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My Friend's Son Killed in Iraq: By Contractors and U.S. Agency?

The military told my friend this past January that her son had foolishly carried an electrical appliance into a shower in Baghdad. That was a lie.
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Last night, I was surprised and happy to find a photograph of my friend Cheryl Harris at the top of the New York Times' web site. She was hugging her young son, Ryan Maseth, an Army sergeant who was dressed in his uniform and cap. The were both smiling broadly. A few months later he was dead. The military told her this past January that he had foolishly carried an electrical appliance into a shower in Baghdad.

That was a lie.

It turned out the fault was an improperly grounded water pump. With a little help from me, she found out that at least 10 other military personnel have been electrocuted in Iraq in recent years. Now she is suing the contractor KBR, though there is evidence that the military and the Defense Contracting Management Agency are also to blame for being lax in its own inspections. The Times article carries word of early alerts about this, which were ignored.

Cheryl Harris is quoted by the Times today, asking, "My biggest question is really, why would KBR do a safety inspection, know about the electrical problems and not alert the troops?" The article, still on the paper's home page, is headlined, "GIs Electrocuted in Iraq Despite '04 Alert on Wiring."

Just after I reported on the Maseth electrocution for Editor & Publisher back in January -- no one else in the national media bothered to do so -- Cheryl, who lives in western Pennsylvania, contacted me wondering how she could find out how many others had met his fate. She was especially concerned because -- unmentioned in the Times story today -- she has another son in Iraq and yet another in the military serving elsewhere. I directed her to some sources and we have corresponded often ever since then, most recently today.

Of course, the Bush administration aptly catches plenty of blame in the Times article for outsourcing so much work in Iraq (directing billions to the KBRs of the world) and then not providing enough oversight.

Two months ago I wrote, "Rep. Henry Waxman and Pentagon chief Robert Gates are looking into reports that the 12 deaths, and probably more, were caused by shoddy wiring and construction where our troops are housed. It is not known how many of these cases involved KBR. Cheryl Harris's lawyer has obtained military documents indicated that KBR told the Defense Contracting Management Agency there were wiring problems in the building before Maseth's death, and nothing was done about them. The question is: Who is to blame? And what about all those other cases.

"Also, Harris was originally told by the military that her son had been electrocuted after he took a small electrical appliance into the shower area. She couldn't get answers herself and contacted a local member of Congress. Now documents show that Ryan was killed when an electrical water pump shorted out after he had stepped into the shower and turned on the water. An electrical current then passed through the water pipes to a metal shower hose in the shower."

Cheryl informed me then, "I'd like to have questions answered about who is accountable, and I'd like to know that this can't happen again to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan." Today she told me that she just did a CNN interview: So the story widens, at last.
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Greg Mitchell's book So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Fails on Iraq includes several chapters on "nonhostile" deaths and suicides in Iraq. It features a preface by Bruce Springsteen. Mitchell can be reached at gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com.

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