IRAQ: Despite Alert, Flawed Wiring Still Kills G.I.'s

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times



WASHINGTON - In October 2004, the United States Army issued an urgent bulletin to commanders across Iraq,
warning them of a deadly new threat to American soldiers. Because of
flawed electrical work by contractors, the bulletin stated, soldiers at
American bases in Iraq had received severe electrical shocks, and some
had even been electrocuted.


The
bulletin, with the headline "The Unexpected Killer," was issued after
the horrific deaths of two soldiers who were caught in water - one in a
shower, the other in a swimming pool - that was suddenly electrified
after poorly grounded wiring short-circuited.

"We've had several
shocks in showers and near misses here in Baghdad, as well as in other
parts of the country," Frank Trent, an expert with the Army Corps of Engineers,
wrote in the bulletin. "As we install temporary and permanent power on
our projects, we must ensure that we require contractors to properly
ground electrical systems."

Since that warning, at least two more
American soldiers have been electrocuted in similar circumstances. In
all, at least a dozen American military personnel have been
electrocuted in Iraq, according to the Pentagon and Congressional
investigators.

While several deaths have been attributed to
inadvertent contact with power lines under battlefield conditions, the
Army bulletin said that five deaths over the preceding year had
apparently been caused by faulty grounding, and the circumstances of
others have not been fully explained by the Army. Many more soldiers
have been injured by shocks, Pentagon officials and soldiers say.

The
accidental deaths and close calls, which are being investigated by
Congress and the Defense Department's inspector general, raise new
questions about the oversight of contractors in the war zone, where
unjustified killings by security guards, shoddy reconstruction projects
and fraud involving military supplies have spurred previous inquiries.

American
electricians who worked for KBR, the Houston-based defense contractor
that is responsible for maintaining American bases in Iraq and
Afghanistan, said they repeatedly warned company managers and military
officials about unsafe electrical work, which was often performed by
poorly trained Iraqis and Afghans paid just a few dollars a day.

One electrician warned his KBR bosses in his 2005 letter of resignation
that unsafe electrical work was "a disaster waiting to happen." Another
said he witnessed an American soldier in Afghanistan receiving a
potentially lethal shock. A third provided e-mail messages and other
documents showing that he had complained to KBR and the government that
logs were created to make it appear that nonexistent electrical safety
systems were properly functioning.

KBR itself told the Pentagon
in early 2007 about unsafe electrical wiring at a base near the Baghdad
airport, but no repairs were made. Less than a year later, a soldier
was electrocuted in a shower there.

"I don't feel like they did
their job," Carmen Nolasco Duran of La Puente, Calif., said of Pentagon
officials. Her brother, Specialist Marcos O. Nolasco, was electrocuted
at a base in Baiji in May 2004 while showering. "They hired these
contractors and yet they didn't go and double-check that the work was
fine."

The Defense Contract Management Agency, which is
responsible for supervising maintenance work by contractors at American
bases in Iraq, defended its performance. In a written statement, the
agency said it had no information that staff members "were aware" of
the Army alert or "failed to take appropriate action in response to
unsafe conditions brought to our attention."

Keith Ernst, who
stepped down Wednesday as the agency's director, said, though, that the
agency was "stretched too thin" in Iraq and that the small number of
contract officers did not have expertise in dealing with so-called life
support contracts, like that awarded to KBR to provide food, shelter
and building maintenance. "We don't have the technical capability for
overseeing life support systems," he said.

For its part, KBR,
which until last year was known as Kellogg, Brown and Root and was a
subsidiary of Halliburton, denied that any lapses by the company had
led to the electrocutions of American soldiers. "KBR's commitment to
employee safety and the safety of those the company serves is
unwavering," said a spokeswoman, Heather Browne. "KBR has found no
evidence of a link between the work it has been tasked to perform and
the reported electrocutions."

Ms. Browne declined to respond to the specific accounts of former KBR electricians.

Those
electricians have a ready response to anyone who suggests that poor
electrical work might be considered an unavoidable cost of war. "The
excuse KBR always used was, 'This is a war zone - what do you
expect?' " recalled Jeffrey Bliss, an Ohio electrician who worked for
the company in Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006. "But if you are going to
do the work, you have got to do it safe."

Since the United
States invaded Iraq in 2003, tens of thousands of American troops have
been housed in pre-existing Iraqi government buildings, some of them
dangerously dilapidated. As part of its $30 billion contract with the
Pentagon in Iraq, KBR was required to repair and upgrade many of the
buildings, including their electrical systems. The company handles
maintenance for 4,000 structures and 35,000 containerized housing units
in the war zone, the Pentagon said.

Lawmakers and government
investigators say it is now clear that the Bush administration
outsourced so much work to KBR and other contractors in Iraq that the
agencies charged with oversight have been overwhelmed. The Defense
Contracting Management Agency has more than 9,000 employees, but it has
only 60 contract officers in Iraq and 30 in Afghanistan to supervise
nearly 18,000 KBR employees in Iraq and 4,400 in Afghanistan handling
base maintenance.

"All the contract officers can do is check
the paperwork," said one agency official, who asked not to be
identified. While about 600 military officers supplement the contract
officers, Mr. Ernst said, the soldiers are not adequately trained for
the task.

The Army has provided little detailed information about
the electrocutions, other than to say late Friday that 10 soldiers had
been electrocuted in Iraq. A House panel has also reported that two
marines died similarly.

In the civilian work force, about 250 workers died from electrocution in the United States in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to the Army warning bulletin, two deaths occurred 10 days apart in May 2004 at different bases in northern Iraq.

Staff
Sgt. Christopher L. Everett, 23, of the Texas National Guard was
electrocuted in September 2005 while power-washing a Humvee at Camp
Taqaddum, in central Iraq near Falluja. His mother, Larraine McGee said
Army officials had told her that the equipment he was using was
connected to a generator that was not properly grounded, and that
soldiers had previously complained of shocks.

"We were told that
as a result of his death all the generators were being repaired and
that it wouldn't happen again," Ms. McGee said. "But if it is still
going on, something's not right."

The most recent fatality
occurred on Jan. 2 in Baghdad, when Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth, a Green
Beret, died in a shower after an improperly grounded water pump
short-circuited.

Nearly a year earlier, KBR issued a technical
report to the contracting agency citing safety concerns related to the
grounding and wiring in the building in the Radwaniyah Palace Complex,
where Sergeant Maseth's unit, the Army Fifth Special Forces Group, was
housed.

Another soldier said in an interview that he was
repeatedly shocked in the shower in December 2007 and submitted
requests for repairs. But nothing was done until the day after Sergeant
Maseth's death, when the defense agency ordered KBR to correct the
problem, according to Pentagon documents.

Cheryl Harris,
Sergeant Maseth's mother, said in an interview that the Army initially
told her that her son had taken an electrical appliance into the shower
with him. Later, she said, officials told her that investigators had
found electrical wires hanging down around the shower. She said she had
been skeptical of both accounts and learned the truth only after
repeatedly questioning Army officials.

Her family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against KBR, the only such claim brought in any of the electrical deaths.

"I knew Ryan would not get into a shower with an electrical appliance,
and having wires hanging overhead didn't make sense," said Ms. Harris,
of Cranberry Township, Pa. "My biggest question is really, why would
KBR do a safety inspection, know about the electrical problems and not
alert the troops?"

Long before Sergeant Maseth's death, KBR electricians were complaining about the dangers of unsafe electrical work at bases.

In
2006, John McLain was working as a KBR electrician at the United States
regional embassy compound in Hilla, south of Baghdad, when he made a
disturbing discovery. A KBR quality control inspector had recently
cited employees there for failing to file quarterly ground resistance
testing logs - reports on whether the wiring in the upgraded embassy
building was properly grounded and safe.

Mr. McLain soon
realized that the testing was not being conducted, because the building
had never been grounded, though KBR and at least one Iraqi
subcontractor were supposed to install proper safeguards during a
renovation the previous year. Mr. McLain said he had sent a series of
increasingly blunt memos and e-mail warnings about the safety hazards
to KBR officials.

Mr. McLain said other KBR electricians later
created logs that incorrectly made it appear that the grounding system
existed. KBR fired him in 2007 after he told a visiting defense
contracting agency official about his concerns. His candor proved
useless, however. Mr. McLain said that the contracting agency official
showed no interest. "He said, 'I'm not an electrician; I don't know
what you are talking about,' "Mr. McLain recalled.

Noris Rogers,
who worked for KBR in Afghanistan in 2005, said he repeatedly
complained to his supervisors that electrical work at Camp Eggers, the
American military's command base in Kabul, Afghanistan, did not meet
the requirements of the company's Pentagon contract.

Mr.
Bliss, who saw a soldier in Qalat, Afghanistan, get a severe shock from
an electrical box that was not supposed to be charged, said his KBR
bosses mocked him for raising safety issues. They were "not giving the
Army what it needed," he said, "and not giving the soldiers what they
deserved."

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