Reports of electrical hazards caused by negligence in Iraq are overblown, a senior Defense Department spokesman said here yesterday.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell spoke at a news conference on the eve of testimony before the House Government Reform Committee. Acting DoD Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell is one of four Pentagon officials expected to testify, according to House officials.
The hearing will examine allegations that KBR, a large defense contractor responsible for building and maintaining much of the U.S. infrastructure in Iraq, and the Army have caused deaths among American servicemembers in Iraq through negligence.
"We certainly understand and appreciate Congress's concern for the well-being of servicemembers and other U.S. personnel deployed in Iraq, but there seems to be a misperception out there that our facilities in that theater are replete with electrical hazards that have caused hundreds of fires and multiple fatalities," the press secretary said.
"What's more, some seem to believe that this department and one of the Army's lead logistical support contractors are so negligent or callous that we have failed to address these dangers," he continued.
Morrell said the characterization is "flat-out wrong."
"We care far too much about our men and women in uniform, as evidenced by the tens of billions of dollars we spend on force protection equipment, to knowingly allow them to live or work in an unsafe environment," Morrell said. "Our civilian and military leadership would simply not tolerate that."
He acknowledged that 16 servicemembers have been killed in electrical accidents since March 2003. "We grieve for each and every one of them," he said. "But it is wrong to suggest that all these deaths were the result of shoddy workmanship by defense contractors or lack of oversight by the Pentagon."
Of the 16, eight deaths occurred outside military bases and are attributable to servicemembers accidentally making contact with live power lines. This is a constant risk in the cities and villages of Iraq, where people hook up their homes to the power grid with any kind of wire possible -- including barbed wire. Overhead wires also often are lower than 10 feet off the ground.
"Three more troops were killed while working with electrical generators that were not properly grounded," Morrell said. Another was electrocuted in a pool that once belonged to deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.
"The remaining four deaths do seem to stem from wiring problems, but only one of them involves work done by KBR, although the inspector general is still looking into all these incidents," Morrell said.
A total of 10 U.S. troops have been electrocuted outside Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, he noted.
Every death is a tragedy, Morrell said, adding that he is not attempting to diminish them. "But they should be viewed in proper context," he said.
DoD has several investigations under way into this issue. In the meantime, "every facility our troops operate out of in Iraq is undergoing a safety inspection," he said. "That's nearly 5,000 buildings in all."
U.S. officials in Iraq have created a uniform electrical code for military facilities in the country.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, has appointed Army Maj. Gen. Timothy P. McHale as his chief safety officer. McHale also serves as the command's director of personnel, logistics and resources.
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service