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A Times Editorial

Intolerable risks to GIs

The American people have a hard enough time with their friends and family members being killed or injured on the battlefields of Iraq. Having them electrocuted or injured because of shoddy work by contractors operating on American military bases is impossible to accept. It is even more disgusting that the revelations come amid disclosures that the Air Force has spent years trying to misdirect counterterrorism funds for plush cabins on senior officers' airplanes.

Army documents obtained by the New York Times show that shoddy electrical work posed a "clear and present danger" to American troops. But that alarm sounded only after a Green Beret, Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, was electrocuted in January while showering. His death, caused by poor electrical grounding, caught the attention of official Washington after the Special Forces member's family pushed Congress to investigate. The bigger question is what took so long.

At least 283 electrical fires destroyed or damaged U.S. facilities in Iraq in a six-month period between August 2006 and January 2007, the New York Times reported. Two soldiers died in an electrical fire at their base near Tikrit in 2006. After Maseth's death, a senior Army officer in Baghdad warned that exposed wiring, underground panels and lighting fixtures left several buildings "uninhabitable and unsafe." The Pentagon now considers these conditions "a very serious issue," a spokesman told the newspaper. But the article documented a host of internal documents and reports by a number of agencies that showed officials were aware that electrical problems posed a serious safety threat.

According to an Army report in 2007, electrical problems were the most urgent noncombat safety hazard in Iraq. The Army blamed poor-quality fixtures and subpar work for "resulting in a significant number of fires." KBR, the Houston-based company that provides basic services for U.S. troops in Iraq, told the New York Times it found no link between its work and the electrocutions.

These concerns over the troops' living conditions are not new. Subcontractors have alleged before that the electrical work was shoddy and that private-sector managers and government officials were too swamped or incompetent to oversee the work. The Pentagon cannot quantify the number of deaths or injuries caused by faulty electrical work, but it can find the time and money to equip airplanes for Air Force brass with leather chairs and flat-screen televisions, among other amenities. The administration needs to shed light on the contractors' work records. The Pentagon needs to bring living conditions up to par. And Congress needs to make sure this issue does not get lost in the larger debate on the war.

No American soldier should die from taking a shower.

Intolerable risks to GIs 07/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2008 5:57pm]
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