GI burned in Iraq hopes to continue Army career
By Scott Huddleston – Express-News
After a day on patrol, he just wanted to take a shower.
But a soldier now recovering at Fort Sam Houston was burned and knocked unconscious in what may be the latest in a long series of electrical accidents in Iraq.
KBR, the military contractor that Pfc. Justin Shults blames for his burns, also has been accused by the Army of negligent homicide in last year’s death of a staff sergeant who was electrocuted in his shower.
Shults, 21, has a weakened left hand and can’t run without pain because of the burns to his groin. They are injuries that did not warrant a Purple Heart but give him a stirring war story to tell.
“The reactions I get from people range from ‘That’s totally messed up’ to a few choice words for KBR,” he said.
Shults, who wears compression garments over some of the third-degree burns covering 13 percent of his body, said he received his war scars Oct. 17 in a shower trailer installed by KBR that sent a 220-volt surge through his body.
“We have so many things to think about over there,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to worry about going into a shower and getting injured.”
‘Pattern of negligence’
At least 18 Americans — 16 U.S. troops and two contract workers — have been killed in electrocutions in Iraq, eight from power lines. Although the violence in Iraq has decreased, the electrical wiring there is still deadly, Shults said.
For more than a year, Cheryl Harris has been waging her own fight against KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary with more than $24 billion to date in war contracts. Her son, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, was electrocuted in his shower Jan. 2, 2008.
Harris said the recent case involving Shults proves that problems with electrical wiring and poorly grounded systems in Iraq haven’t been fixed.
“I could just sit here and cry. I’m so angry that it continues,” she said by phone from her home in Pennsylvania.
But having just returned from President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Harris said she hopes to find some form of justice. Last week, the Army said it has changed the manner of Maseth’s death from accidental to negligent homicide and has reopened his case.
Army reports say KBR failed to have “qualified electricians and plumbers” work on Maseth’s barracks. His death has been linked to an improperly grounded water pump. According to military records, another solider who had used the same shower at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex in Baghdad had put in a work order for repairs after being shocked four times.
KBR, based in Houston, has denied negligence in Maseth’s death. A spokeswoman said the company was not familiar with the case involving Shults.
“KBR has and will continue to cooperate fully with the government to promote electrical safety in Iraq,” spokeswoman Heather Browne said in a statement.
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a national advocacy group, said the Army’s determination that KBR may have committed negligent homicide could lead to a “new level of accountability” for war contractors. Although KBR has already been accused of exposing troops to toxins at a power plant and contaminated water at U.S. bases, the electrocutions are more likely to stir public anger, Rieckhoff said.
“This is turning into a pattern of negligence,” he said. “These deaths are unacceptable. We need investigations. We need KBR held accountable.”
An expectation of safety
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said the problems with electrical safety “would probably have never come to light” if not for the media and Harris, who has a wrongful death lawsuit pending against KBR in federal court.
Casey, who has pressed for a full investigation into the deaths by KBR and the Pentagon, said he’s interested in the case of Shults, who is from Redding, Pa., and is the most recent casualty “that we know of.”
“Our troops, when they’re not in a firefight or on patrol and are washing a car or taking a shower, should have an expectation of relative safety,” Casey said. “That expectation is reasonable, but it’s been violated.”
Up to 10 of the 18 deaths were linked by military investigators to faulty wiring. According to government records, Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Everett was electrocuted in 2005 while power-washing a Humvee at Camp Al Taqaddum. Spc. Marvin Camposiles died while working on a generator at his base near Samara in 2004. Cpl. Marcos Nolasco was electrocuted in his shower in Baji that year. Spc. Chase Whitham also died in 2004, from an electric jolt in a swimming pool in Mosul.
Casey said he’s also heard reports of troops being shocked in showers in Afghanistan. He didn’t know of any fatalities.
He said he’ll ask for Obama’s support this week in seeking accountability in the Iraq deaths, as well as legislative and procedural changes to ensure the safety of U.S. troops.
Although the military is still investigating the electrocutions, Casey said he’d like to resume congressional hearings that began last year, to sort out the facts and improve the way contracts are managed.
“I want to get a sense of the timeline from the administration. I think the previous administration dragged its feet,” he said.
A confirmed finding by the Army of negligent homicide in Maseth’s death could lead to criminal proceedings against KBR workers in federal court, and a court-martial if military officials are found responsible, Casey said.
The Army’s director of staff, Lt. Gen. David H. Huntoon Jr., said the electrocutions are “of grave concern to the senior leadership.” In an era when contractors play a bigger role in war, military leaders need to ensure performance standards are enforced, he said.
“It is the responsibility of every leader in the U.S. Army to ensure the safety of every soldier,” Huntoon said.
‘Straight through my body’
Shults lays the blame for his injuries squarely on KBR. The shower trailer near his barracks at Tarmiyah, a small city northwest of Baghdad, was like at least hundreds of others KBR has installed in Iraq.
On Oct. 17, Shults had been on patrol with Iraqi police and his unit from Fort Hood when he went to shower about 5 p.m. It was chilly outside. With the water running, he stepped out of his stall and reached to turn a knob on the air unit from cold to hot.
“When I went to turn it up, I had electric volts come straight through my body,” Shults said.
The shock went through his left hand, across his chest to his right arm and down around his groin and his upper right leg. He believes he was out for about 10 minutes before he got up and went for help.
A few days later, he arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center. He received two skin grafts to his thigh and groin, where he was most severely burned, and went through a few weeks of physical therapy. His medical records confirm that he was injured while taking a shower.
Shults has stayed in touch with his unit and has learned that the shower’s ventilator wasn’t properly grounded. He said KBR was supposed to have sent someone to re-ground it and that the Army was supposed to have sent one of its electricians to inspect the work.
“I don’t know if it happened. That’s the only trailer they have out there for that group” of about 30 soldiers, he said.
Despite his weakened left hand and the pain he feels when he runs, Shults hopes to recovery fully and have a 20-year Army career while raising his infant daughter, Dakota.
But Shults and his wife, who serves in another security company set to deploy in July, want everyone to know about his injuries. Even if the shower trailer in Tarmiyah has been repaired, there could be others that aren’t safe, they said.
“We don’t want other families going through what we’re going through now,” Spc. Krystal Shults said. “We don’t want other mothers, fathers and wives losing loved ones for something so stupid, because KBR didn’t do its job.”
Ultimately, the Pentagon needs to work out better relationships with contractors, especially the major ones such as KBR, or find other ways to fight wars, said Rieckhoff, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“We’re addicted to their services,” he said. “We can find a way to wean ourselves off of them.”
If KBR can’t demonstrate a commitment to the troops, its contract should be terminated, Rieckhoff said.
“If you’re entrusted with the care of our soldiers and you’re charged with negligent homicide, you shouldn’t have the opportunity to kill more soldiers.” (click HERE to go to the article)
I strongly urge the Shults family to get in touch with Senator Casey from Pennsylvania and Cheryl Harris. If there are any other Civilians or Soldiers who have received electrical shocks and burns in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait…..contact me via the “Contact Us” tab at the top of the page.