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Breaking: Top Officers Live in Nice Houses

Villas and mansions for military brass

As Congress eyes the Defense budget for cuts, some are drawing attention to the lavish housing of our top brass.

LAT (“Report questions costs of villas and mansions for top military brass“):

Marine Gen. John F. Kelly works in a fortress-like headquarters near the Miami airport. Starting this fall, he will live in Casa Sur, an elegant home with a pool and gardens on one of the area’s swankiest streets. The five-bedroom residence, across the street from the famed Biltmore Golf Course, is provided rent-free to Kelly as head of U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in most of Latin America and the Caribbean. The cost to taxpayers? $160,000 a year, plus $402,000 for renovations and security improvements that are now underway.

Casa Sur is one of hundreds of high-end homes, villas and mansions where senior generals and admirals are billeted, according to a Pentagon report prepared for Congress last month but not publicly released.

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove,  the Air Force four-star who commands NATO, gets a 15,000-square-foot, 19th century chateau in Belgium. Lt. Gen. Steven A. Hummer, head of Marine Forces Reserve, enjoys a 19th century plantation house in New Orleans listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and their deputies inhabit historic quarters in and around Washington — all staffed with chefs, drivers, gardeners and security teams.

The perks for top military brass, a Pentagon tradition, are under increasing scrutiny in Congress at a time when budget reductions and the mandatory spending cuts known as the sequester have forced the Pentagon to cut services, close facilities, cancel training and missions, and furlough 680,000 civilian workers.

[...]

Generals and admirals say they need large houses with high security — as well as cooks and gardeners — because they often host visiting dignitaries or preside at ceremonial events. Keeping pricey properties makes fiscal sense, they argue, because the Pentagon either already owns them or would waste money finding a suitable rental every time a senior officer is moved to a new command.

This explanation immediately occurred to me as I was reading the descriptions. The four-star service chiefs and heads of our regional and functional commands have diplomatic, not just military, roles. Their homes are not merely private domiciles but places where official functions are held on a regular basis. And one needs only tour Embassy Row in DC to see the fantastic homes in which the various ambassadors to the United States live.

While it’s perfectly reasonable to ensure that the costs are kept in control and that these perquisites aren’t taken too far down the chain of command—not all four stars have these kind of duties and hardly anyone below four-star rank does—this is simply the cost of doing business. It would be bizarre, indeed, for the richest and most powerful nation on earth to conduct its diplomacy in the shabbiest accommodations.

And, indeed, the report goes on to note that the Pentagon is tightening up.

[T]he commander of Submarine Group 8, occupies Villa de Lorio, a 6,600-square-foot villa in Naples leased for $172,000 a year. But a Navy policy adopted last year says only officers in “high-risk billets” can have high-cost leases — and a submarine group commander on the Mediterranean doesn’t qualify. As a result, the lease will be terminated, the report said, but not until next May, “when the current occupant’s tour is over.” The current Submarine Group 8 commander is Rear Adm. Robert Burke.

Leases also will be canceled next year for Villa Anna, home to the commander of Navy Region Europe, and Villa Maria, residence for the operations director of Allied Joint Force Command.

The Pentagon also will give up Villa Nike, a 12,000-square-foot residence in Naples, because of “water damage, structural concerns and an aging electrical system” that has driven maintenance costs up to $220,000 a year, the report said. Adm. Bruce W. Clingan, commander of all U.S. naval forces in Europe, will relocate to Villa Capri, a smaller residence nearby, while the Navy decides whether to spend as much as $3 million to renovate Villa Nike.

As anyone who’s owned a home knows, maintenance is expensive. That’s particularly true of a historic home, whose major systems will periodically need replacement and upgrading. And, of course, most of us aren’t prime terrorist targets and thus don’t have extensive security needs. But, while we shouldn’t necessarily balk at large one-time expenditures to accommodate these unusual needs, nor should we undertake them without a second thought. It makes sense to periodically review whether we’re getting our money’s worth out of these arrangements and whether there are more cost-effective alternatives.

As an aside, I’m mildly amused that it cost the taxpayers $320,000 to undertake this study, which only examined 32 homes. It strikes me that holding down such routine costs by figuring out more efficient ways of conducting day-to-day operations is a much more target rich environment for finding efficiencies than a handful of high visibility expenditures.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mark Ivey says:

    Lavish Govt “socialistic” housing this be, and all i got during my Army career was a shared barracks room. :(

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  2. Caj says:

    Officers have always lived in better quarters than the enlisted. Never agreed with the ranks being defined that way, not only in housing but also having separate clubs for enlisted and officers! They may have a higher rank but at the end of the day they are all fighting for their country and should be one unit. Many officers leave the service and jump right into contracting work for the military. Of course it’s all part of the good old boy network where politicians look after their own to grant these ex-military contract work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  3. rudderpedals says:

    Curious about why a Marine General is living in Miami? Other than Homestead AFB there aren’t any military reservations in Dade county. Was he seconded to the flyboys?

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  4. Mikey says:

    @rudderpedals: US Southern Command is headquartered in Doral. No big base there, just a couple big office buildings and a fence.

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  5. rudderpedals says:

    @Mikey: Okay that makes more sense than a Marine General doing scut work for the Air Farce.

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  6. Mikey says:

    I think there’s also a compensation factor. Generals don’t get paid poorly by any stretch, they can earn $180K/year before allowances, but in a comparable civilian job as a high executive or CEO of a corporation they could earn more than ten times that. So they get to live in a swanky house.

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  7. JohnMcC says:

    During the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom and the early stages of that campaign, it was a frequently made comparison that American ‘Area Commanders’ were analogous to ancient Roman Proconsuls. That is, combining diplomatic and military authority and having considerable autonomy. The information that they are housed in ways that match that role is not shocking or new. The real question is whether we want to send our representatives around the world in this way.

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  8. al-Ameda says:

    As anyone who’s owned a home knows, maintenance is expensive. That’s particularly true of a historic home, whose major systems will periodically need replacement and upgrading. And, of course, most of us aren’t prime terrorist targets and thus don’t have extensive security needs.

    This is what we’re reduced to these days, descending into the morass of relative budget minutiae. This kind of reminds me of the polls wherein people are asked what they would do to solve the budget deficit, and many say cut foreign aid. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t look at this “lavish home” issue, however I am saying that ultimately it is inconsequential.

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  9. anjin-san says:

    I grew up near an air force base, officers had nice housing, senior brass very nice. What else is new?

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  10. wr says:

    I guess the truly rich have realized there’s just about no more money to be stolen from the poor and middle class, now that the Republicans have attempted to zero out food stamps, and the only choice is to beggar the upper classes if they want to seize all of America’s wealth.

    I mean, who do these generals think they are sponging off the tax dollars of the investment bankers who truly keep our nation safe?

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  11. Is the included photo of the house in question? Because frankly, that house doesn’t look THAT lavish.

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes, at least according to the LAT caption. And I had the same reaction.

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  13. Boyd says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Especially with a dumpster sitting in the driveway.

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  14. @Boyd:

    I assume the dumpster is for the contractors doing the rennovations mentioned in the article and not a normal feature of the house.

    @James Joyner:

    Five bedrooms does seem a lot for a house that size, so perhaps their is an edition in the back that justifies the newspaper’s characterization, but from the front at least it seems a rather generic neo-colonial house one would find in most middle class suburbs.

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  15. Boyd says:

    I was making an attempt at ironic humor, Stormy.

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  16. BTW, am I the only getting adds for Virginia real estate when they look at this piece? Apparently “Beltway” and “Nice Houses” together has the ad server convinced I’m home shopping.

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  17. John D'Geek says:

    @Caj:

    … but also having separate clubs for enlisted and officers!

    They don’t do that anymore. Someone decided having separate clubs was wrong, so now they don’t. Not sure when the change occured — ten years ago when I was here at Ft. Sill they had them; now they don’t.

    @Mikey: I feel the need to mention that Gov’t Salary is capped at a First Year Congressman’s salary. So ignore the pay charts — they won’t get all that. (It’s just to determine retirement benefits).

    At GS-13, Overtime is worthless. After a certain point (which is pretty close), they are forbidden to pay overtime. Because you will make more than a Congress-critter. {sarcasm}And, as everyone knows, it’s just wrong for someone who has worked and sacrificed for thirty years to get paid more than a day one congressman. Especially if they get shot at for a living.{/sarcasm}

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  18. James Joyner says:

    @John D’Geek: Yeah, most posts had already phased out officers’ clubs even when I was in more than 20 years ago. It wasn’t so much egalitarianism as the newfound religion on DUI. Officers didn’t really have much interest in hanging out at a club on post having drinks and then driving to their off-post home, let alone with MPs tracking their move.

    A lot of places experimented with “combined” clubs. But that essentially means lower enlisted clubs, because officers and senior NCOs can’t really frequent a club where lower EM are socializing. Not only does it kill the mood for the lower ranking guys but it creates prudence issues for the seniors.

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