2011. Under former Gov. Nikki Haley, whose husband, Michael, is in the S.C. Army National Guard, armory funding rose from $500,000 in 2013 to $5 million last fiscal year.
However, the state’s current fiscal year budget under Gov. Henry McMaster, who took over for Haley when she was tapped by President Donald Trump as ambassador to the United Nations, contains no money for armory repairs.
Although a bond bill being considered by the General Assembly for next year has $15 million for “critical” armory repairs, McMaster has said he’s generally opposed to borrowing money for repairs for state buildings.
“I think we’ve got a tough row to hoe for a bond bill,” Livingston said.
That’s disappointing to Master Sgt. Kevin Williams, the battalion operations non-commissioned officer at the Sumter armory.
“Our biggest concern is our roof,” he said. “We have multiple leaks that cause a lot of erosion on our walls – mold and peeling paint.”
He noted that female soldiers only have one shower, and several spouts don’t work in the men’s showers. When it rains, they deploy an army of trash cans and mop buckets to catch the water.
“We try to patch things up,” he said. “But it’s not permanent.”
Despite gloomy forecasts for the bond bill, Livingston said he hopes lawmakers will grant the Guard money from the general fund for repairs as they did during Haley’s administration.
“I don’t need $20 million next year; I couldn’t spend it,” he said. “I need five to six million a year for the next decade or so. That’s a reasonable rate for us to get the armories done effectively.”
The lack of first class – or even second class – facilities hurts the Guard on more than one level, said Lt. Col. Corol Dobson, the S.C. Guard’s construction and facility management officer.
It affects recruiting – an ongoing challenge – when recruits and families visit the facilities. Cleaning up from leaky roofs or working without heating and air conditioning affects readiness. And going to work in substandard building affects morale.
“We can take the steps to make the armories better; but we need the resources to go with that resolve,” Dobson said. “Initiative is not enough.
“We have soldiers deployed all over the world,” he added. “And it’s discouraging when you return home to substandard facilities before you go into a new fight. Let’s raise the bar to fair quality at least.”
The 10 worst armories in South Carolina
▪ Greenwood: $3 million to repair.*
▪ Greenville: $2.025 million
▪ Lancaster: $2.175 million
▪ Clemson: $2.175 million
▪ Laurens: $2.175 million
▪ Hartsville: $1.9 million
▪ Easley: $1.775 million
▪ Union: $1.525 million
▪ Florence: $1.45 million
▪ Sumter: $1.45 million
SOURCE: S.C. Army National Guard