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Army continues criminal probes into Iraq electrocutions

By LISA M. NOVAK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 4, 2009

It was near 100 degrees on May 8, 2004, when Spc. Chase Whitham and a few other soldiers decided to cool off in the swimming pool at Forward Operating Base Patriot in Mosul, Iraq.

A junior officer had recently renovated the pool, but a battalion commander had placed the pool off-limits until final precautions could be made.

No signs were posted, so Whitham and the others jumped in. The 21-year-old from Oregon was electrocuted when he touched a metal pipe that was circulating the pool water. It was later determined that the water pump had shorted and was not properly grounded.

Whitham was one of the first Americans to be killed by electrical problems at U.S. bases in Iraq.

In all, 19 Americans — 16 servicemembers, two contractors and a State Department employee — have been electrocuted since 2003.

But it was the death of Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth, who was electrocuted while showering in 2008, that led the Department of Defense inspector general to look at the issue. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. — Maseth was from Pittsburgh — pushed for the investigation.

Maseth, a 24-year-old Green Beret assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group in Iraq, died while showering in a facility that had an improperly grounded water pump. The IG, in a report released in July, found that the contractor tasked with performing facility maintenance, along with military commanders, failed to ensure the safety of servicemen and women.

In some cases, deaths could have been prevented had minimum safety requirements been met, investigators stated in the report.

That Maseth’s death came almost four years after Whitham died in the pool is upsetting to Whitham’s mother, Laurie.

"Chase’s death would’ve sent a clear message to inspect every single pump they ever installed over there," Laurie Whitham said by telephone recently from her home in Harrisburg, Ore. "Chase was involved with the war early on. I’m appalled that [four years later] a guy could be electrocuted in the shower. I know there’s been other incidents where there have been injuries, so who knows how many cases there are?"

No more to investigate

In the summary of its report, the IG concluded that evidence should have led to additional investigative work to resolve accountability issues and recommended that the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command reopen four of the cases, including Maseth’s.

But the new investigations have been hampered by lost evidence, lost leads and the U.S. pullback from some bases in Iraq. Only one has been completed.

With years having passed since the deaths, investigators have struggled finding witnesses and collecting documents, Chris Grey, a Criminal Investigation Command spokesman, said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes. CID officials refused to be interviewed for the story.

Last year, an IG team visited the areas where eight of the electrocutions happened and found little, if anything, left to investigate. They did learn:

  • The swimming pool where Whitham died is part of a base that has since been returned to Iraq.
  • The maintenance area where Sgt. Christopher Everett, 23, died while using a power washer at a base outside Ramadi in May 2005 is now a parking lot.
  • The shower stall where Spc. Marcus Nolasco, 34, died couldn’t be located and "nothing involved in the incident remained for examination."

In the Nolasco case, electrical work done at Forward Operating Base Summerall in Beiji two weeks before his death was performed by a local contractor who didn’t have to "meet any minimum or standard electrical code or requirement," according to the IG report. The day after the job was completed, the facility was closed because of electrical shocks and plumbing problems. But signs were not posted, and troops who still had a key to enter the facility were not informed of the closing, according to the report.

In the Whitham case, the IG determined that in the initial investigation, "minimum investigative steps" were taken to determine the cause of death, the number and scope of interviews were deemed minimal and physical evidence wasn’t collected.

The report also suggested the Army should have conducted a negligent homicide investigation in the Whitham case since the command failed to ensure electrical safety requirements were in place when the work was done, and because the command didn’t post signs or prevent anyone from using the pool once it was placed off-limits.

The IG report further found that electrical shocks were so commonplace that many incidents went unreported and were considered to be just part of duty in Iraq. The Defense Contract Management Agency — which ensures contractors’ work is done properly — found more than 230 instances of reported shocks in a database of facilities maintained by the military contracting company KBR in Iraq between 2006 and 2008. The work of KBR was cited in two cases looked at by the IG.

KBR officials would not comment specifically on the report, but did give a general response.

"KBR’s unwavering commitment to the safety and security of all employees, the troops and those we serve remains," said Heather Browne, KBR spokeswoman.

Two lawsuits were filed against the Houston-based contractor.

In the case of Everett, a judge dismissed KBR from a wrongful death lawsuit, although the company still faces the same claim in the death of Maseth.

KBR has filed a motion for a judge to dismiss the suit, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

KBR’s Browne told USA Today in July that while Maseth’s death was tragic, the company maintains it is not responsible. She said KBR informed the military of problems within the facility months before Maseth’s death.

"Prior to that incident, the military never directed KBR to repair, upgrade or improve the grounding system in the building in which Maseth resided, nor was KBR directed to perform any preventative maintenance at this facility," said Browne, quoted in USA Today.

No changes necessary

Despite the IG’s findings of inadequate or nonexistent safety measures on the part of military commanders and dangerously shoddy construction practices by U.S. or Iraqi contractors, the Army determined that no one should be held criminally liable.

Many contractors and government employees "breached their respective duties of care," according to a statement the Army released in August, yet "none of those breaches in and of themselves were the proximate cause of his death."

Furthermore, although CID’s investigative practices were called into question, the Army has not initiated any changes to how it conducts investigations, according to Grey, but agents were "reminded of the need to apply all available investigative techniques and processes."

Without giving any time frame for completion, Grey wrote that the remaining investigations are almost finished.


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