‘NYT’ Probes Electrical Risks to U.S. Soldiers in Iraq

By: Greg Mitchell

For more than five years now, I have written often here about a subject that once got no coverage, and now gets far too little: so-called “noncombat” deaths among U.S. troops in Iraq. Included are those who die from illness, accidents and suicides. One case I have followed lately involves the heroic work of Cheryl Harris, whose son Sgt. Ryan Maseth was electrocuted and died in Iraq not long ago.

Now, for Friday’s New York Times, James Risen has broken the electrical risk story wide open, citing the Sgt. Maseth case as the instigator. His story opens: “Shoddy electrical work by private contractors on United States military bases in Iraq is widespread and dangerous, causing more deaths and injuries from fires and shocks than the Pentagon has acknowledged, according to internal Army documents.”

Risen continues: “During just one six-month period ? August 2006 through January 2007 ? at least 283 electrical fires destroyed or damaged American military facilities in Iraq, including the military?s largest dining hall in the country, documents obtained by The New York Times show. Two soldiers died in an electrical fire at their base near Tikrit in 2006, the records note, while another was injured while jumping from a burning guard tower in May 2007.

“And while the Pentagon has previously reported that 13 Americans have been electrocuted in Iraq, many more have been injured, some seriously, by shocks, according to the documents. A log compiled earlier this year at one building complex in Baghdad disclosed that soldiers complained of receiving electrical shocks in their living quarters on an almost daily basis.

“Electrical problems were the most urgent noncombat safety hazard for soldiers in Iraq, according to an Army survey issued in February 2007.” There’s much more at www.nytimes.com.

Returning to Cheryl Harris: The military at first lied and told her that her son had carried an electrical appliance into the shower. She has been instrumental in getting Congress, and the Pentagon, to probe the issue — and she finally testified before Democrats (and some Republicans) in Congress last week.

She is also suing KBR, the contractors in charge, and two former KBR people also blew the whistle yesterday. Another mother, Larraine McGee, who lost a son in Iraq accused KBR of “homicide” at the same hearing.

“It is about time we got some answers … at long last,” said Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa. last week. He released a letter to Gen. David Petraeus asking why his command had only recently ordered “theaterwide” technical inspections of military facilities despite being alerted to widespread wiring problems in Iraq installations more than three and a half years ago in a report filed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers safety specialist.

Cheryl Harris accuses KBR of “extreme recklessness and a total disregard for public safety.” I’ve written so much about Cheryl and her heroic quest, let me concentrate here on the two former KBR electricians who accuse the company of shoddy and negligent management practices in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ryan Maseth’s twin brother has just returned to the U.S. following his third tour in Iraq. Cheryl Harris has another son in the military, as well.

Debbie Crawford of Oregon, who worked for KBR in Baghdad, told the Senate Democratic Policy Committee that the company failed to provide its electricians with basic tools and equipment, and routinely farmed out jobs to local and “third-country” subcontractors who knew nothing about U.S. standards and often had no electrical experience at all.

“Time and time again we heard, ‘This is not the United States… OSHA doesn’t apply here. If you don’t like it, you can go home,'” she said.

The hearing was titled “Contractor Misconduct and the Electrocution Deaths of American Soldiers in Iraq.” KBR officials were invited to the hearing but did not attend.
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Greg Mitchell’s book “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq” includes several chapters on “nonhostile” deaths in Iraq.

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