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March 30th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: How the War in Iraq came home to Hays County

Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS

As reported by The Mercury, “Hays County leaders have delayed executing an engineering contract with Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) after servicemen argued that the company’s alleged war-zone failures means they ought not be awarded taxpayer money.” The $600,000-plus engineering contract for FM 110, part of the San Marcos Loop, has run up against some local Iraqi veterans who are not pleased with the work done in Iraq by KBR.

The veterans include Bryan Hannah, Gregory Foster, and Jude Prather (who is now serving a tour in Iraq after being recalled to the Army after his discharge in 2005). Hannah told about KBR charging for transporting empty trucks, which were escorted by US troops whose lives were unnecessarily endangered by the trips.

Among the most alarming reports of KBR misconduct concerns the electrocution of soldiers taking showers that were improperly wired, work which KBR was paid to do on the assumption it would be done correctly. The military is currently inspecting more than 90,000 U.S.-run facilities in Iraq to determine if electrocution or shock might result while military personnel shower or use appliances. So far, one-third of the inspections have turned up major electrical problems, according to reports by The Associated Press. About 65,000 facilities still need to be inspected.

In late January, Sens. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota reported that the Army had told the mother of a U.S. soldier that her son’s electrocution death in Iraq was not accidental, but a “negligent homicide” by contractor KBR and two of its supervisors. “Soldiers have died. Someone needs to be accountable for that,” Dorgan said at a news conference.

The inspection work has been assigned to Task Force SAFE (Safety Action for Fire and Electricity), and is intended to prevent deaths like that of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, of Pittsburgh, who died in January 2008. He is one of at least three soldiers killed while showering since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There were 231 electric shock incidents, about one every three days, during a 23-month period for which data were gathered by KBR, which oversees maintenance at most U.S. facilities in Iraq.

Based on Task Force reports, faulty electrical grounding is among the most common problems found. The Associated Press (AP) reported that “improper wiring in shower buildings constructed by the military can be particularly dangerous, because the presence of water increases the risk of shock. The shower buildings require electricity for lighting and hot water.” Defense Department documents show that “systemic failures” in KBR’s electrical work have threatened the life, health and safety of people inside the bases. The documents also report that “lack of grounding and bonding, among other electrical deficiencies” were “identified and confirmed by three separate independent inspection teams” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Army Combat Safety Center, and a multinational force working with fire and electricity.

One sergeant in the California Army National Guard, Ron Vance, remembers being knocked out cold in a shower building in 2004 in Taji, Iraq. According to the AP, Vance said he screamed and fell while showering, suffering burns on his back and shoulders. Another soldier who tried to pry him from the shower head also was injured. Vance said he’s still too traumatized to shower without his wife nearby.

While KBR denies any responsibility for the electric wiring problems that led to the shocks, its response seems typical of the public relations pronouncements of other major corporations, who seldom take responsibility for their mistakes. Army investigators have determined that, in the case of Staff Sgt. Maseth, KBR allowed electrical work to be done by unqualified electricians and plumbers.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Lee Everett, 23, of Huntsville, Texas, a member of the Texas Army National Guard, was killed in September 2005 when the power washer he was using to clean a vehicle short-circuited. His family has sued KBR and another contractor, who they believe are liable for his death.

The Task Force report found that “most facilities inspected had electrical deficiencies because KBR failed to consistently follow contract standards every time it constructed or emplaced a facility, inspected a facility, responded to a service order request, or performed maintenance and/or repairs on facilities, generators and utilities.”

This finding should concern Hays County officials who are now reconsidering the award of a road-building contract to KBR. If this company cannot be relied on to provide safe facilities for our service men and women, why should we rely on it to build projects in Hays County? Clearly, building electrical installations is very different work from building roads. But should Hays County continue to do business with a company that has a reputation for shoddiness? Should Hays County continue to do business with a company that is willing to endanger the lives of our military personnel through negligence?

Should Hays County continue to do business with a company that will not accept responsibility for its malfeasance, which has led to death, physical injury, and mental anguish for many service men and women?

Or should Hays County officials vote in solidarity with our own veterans of the Iraq War, and honor their service by finding a more reliable road-building company that is untainted by profiteering at the expense of our troops?

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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2 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: How the War in Iraq came home to Hays County

  1. Who needs KBR? Kick ’em to the curb.
    There are plenty of companies who would be happy to do the work.

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