IRAQ: Contractor Beating in Baghdad

A 41-year-old Halliburton employee from Albuquerque is recovering from a beating in Baghdad that authorities say came not at the hands of Iraqi insurgents but from his own American co-workers.
Publisher Name: 
The Albuquerque Tribune

A 41-year-old Halliburton employee from Albuquerque is recovering from a beating in Baghdad that authorities say came not at the hands of Iraqi insurgents but from his own American co-workers.

Ronald Lee Chavez, the son of onetime Albuquerque political candidate Eli Chavez, was flown Wednesday to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany three days after suffering head injuries in a brawl near Baghdad International Airport, a spokeswoman for Halliburton in Houston said.

Chavez, hired last fall by Halliburton subsidiary KBR as a security officer, was evaluated and released from the hospital Thursday then transferred to a nearby hotel for more privacy and comfort, Jennifer Dellinger said.

"Mr. Chavez will continue to receive follow-up treatment at Landstuhl, and doctors there will then determine if Mr. Chavez is able to directly return to his work site in Iraq or if it is necessary for him to return to the United States for further treatment before returning to Iraq," Dellinger said.

Chavez's father, who traveled to Houston where his son's wife and 3-year-old twin daughters reside, said his son is hoping to be released from the hospital's care by today and on a plane to the United States.

"I talked to him (Thursday) and he wants to come home," he said.

The older Chavez said his son's vision remains blurry because of the head blows but is otherwise on the mend. A minor heart condition was also aggravated by the attack and is being monitored, he said.

He said his son told him he had responded to a distress call near the airport Easter Sunday and was attacked by several employees when he tried to seize a bag full of beer from a Halliburton employee who was apparently intoxicated and making the false distress calls on a company radio.

The employees are part of a group called the "Red Neck Mafia," he said.

Dellinger said the incident is under investigation and could not verify Chavez's version of events or the existence of the "Red Neck Mafia."

Three employees believed to have been involved in the brawl were immediately fired and sent back to the United States, Dellinger said. Their identities were not released, in accordance with company policy.

"We do not tolerate this kind of behavior by anyone at any level in any Halliburton company," she said.

It was unclear whether the three would face criminal charges. But if Eli Chavez has his way, they won't be the only ones who do.

"It's one of those things that happened, and it never should have happened when Americans beat up on Americans," he said. "They know Eli Chavez is very, very upset about this, and we're going to get to the bottom of this. I want Americans, especially New Mexicans, to know what's going on with this big huge monstrous corporation. It's time for a complete investigation."

Chavez said he has contacted the U.S. Department of Justice and the office of Rep. Heather Wilson, an Albuquerque Republican, to look into the incident. Neither office could confirm receiving any contact.

The attack comes the same week a California woman filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Halliburton and KBR that alleges her father, Tony Johnson, was not properly protected from harm in his work in Iraq.

Johnson, a truck driver, was killed in an ambush April 9, 2004, while on a convoy delivering fuel to the same airport where Chavez was attacked. The lawsuit says Halliburton intentionally sent the convoy as an enemy decoy for a second fuel convoy.

KBR employs more than 50,000 workers and subcontractors in Iraq who provide U.S. troops with food, shelter and tolerable living conditions. So far, 62 of those employees have been killed, Dellinger said.

"KBR's top priority has always been the safety and security of its employees," she said.

Ronald Chavez is a graduate of Eldorado High School and attended the University of New Mexico, later moving to Houston before accepting the KBR position.

"He's a good kid," said Eli Chavez, a former Drug Enforcement Agency special agent who was forced to drop out of last year's Democratic primary to run against Wilson in the 1st Congressional District because of discrepancies in several of the signatures on his candidate petition.

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