Soldier Electrocuted in Iraq: Who Is to Blame?

By: Greg Mitchell

The mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq this past January filed a lawsuit yesterday in a Pennsylvania state court against KBR, the defense contractor that was in charge of inspecting the wiring at the base where Sgt. Ryan Maseth died — from electrocution. This has brought to attention a 11 other fatal electrocutions in Iraq, leading to both a congressional investigation and a Pentagon inquiry.

Recently, at her request, I had passed along to Maseth’s mother the names of other soldiers officially listed as electrocution victims since 2003.

This came after I wrote a story in January about Maseth’s death for Editor & Publisher and the family’s initial reaction, which ranged from disbelief to anger (see below). Maseth apparently had died in a bathroom or shower stall. His mother, Cheryl Harris, contacted me then, asking if any others had died in this manner. Now her lawsuit has arrived.

Rep. Henry Waxman and Pentagon chief Robert Gates are looking into reports that the 12 deaths, and probably more, were caused by shoddy wiring and construction where our troops are housed. It is not known how many of these cases involved KBR.

Cheryl Harris’s lawyer has obtained military documents indicating that KBR told the Defense Contracting Management Agency there were wiring problems in the building before Maseth’s death, and nothing was done about them. The question is: Who is to blame? And what about all those other cases.

Also, Harris was originally told by the military that her son had been electrocuted after he took a small electrical appliance into the shower area. She couldn’t get answers herself and contacted a local member of Congress. Now documents show that Ryan was killed when an electrical water pump shorted out after he had stepped into the shower and turned on the water. An electrical current then passed through the water pipes to a metal shower hose in the shower.

As Harris told me two months ago, this type of accident is particularly relevant for her since her son’s twin brother, Brandon, is still serving in Iraq. Think about that for a minute.

She told The New York Times today, “I would like to have questions answered about who is accountable. And I would like to know that this can’t happen again to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The Times has a full account of the case today, as does the Houston Chronicle.

Cheryl writes me today: “My hope is to help the troops that remain on the ground in Iraq and ‘hopefully’ provide a safer place for them to shower and brush their teeth. Things that we are so blessed with and take for granted.”

The shocking number of “nonhostile” deaths in Iraq — from accidents, illness and suicides — is covered at length in my new book, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.”

Here is the original piece that I wrote about the Maseth case.
For more than four years, E&P has highlighted how the media reports, or fails to report, the growing toll of noncombat deaths in Iraq, now approaching (by most counts) 800 Americans. In all cases the Pentagon announces no details beyond saying a death is under investigation, but local news outlets often learn the details from family or friends.

It happened again on Friday. Just hours after the military announced the death of Sgt. Ryan Maseth, a TV station near where he had lived outside Pittsburgh, Pa., KDKA, learned an explanation from his family: He was electrocuted.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review also talked to the family. His mother, “Cheryl Harris of Cranberry, always has known that her sons might get wounded or killed — but not by a faulty water pump,” the paper revealed.

Here is an excerpt from the KDKA report.
The father of a local soldier has questions after learning of his son’s death in Iraq and is anxious to bring his other son home.

Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth, 24, from Shaler, died in Baghdad on Jan. 2. Doug Maseth was told his son was electrocuted in the shower but there are no other details.

Maseth says he’s devastated. “I could have put this to rest a lot better if he would have been shot or he would have got killed by an IED,” he said. “I’d have said, ‘OK. That’s what happened.’ How can you justify getting electrocuted in a shower?”

While he waits for answers, he’s making arrangements for Ryan’s twin brother, Brandon, to come home at least temporarily. “I don’t want to lose another boy,” Maseth said. “Who wants to lose one? I don’t [want to have] the chance of losing two.”

Right now, the loss of Ryan is all he can bear. “I’m heartbroken,” he said. “I watched him from when he was born all the way up ’till now and I just … turned into a good young man – taken away so fast.”

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