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Chase Whitham-US Army Archive

By Lisa M. Novak, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Sunday, 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?”

Nothing left 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. (click HERE for original article)

DOD IG Report on 17 Electrocution Deaths

Posted July 27, 2009 By Ms Sparky

Here is the DoD Inspector General Report Entitled “Review of Electrocution Deaths in Iraq:  Part II – Seventeen Incidents Apart from  Staff Sergeant Ryan D. Maseth, U.S. Army” dated July 24, 2009

Report No. IPO2009E001 .pdf 1.7 MB

You can also get it from the DoD IG website.

I have not had time to read this report, but here is a VERY brief summary based on media reports.

Nine of 18 electrocution deaths reported in Iraq were caused by “improper grounding or faulty equipment,” including the January 2008 death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, the Defense Department’s inspector-general found.

Investigations remain open in five of those cases, according to a summary of the report obtained by the AP.

As soon as I get more I will let you know.

Ms Sparky

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Army investigators begin probe of Oregon soldier’s electrocution

By KIMBERLY HEFLING , Associated Press
Last update: February 9, 2009 – 3:15 PM

WASHINGTON – Army criminal investigators have opened a probe into the death of an Oregon soldier who was electrocuted while swimming in Iraq at a U.S.-operated base.

Spc. Chase Whitham’s death on May 8, 2004, has been blamed on a pool motor shorting out that was improperly grounded. Whitham, 21, was in Mosul when he died.

His electrocution death is among five that military criminal investigators have reopened for further study after consultation with the Pentagon’s Inspector General. Chris Grey, an Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman, said Monday the case was opened in January but he would not provide specifics.

Whitham’s mother, Laurie Whitham, said Monday that investigators told her they were focusing on the origins of electrical problems at the base where her son died. She said she hopes the new probe into her son’s death might prevent future electrocutions, and that it’s been upsetting to hear of others who were electrocuted.

“It just seems like if they saw there was a problem with the pump to the pool in my son’s accident, that they would pay particular attention down the road to any other pump that they would have to hook up, especially one that was going into a shower,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Hammond, Ore.

Her son spent most of his childhood in Harrisburg, Ore., but he graduated from high school in Eugene, Ore.

Whitham’s death is among 18 electrocution deaths under review by the Pentagon’s Inspector General — 16 service members and two contractors. Some of the deaths were blamed on improperly installed or maintained electrical work. Three deaths occurred when soldiers were showering.

Whitham was serving with the 2nd Infantry Division, based at Fort Lewis, Washington.

The Army’s criminal investigation division has reclassified another soldier’s electrocution death as a negligent homicide caused by contractor KBR Inc. and two of its supervisors. Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, a Green Beret from Pittsburgh, was electrocuted in his barracks shower in Iraq. An Army investigator said KBR’s contractor failed to ensure that qualified electricians and plumbers did the work. The case remains under legal review; KBR has said it wasn’t responsible for Maseth’s death.

___

Julie Reed of the AP News Research Center contributed to this report (Click HERE to read original article)

Note: If you have information about this tragic incident please email me and I will get you in touch with the appropriate people.

Ms Sparky
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Yet Another Electrical Shock In Iraq

Posted January 26, 2009 By Ms Sparky

GI burned in Iraq hopes to continue Army career

By Scott Huddleston – Express-News

Army Pfc. Justin Shults shows some of the burn wounds he suffered in October.

Army Pfc. Justin Shults shows some of the burn wounds he suffered in October.

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.

Ms Sparky