Camp Pendleton, CA – Once again, another apparent government mold cover-up has turned into an embarrassing scandal. It appears every time they try to hide a health hazard from the public, it turns into an outrage on the part of the public. This is one of many cases that is occurring nationwide among military and civilian personnel with moldy military bases.
Approximately three years ago, Tom Calabrese, a military base housing inspector, told a TV audience that families were being sickened by mold contaminating their homes at Camp Pendleton. This apparently caused a great uproar among the personnel and families at the military base because three days later, Calabrese was put on administrative leave. Four months later, he was fired. Since then, he’s been fighting the Marine Corps to regain his job of 16 years, get back pay and recover legal costs.
Calabrese, feeling unjustly terminated, filed two lawsuits in San Diego federal court. He is representing himself and has run up $75,000 in legal fees, he said. “After years of reporting crimes and abuses and nothing being done, I had to make a decision,” said Calabrese, 55. “I either had to be part of the solution or be part of the problem.” Camp Pendleton won’t comment on the lawsuits, said base spokesman Lt. Nathan Braden.
Officially, Calabrese was apparently fired for leaving a work area without permission, unauthorized absence, misusing a government vehicle, defiance of authority and making statements that caused anxiety in the workplace. Braden claims that Calabrese’s on-air remarks were not connected to his dismissal and noted that the firing was upheld by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Merit Systems Protection Board.
In siding with the Marine Corps, the board said: “There is, further, no evidence of any bias or motive to retaliate. . . . (The Corps) has shown by clear and convincing evidence that it would have removed the appellant regardless of his allegedly protected disclosures.”
Calabrese is challenging the previous decisions in court. He says he was fired for publicly revealing long-known problems at the base’s Wire Mountain I area, one of at least 12 housing complexes at Camp Pendleton. Calabrese estimated that 25 percent of the 352 housing units at Wire Mountain I, where he worked, had mold problems and that 60 of those units had documented histories of making people sick. He also alleges that some residents’ complaints were ignored or that housing officials would move one family out of a mold-infested unit and put another family into the same place without making repairs. And he seeks “an investigation into the mistreatment of military families” at Camp Pendleton, who often live there because they can’t afford off-base housing.
Record of Mold Complaints
From 1995 to 2001, Calabrese said, at least 250 mold complaints were filed with Camp Pendleton officials. He kept copies of some of them, including:
June 2002: “We were moved into this house after our prior residence would not stop growing mold. My kids were sick and then the roof began to collapse. Officially, (housing officials) have listed that we requested the move due to rank change. That is not even something we are supposed to be able to do, but it is how they cover their lack of regard for our health and safety.”
April 2002: “All these people get paid so much money to understand and care about what is going on in our housing areas. (But they) don’t care or want to have a clue on the REAL situation. Our children are sick without reason and we never get any answers from the higher-ups other than, ‘You are in the oldest housing on base, what do you expect?’ Or, ‘If you don’t like it, move off base and find a better place because it is a privilege to live on our base.’ ”
September 2001: “I have noticed a significant change in the health of myself, my wife and my children since we have moved into Wire Mountain I housing in October 2000. . . . We should be given better living conditions not only because we deserve them, but because nobody should have to worry about the well-being of their family because of hazardous living conditions.” In a way, these complaints and Calabrese’s allegations were bolstered by Maj. Gen. Timothy Donovan, Camp Pendleton’s former base commander. “I remember what the housing was like. It wasn’t good enough to be a ghetto. I couldn’t believe we subjected our sailors and Marines to such poor living conditions. . . . And those quarters still exist today,” Donovan was quoted in media reports from a mid-April ribbon-cutting ceremony for new homes at Wire Mountain.
During Calabrese’s tenure, the Wire Mountain area, which included several neighborhoods, housed 7,500 to 8,000 residents in about 2,000 units, he said. Most of the housing was built between 1950 and 1980, he said. Mold and asbestos problems were worst in the older units. Conditions at Wire Mountain I have improved. Camp Pendleton is undergoing a $750 million housing renovation, and most of the housing offices are now run by private contractors as part of the Pentagon’s national effort to privatize on-base housing.
Wire Mountain Guardian
While Calabrese might have been a pain to his bosses, he was a guardian of sorts to some Wire Mountain residents. They said Calabrese fought to rid their homes of mice and mold while delivering free bread and flowers and suggesting ways to improve the quality of their lives.
Dwight Hall, 43, senior pastor at the Children’s Bread Ministries in Oceanside, is one of the few who spoke on the record about Calabrese. Hall met Calabrese while living at Wire Mountain I from 1994 to 2002 and said the housing inspector made an immediate impression. “He was the only housing inspector that ever tried to help people in the community. The rest of them looked down their noses at us,” Hall said. “People would be moved out because of illness – respiratory stuff – that would make kids and parents sick for weeks. And they would just move someone else in.”
Hall added: “When you dealt with the people in housing, it was like you were bothering them. I sent letters to government officials to get an investigation into Tom’s firing and health issues here, but I never heard anything back,” Hall said.
“Our fiscal policies are ineffective and possibly illegal. A Marine is charged for several sets of miniblinds upon vacating quarters. He pays the bill . . . the items are never bought. Why?”
“The current fiscal policy where cleaning for abandoned units comes out of the housing budget but reimbursement for the charges goes into the general fund is ridiculous.” Even less tolerable to Calabrese than perceived administrative laxity was the purported practice of assigning mold-contaminated houses to families.
When Calabrese complained, base officials accused him of being a troublemaker and targeted him for dismissal, he claimed in one of the lawsuits. At one point, the officials refused to give Calabrese time off from work despite a doctor’s recommendation that job-induced stress was ruining his health, according to legal documents provided by Calabrese.
This led to a verbal altercation that hastened his firing, he claims. Calabrese’s dissatisfaction came to a head on Feb. 12, 2002, when he told a TV reporter about mold problems with base housing.
Three days later, he was placed on administrative leave. In June, he was fired.
A final request from Tom Calabrese: Please voice your concerns about Marines and their families in base housing. Demand that Camp Pendleton leadership conduct a thorough and impartial investigation concerning the allegations in the article. Public awareness is essential to changing things and protecting our military.
Commanding General, Camp Pendleton
Camp Pendleton, CA