Wednesday, January 28, 2009

18 deaths too many

I felt a sickening wave of deja vu when I read the press release from Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) .

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) --- Two U.S. Senators today are requesting a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the mother of a U.S. soldier who has been informed by an Army investigator that her son’s death by electrocution at his base in Baghdad has been re-classified by the Army from “accidental” to “negligent homicide” by contractor KBR and two of its supervisors.

U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) chaired a July 11, 2008, Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing that looked into the death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth and 12 other U.S. soldiers electrocuted on Army bases in Iraq. Following the hearing, Dorgan and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) requested that the Pentagon conduct a theatre-wide investigation into KBR’s work on electrical installations in Iraq. In response, the Army conducted a review of the matter and, while asking KBR to improve its performance, continued to rely on KBR to inspect much of its own work and has not imposed any penalties on the company.

In response, the Army agreed to conduct a thorough investigation into the matter, but then decided to use KBR to perform much of the review.

Testimony at Dorgan’s hearing last July by former KBR employees disclosed that KBR hired unqualified third country nationals to do electrical wiring at U.S. military bases in Iraq.

Given the latest development, including possible negligent homicide charges against the contractor, Senators Dorgan and Casey have asked Defense Secretary Gates to meet with them and Maseth’s mother, Cheryl Harris, to discuss the process that the Department of Defense intends to follow to guarantee full accountability for any contractor misconduct that relates to the electrocutions of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Dorgan noted the Army originally told Harris her son was electrocuted because he carried an electrical appliance into the shower. The Army later retreated from that account, saying Staff Sgt. Maseth was electrocuted by wires hanging above the shower, an account that was also inaccurate.

“I believe DOD has been less than truthful to the families of soldiers who were electrocuted at military bases in Iraq because of shoddy contract work. It’s time or some straight talk about accountability,” Dorgan said.

“Those who receive contracts to serve our soldiers have an obligation to do so responsibly,” Dorgan said. “We want to know what Secretary Gates intends to do to ensure that contractors are acting responsibly, particularly in light of the Army’s reported finding that KBR and its supervisors may have been criminally negligent. We also want to know why the DOD has not pursued a process to debar contractors who are fleecing our taxpayers and putting soldiers at risk.”

“The news Cheryl Harris received from an Army CID that her son Ryan Maseth’s death has changed classification from 'accidental' to 'negligent homicide' and singles out not just two KBR employees, but the company itself, for potential criminal liability is a significant development,” said Senator Bob Casey. “This revelation validates the perseverance of Cheryl Harris, Ryan’s mother, in
seeking all the facts behind Ryan’s death. We must not only ensure that full accountability is served in this case, but that the Pentagon is also doing all that it can to prevent future electrocutions of American personnel in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We must put an end to our troops continuing to get put in harms way when they are doing something so simple as taking a shower.”

As Chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, Dorgan has chaired 18 oversight hearings on contracting abuses and corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hearings exposed billions of dollars in wasteful spending and numerous accounts of U.S. soldiers, already serving in harm’s way, being put at grave risk due to shoddy work by contractors, and by unsafe water supplies provided by our troops by contractors who failed to do their jobs.
It wasn't the circumstances of the death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth as it was the way the Army handled it. There continue to be too many cases where the family is told one thing and the truth is not revealed until the Army has been backed into a corner. As a Gold Star mother who was not told the truth about my son's death in Iraq for 15 months, I can assure you that families only want to know the truth and we shouldn't have to wait until the lie is caught. It is insulting and disrespectful and extremely stupid for the Army to think that we will not find out in other ways. In this age of technology, we will; pure and simple, we will. When will they learn?

That there was a problem with shoddy workmanship goes back at least to July 2007. That the electrocutions of soldiers in Iraq caused by the faulty wiring performed by KBR is still a story is outrageous. That one soldier, let alone 18 soldiers, have been killed in these so-called accidents is criminal. That in 2008 the Army let KBR handle the investigations into these deaths is equally criminal. That KBR is still in business and has not been held accountable to the highest position is beyond me. Maybe, just maybe, now that the long reach of former Vice-President Dick Cheney has been removed from influencing government contracts and with a new administration, we can expect a different kind of attention to be focused on this kind of egregious and deadly behavior.

Kudos to Senators Dorgan and Casey for keeping this story in the news and for pursuing the bad guys. I hope that Cheryl Maseth gets that meeting with Secretary Robert Gates. I hope he looks into her eyes and tells her that no other soldier will be electrocuted due to the negligence of KBR or any other contractor. I hope he tells her how sorry he is that the Army didn't do better for Ryan. I hope he tells her that he has ordered a new Inspector General investigation into these deaths and that charges will be filed when the investigation is complete. I hope he tells her that KBR will be debarred, not suspended, from any federal work. Nothing will bring Ryan back but knowing that her son's death and her own perseverance will prevent another death should matter. I know Ryan is very proud of his mom.

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