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Defense bill includes funds to improve military housing, repair training facilities

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Senate is preparing to vote on the annual defense bill. Now, this year's bill includes items such as pay raises for service members and addresses issues around substandard housing. It'll also change how the military prosecutes sexual harassment and assault cases and also do away with a COVID vaccine mandate. NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo is here with more. All right, can - start off by telling us more about how this funding will help improve some of the quality-of-life issues faced by service members.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Lawmakers say that about $18 billion are expected to go towards building and fixing military housing, child care centers and training facilities. Here's Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff talking about why this funding is important and what it could address.

JON OSSOFF: Too many of our service members live in decrepit barracks facilities that have not been adequately maintained, that are moldy and, in some cases, dangerous to live in. Too many of our military families drop their kids off at aging child care centers. Too many of our military service members have to carry out vital training and operations at aging and inadequate facilities on our bases.

BUSTILLO: This money could include repairs to roads, utilities, pavement and structural deficiency of wharfs and barracks. And the legislation also directs a 4.6 pay raise.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, now in addition to addressing how they live, it's also going address how they eat.

BUSTILLO: Yes. So 1 in 6 military and veteran families were experiencing food insecurity or hunger in 2021, according to a Military Family Advisory Network survey. And this bill specifically - it expands the basic need allowance that they receive by raising the income eligibility limit to 150% of the poverty level, which is an increase from the current 130% limit. So the idea is more people could qualify. It also allows the secretary of defense to expand eligibility to households making less than 200% of the federal poverty level under certain circumstances.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, finally, there is also health care-related benefits for federal emergency responders who are included under this legislation. Ximena, tell us about those provisions.

BUSTILLO: Sure. One definitely comes to mind. So currently, Forest Service and Interior Department firefighters don't have the same job-related disability and retirement benefits as many of their state and civilian counterparts. Those benefits would help cover them if they develop lung cancer or other diseases. One part of the bill changes this for about 10,000 workers. In order to receive disability benefits, federal firefighters are required to go through a really long claims process to get federal worker's compensation and retirement benefits. That includes paperwork, witnesses and a lot of red tape, even though there's a long history of many diseases being connected to firefighting.

Here's Riva Duncan, executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group that has been pushing for higher pay and benefits.

RIVA DUNCAN: Most people don't even bother with the claim because it's just, it's so hard, so time-consuming, and they're rarely ever accepted that most people don't bother. They just do a GoFundMe fundraiser.

BUSTILLO: This also comes at a time when the wildland firefighters are facing really big retention issues, in large part because of missing health protections or pay shortages. Federal wildland firefighters are the first line of defense in - on all public lands, but they are also at the ready to back up local and state forces at a moment's notice. So this backup and bolster in health care and in health benefits is kind of a big deal here.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's politics reporter Ximena Bustillo, thanks a lot.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.