Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lawmakers want probe of accidental electrocutions in Iraq

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

At least a dozen soldiers and Marines have been electrocuted in Iraq over the five years of the war, and investigators now are trying to learn what role improper grounding of electrical wires played in those deaths.

And Houston-based KBR — which builds bases and maintains housing for U.S. troops in Iraq — is at the center of the probe, with questions being raised about its responsibility to repair known wiring problems.

On the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, California Democrat Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter today to Defense Secretary Robert Gates seeking details about electrocutions of military and contract workers in Iraq and about KBR's role in making electrical repairs.

Defense Department spokesman Chris Isleib said the Pentagon "considers this matter to be serious, and we have referred it to the (Department of Defense) Inspector General for a full investigation."

KBR officials pledged to cooperate fully with agencies involved in the probe.

The investigation was prompted by the death of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, of Pennsylvania, who was electrocuted Jan. 2 while taking a shower in his living quarters in the Radwaniyah Palace Complex in Baghdad.

Initially, Maseth's mother, Cheryl Harris, was told her son — serving in the Army's special forces — had a small, electrical appliance with him in the shower.

"I tried to do this on my own and get answers," Harris said in a telephone interview. "I was not successful doing that."

Three weeks after the her son's death, Harris sought help from her local congressman, Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa.

Maseth, according to a memorandum written by Army investigators and obtained by the Chronicle, was living in a building that had been refurbished by local Iraqis. KBR had been contracted to provide maintenance on the building in 2007, the memo said.

Maseth was killed, the memo said, 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.

Waxman, in his letter to Gates, said investigators blamed Maseth's death on improper grounding of the water pump.

"The circuit breaker was, in fact, bypassed," said Patrick Cavanaugh, an attorney hired by Harris and Maseth's father, Douglas Maseth.

KBR's contract, the memo said, "only required KBR to fix the building (plumbing and electricity) as things broke. KBR did an initial survey of the building upon assuming responsibility and noted several safety issues concerning the improper grounding of electrical devices.

"The contract did not cover fixing potential hazards so those issues were never addressed," the memo said.

KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne said today that at the time of Maseth's death, "KBR was providing repair services at the facility in response to requests issued by the Army."

Maseth's death was only the latest in a series of electrocutions, Waxman wrote.

In all, 10 soldiers and two Marines are known to have been electrocuted, Waxman noted.

In October 2004, the Army issued a safety warning after five soldiers had been electrocuted that year alone, Waxman said. The warning noted that improper grounding of electrical wires is "a factor in nearly every electrocution," Waxman said.

Altmire said those deaths were "easily preventable."

"You wonder how it even could happen one time. But if a tragedy does occur once — because of a mistake — how could it possibly occur 12 times?" he asked.

In his letter to Gates, Waxman has asked for the names and addresses of all service personnel and contractors killed or seriously injured in electrical accidents.

He also wants details about KBR's assignments for making electrical repairs at the giant complex, as well as any reports about needs for rewiring at the facility.

Waxman has asked that the Pentagon respond to his request by April 4.

Maseth, an Army Ranger and Green Beret, was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq. His twin brother is also serving in Iraq, and another another brother also is in the armed forces.

Today Maseth's parents filed suit against KBR in state court in Pittsburgh, seeking unspecified damages.

"I'd like to know who was accountable and why Ryan was permitted to live in a facility that was life-threatening," his mother said.

An Excerpt from the Winter Soldier Hearings

This past week, there has been another Winter Soldier event, similar to the one held during the Vietnam War. No mainstream media has covered this event, with the exception of The Washington Post. The coverage was minimal. Here is a statement by the parents of a soldier who committed suicide. You can read all the statements at

JOYCE LUCEY: My name is Joyce Lucey, and I’m the mom of Corporal Jeffrey Michael Lucey. The last month of his life, he had this flashlight by his bedside, and he was looking for the camel spiders that he could hear running around the room. And when he went over to Iraq, he asked me to hold this coin for him every day, so he’d come home safely. I had no idea that it was after he came home that I should have been holding this coin.

Jeffrey’s death should never have happened. The young man, who in January of 2003 was sent to Kuwait to participate in an invasion in which he did not agree, was not the same young man that stepped off the bus in July. Our Marine physically returned to us, but his spirit died somewhere in Iraq. As we celebrated his homecoming, Jeff masked the anger, the guilt, the confusion, pain and darkness that are part of the hidden wounds of war behind his smile.

Jeff was in Kuwait with the 6th Motor Transportation Battalion. He was a convoy driver. On the 20th of March, he entered in his journal, which I have here, “At 10:30 p.m., a scud landed in our vicinity. We were just falling asleep when a shockwave rattled through our tent. The noise was just short of blowing out your eardrums. Everyone’s heart truly skipped a beat, and the reality of where we are and what’s happening hit home.” The last entry is, "We now just had a gas alert, and it’s past midnight. We will not sleep. Nerves are on edge.” The invasion had begun, and Jeff never had time to put another entry in.

Several months after his return, he said that he would like to complete it. We never knew that he did not—he would never get the time to do that. Our fear the whole time he was over there was that he would be physically harmed. We never imagined that an emotional wound could and would be just as lethal.

The letters we received from him were brief and sanitized. But to his girlfriend of six years, he said in April of 2003 he felt he had done immoral things and that he wanted to erase the last month of his life. “There are things I wouldn’t want to tell you or my parents, because I don’t want you to be worried. Even if I did tell you, you’d probably think I was just exaggerating. I would never want to fight in a war again. I’ve seen and done enough horrible things to last me a lifetime.” This is the baggage that my son carried with him when he stepped off that bus that sunny July day at Fort Nathan Hale, New Haven, Connecticut.

Over the next several months, we missed the signs that Jeffrey was in trouble. We had no way of knowing that during his post-deployment briefing at Camp Pendleton he was told to watch the direction that he was going in his survey, or else he’d be kept there another two to four months. He was careful from then on.

In July, he went to the Cape with his girlfriend, and she found him rather distant. He didn’t want to walk the beach. He later told a friend at college that he had seen enough sand to last him a lifetime. At his sister’s wedding in August, he told his grandmother, “You could be in a room full of people, but you could feel so alone.” He resumed college in 2003. That fall, we found out that Jeff had been vomiting just about every day since his return, and that kind of kept up right until the day he died.

On Christmas Eve, his sister came home early to see how he was doing. He had been drinking. He was standing by the refrigerator, and he grabbed his dog tags and he tossed them to her, and he called himself a murderer. We were to find out that these dog tags included two Iraqi soldiers that he feels—or he knows he’s personally responsible for their deaths. His private therapist, who saw him the last seven weeks of his life, said he didn’t wear them as a trophy, but he wore them to honor these men. He had a nightmare in February. He told me he was having a dream that they were coming after him in an alleyway. After his death, we kind of checked the VA records, and he had talked to them also about having nightmares in which he was running from alleyway to alleyway.

Spring break 2004 began, three months in which our family watched the son and brother we knew fall apart. He was depressed and drinking. When college classes resumed, he found attending classes very difficult. He had panic attacks, feeling that the other students were staring at him, even though he realized they weren’t. He was placed on Klonopin and Prozac to see if it could keep him in class. Jeff’s problems just worsened. He was having trouble sleeping, nightmares, poor appetite, isolating himself in his room. He was unable to focus on studies, so he could take his—so he could not take his finals. An excellent athlete, his balance was badly compromised by the mixture of Klonopin and alcohol.

He confided in his younger sister that he had a rope and a tree picked out near the brook behind our home, but told her, “Don’t worry. I’d never do that. I wouldn’t hurt Mom and Dad.” He was adamant that the Marines not be told, fearing a Section 8 and not wanting the stigma that is connected to PTSD to follow him throughout his life.

He finally went to the VA, after being assured that they were not part of the military and would not relay any information without Jeff’s permission. His dad called and explained what was happening with our son, and they said it was classic PTSD and that he should come in as soon as possible. The problem was getting Jeffrey to actually go in. It was—he kind of—every day it was “Tomorrow. I’ll go in tomorrow. I’m tired.” He just didn’t have the energy to get up. The day he went in, he blew up .328, and it was decided he needed to stay. As it was decided he needed to stay, it took six employees to take Jeffrey down. He had gotten out the door and ran out into the parking area.

Involuntarily committed for four days, the stay did nothing but make him feel like he was being warehoused. After seeing an admitting psychiatrist, he would not see another one until the day of his discharge. After answering in the affirmative that he was thinking of harming himself and revealing the three methods—overdose, suffocation or hanging—he was released on June 1st, 2003, a Tuesday. We found out later that he told them on Friday, the day that he was admitted, that he had a hose to choke himself. None of this was ever relayed to us.

They told us while he was there that he would not be assessed for PTSD until he was alcohol-free. But Jeffrey was using this alcohol as self-medication, and he had told us often that’s the only way he could sleep at night. That we might—and the VA said that we might have to consider kicking him out of the house so he would hit rock bottom and then realize he needed his help. That wasn’t an option for us.

On his discharge interview, Jeff said there were three phone calls that the psychiatrist took, one of them being just before he was going to tell her about the bumps in the road, the children they were told not to stop their vehicles for and just not to look back. He decided not to, after she took the call, feeling she wasn’t really interested.

On June 3rd, on a Dunkin’ Donut run—and this was two days after he was released from the hospital—he totaled our car. Was it a suicide attempt? We’re never going to know. No drinking was involved. I was terrified I was losing my little boy. I asked him where he was. He touched his chest, and he said, “Right here, Mom.”

On the 5th, he arrived at HCC, Holyoke Community College, where he was a student. But because of not taking the finals, he would not be graduating. But he arrived there to watch the graduation of his sister. This was supposed to be his graduation also. How he drove his car there, we’ll never know. He was so impaired. We managed to get him home, but his behavior got worse. He was very depressed.

My parents, who saw their grandson often, never saw him like this. His sisters and brother-in-law and my dad took him back to the VA. He did not want my husband to go, because he felt he was going to be involuntarily committed again. They were waiting for him, but he refused to go in the building. He was intelligent, didn’t want to get committed again like the weekend before. They decided, without consulting someone with the authority to commit him involuntarily, that he was neither suicidal or homicidal, there was nothing they could do. Our daughters called home in a panic saying it didn’t look like they were going to keep their brother. In their records, they say the grandfather pleaded for someone to help his grandson. Neither our veterans nor their families should ever have to beg for the care they should be entitled to.

My father lost his only brother in World War II. He was twenty-two years old. He was now watching his only grandson self-destructing at twenty-three because of another war.

Kevin and I went through the rooms when we knew Jeff was coming back. We took his knives, bottles, anything we felt he could harm himself with, a dog leash. I took a stepstool, anything that I thought could trigger something in his mind. His car was disabled not only to protect himself, but to protect others from Jeffrey. Kevin called the civilian authorities. They said they can’t—“We can’t touch him. He’s drinking.” My child was struggling to survive, and we didn’t know who to turn to. There was no follow-up call from the VA, no outreach, though they knew he was in crisis. We had no guidance—what to say to him, how to handle his situation. You hear a lot about supporting our troops, but I’ll tell you: we felt isolated, abandoned and alone.

While the rest of the country lived on, going to Disney World, shopping, living their daily lives, our days consisted of constant fear, apprehension, helplessness, while we watched this young man being consumed by this cancer that ravaged his soul. I sat on the deck with this person who was impersonating my son and listened to him while he recounted bits and pieces of his time in Iraq. Then he would grind his fist into his hand, and he’d say, “You could never understand.”

On Friday, June 11th, around midnight, my daughter got a call from a girl down the street. She asked me, “Where’s your son?” And I said, “Debs, he’s in his room. He’s sleeping.” Well, apparently not. He had climbed out the window and gotten into this girl’s car. He wanted some beer. She was—this girl who had known Jeffrey all her life was a little bit scared of him. When I saw him get out of the car, I froze. Jeff was in—dressed in his cammies with two k-bars, a modified pellet gun, which the police wouldn’t know, and carrying a six-pack. He had just wanted that beer. There was a sad smile on his face like a lost soul. When I told him how concerned I was about him, he said, “Don’t worry, Mom. No matter what I do, I always come back.”

KEVIN LUCEY: So later that evening, we had decided that we were going to try to go out, because he had become reclusive in the house. We were going to try to go out for a steak dinner the following night. At about 11:30, quarter to 12:00, Jeffrey asked me, for the second time within the past ten days, if he could just sit in my lap and I could rock him for about—well, for a while. And we did. We sat there for about forty-five minutes, and I was rocking Jeff, and we were in total silence. As his private therapist that we had hired said, it was his last harbor and his last place of refuge.

The next day, I came home. It was about quarter after 7:00. I held Jeff one last time, as I lowered his body from the rafters and took the hose from around his neck.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin and Joyce Lucey, their son, Marine Lance Corporal Jeffrey Lucey, served five months in Iraq in 2003 with the 6th Motor Transport Battalion. Almost a year later, he committed suicide, June 22nd, 2004. He was twenty-three years old.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Family questions investigation into soldier's death

By Kathryn Fiegen
Iowa City Press-Citizen

The family of a fallen Riverside soldier said they still have unanswered questions after receiving the results recently of an investigation into his death that concluded he killed himself in Iraq.

Initial reports said U.S. Army Sgt. James Musack, 23, of Riverside, was killed in a non-combat related incident Nov. 21, 2006, in Samarra, Iraq. He was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas.

The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command investigated the death and concluded in December 2007 that it was a suicide.

However, Musack's sister, Morgan Rorex, 20, of Coralville, said her family doesn't believe Musack killed himself just days before he was supposed to come home from Iraq.

"We didn't think that's what happened," she said. "There's too many inconsistencies."

Musack's family received the results of the investigation in the mail two weeks ago. The report is more than 100 pages long and includes interviews with unit members, the family and friends who last spoke to Musack, the results of forensic tests and diagrams of where his body was found. Many of the details, including the names of who was interviewed, were redacted.

Christopher Grey, Chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, said Musack's death was "thoroughly investigated."

"We stand by the findings of this investigation," he said. "My heart goes out to the family, of course, but at this point, we stand by our investigation."

According to the report, Musack was found 67 meters from the southeast corner of Patrol Base South in the Al-Taji area of Iraq about 9:45 a.m. Nov. 21. He was found lying on his right side, with his left shoulder slumped over his body. The unit members who found him said in the interviews that Musack's M4 rifle was parallel to his body with the barrel pointed toward his head and his left arm was draped over it. The report said he died of a gunshot wound to his head.

Musack had arrived at the base the day before to train members of another unit, and the area he in which was found was used as a restroom or private area to make phone calls by other soldiers at the base, the report said.

Rorex said the family is questioning a few aspects of the report, starting with the soldier interviews.

Unit members who were interviewed about the death said Musack was generally happy but kept to himself. They said Musack had no enemies in the unit and didn't express any family, financial or emotional distress. They also said he was excited to go home and talked about buying a house in Texas.

The report also said Musack was not being treated for mental illness, taking medication or receiving counseling.

On the day of his death, soldiers said nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except Musack seemed to be smoking more than usual. He was last seen stepping out to smoke about 5:15 a.m. or 5:20 a.m. The report said gunshots were heard near the base about 6 a.m.

"Why would no one go to look for him until 9:45?" Rorex said. "It doesn't make sense."

Interviews with family members and friends paint a different picture than what the soldiers said.

Rorex said her mother, Yvette Eastom of Glenpool, Okla., and aunt, DeeAnna Newlin of Tulsa, Okla., were interviewed. In their statements, in the days before his death Musack was paranoid and edgy. He said he was being "set up" and said he had seen something he shouldn't have seen involving the death of a little girl and he had to "watch his back." Musack told his family he didn't think he was coming home.

Rorex said he didn't provide many details to his family about the little girl because he thought the calls were being recorded, but she thinks the incident led to his death.

Eastom said she and her sister told her son not to say anything about the little girl because he was two weeks away from coming home.

"It will probably be a decision I'll regret the rest of my life," she said.

Eastom said she is communicating with U.S. senators in her state and will tell "anyone who will listen" that Musack's case should be re-investigated.

Grey said occasionally credible information comes up after investigations wrap up and the cases are re-opened, but not often.

Rorex said the family just wants some peace.

"We just want to figure out what really happened to James," she said.

Coroners face gagging over troop deaths

From The Times:
March 18, 2008

Greg Hurst, Political Correspondent

Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, is trying to prevent coroners from being highly criticical of the Ministry of Defence over the deaths of British troops killed in action.

In a highly unusual move, Mr Browne began legal moves yesterday to prevent coroners from using language prejudicial to the MoD when issuing verdicts on the deaths of troops who die on active service.

Lawyers for Mr Browne went to the High Court to challenge comments made by a coroner in Oxfordshire after an inquest of a Territorial Army soldier in Iraq. Private Jason Smith, 32, died of heatstroke in 2003.

Andrew Walker, the assistant deputy coroner of Oxfordshire, recorded at his inquest in November 2006 that Private Smith’s death was caused “by a serious failure to recognise and take appropriate steps to address the difficulty that he had in adjusting to the climate”.

Sarah Moore, appearing for the Defence Secretary, argued that the coroner should not have used the phrase “serious failure”. She told the High Court that the phrase could be seen as deciding civil liability for Private Smith’s death, which was not permitted under Rule 42 of the 1984 Coroners’ Rules.

The Government’s decision to go to the High Court is an attempt to stop the MoD from being exposed to civil actions on the back of – and using as evidence – the outspoken comments of coroners.

The hearing will act as a test case for how much freedom coroners have to make wideranging criticisms of the MoD after independent investigations into the deaths of troops serving in Iraq and elsewhere.

Private Smith fell ill in temperatures of up to 60C (140F) in August 2003 at the al-Amara stadium in southern Iraq. The inquest’s narrative verdict described how he was taken to a medical centre at Abu Naji camp, where he died. The coroner said that Private Smith’s difficulty in acclimatising should have been recognised.

Ms Moore told the High Court that the case raised “a matter of general importance” because the phrase “serious failing” was regularly being used in inquests of British Service personnel in Iraq.

Mr Justice Collins, the judge hearing the appeal, also emphasised the importance of the issue at stake as a new inquest has been ordered for Private Smith, because of alleged flaws in the original hearing.

Lawyers acting for the late soldier’s mother, Catherine Smith, from Roxburghshire, Scotland, argued that the Defence Secretary’s legal challenge was misconceived.

Private Smith’s family is also making submissions to the court over the scope of the new inquest and asking the judge to order full disclosure of MoD documents, other than those covered by public interest immunity.

Mr Walker has been critical of the MoD in his findings from several inquests. Last week, at the hearing into the death of Captain Daniel Wright, who fell 2,500ft (760m) at Weston-on-the-Green airfield while on parachute training near RAF Brize Norton in 2005, he concluded that he would not have died had he been equipped with a radio, enabling instructors to tell him how to open his reserve chute.

Last month, at the inquest of Captain James Philippson, Mr Walker accused the MoD of betraying British soldiers’ trust. Captain Philippson, 29, of 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, died in a gunfight with Tale-ban troops in 2006 in which British forces were “totally out-gunned”, his inquest was told.

Mr Walker said: “To send soldiers into a combat zone without basic equipment is unforgivable, inexcusable and a breach of trust between the soldiers and those who govern them.” Geoff Webb, coroner’s officer for Oxfordshire, said Mr Walker felt that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the High Court case.

David Masters, the Wiltshire coroner, who is conducting inquests of British servicemen, said: “I am unable to make any comment on this particular case.

“Having said that, I do not consider that this will deflect coroners from conducting full, frank and fearless inquiries into the deaths that they are entrusted to investigate – those of people serving their country when they are killed abroad. If something needs to be said, I’ll say it.”