Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, July 31, 2009, to discuss the Defense Department's Inspector General report linking the electrocution of a 24-year-old Green Beret to faulty electrical work by military contractor KBR. Does the death of US Air Force Staff Sgt. Adam Hermanson resemble that death?
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, July 31, 2009, to discuss the Defense Department's Inspector General report linking the electrocution of a 24-year-old Green Beret to faulty electrical work by military contractor KBR. Does the death of US Air Force Staff Sgt. Adam Hermanson resemble that death? Susan Walsh/AP
Hermanson "was a natural-born leader," according to his brother, Jesse. In 2002, just before his eighteenth birthday, Adam enlisted in the US military, armed with the required permission from his parents because he was not legally an adult. Adam spent six years in the Air Force. In all, he did three tours in Iraq and one in Uzbekistan. After he was honorably discharged from the military in early 2009 with the rank of staff sergeant, Hermanson took up employment as a private bodyguard in his hometown of Las Vegas, where, according to his family, he protected a wealthy individual. But according to Jesse, Adam was interested in returning to Iraq as a private military contractor. "He had been talking about it a lot; he was interested in Blackwater," Jesse recalls.
In May, Adam signed a contract that would put him back in the action—as a private contractor for Triple Canopy, the company that the State Department has chosen to take over much of Blackwater's security work in Iraq. According to his cousin, Paul Moreno, Hermanson was offered about $350 a day for a four-month contract. "It happened real fast," Jesse remembers. "He didn't want the family to know and get worried. He actually did it behind the backs of the family—my mom found out a day and a half before he was going. We were trying to change his mind and say it wasn't worth the money, but he felt that he needed to do it to pay off bills and get a house and be financially secure." Jesse adds, "He had also tried to get a job in Vegas as a Metro Police officer, and they denied him even with all of his training." Adam's mother, Patricia, says, "We know he disliked it. His plan was that after four months he was going to leave Triple Canopy and get a house."
Hermanson arrived in Iraq in June and took up residence inside the Green Zone at Triple Canopy's base at Camp Olympia. His family said his e-mails were brief and primarily made up of questions about how everyone else was doing. As for his work, he told the family he wasn't allowed to say much. "The last time I talked to him, I noticed that it wasn't really Adam—the way he talked," Patricia recalls. "He said he was working seventeen-hour days. When I asked how it was going there, he said, 'I can't really say much, but let's just say the average Joe couldn't be here and do what we do.'"
Earlier this week, Hermanson returned home on a flight to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. His body was in a coffin. Hermanson was not killed by enemy fire or an improvised explosive device or even by "friendly fire." In fact, he died in what is considered to be the safest place in Iraq for Americans—the heavily fortified Green Zone. His body, according to his family, was discovered on the floor of a shower near his quarters at Camp Olympia. It appears that Hermanson was electrocuted.
On Tuesday morning, the military medical examiner who performed Hermanson's autopsy met with Hermanson's wife, Janine. "He said that everything was still pending and that he can't make a final [statement] because the toxicology and all that stuff has not come back yet. But he said that [the cause of death] was a low-voltage electrocution," she told The Nation. "When I got the call I was told that he was found in a shower, and now I am getting told that there was even still electrical current on the shower floor when they found him."
When Patricia got the news, she thought there must have been a mistake. "Adam didn't want me to worry and had told me he was in Kuwait. I just found out he was in Iraq the day he died. He said, 'Mom, I'm gonna go to Kuwait, it's gonna be a piece of cake—they even have a water park there.' All along he was telling me a lie because he didn't want me to worry."
Hermanson's family suspects that Adam may have died as a result of faulty electrical wiring. And they have good reason to think that—at least sixteen US soldiers and two contractors have died from electrocution. The Pentagon's largest contractor in Iraq, KBR (a former Halliburton subsidiary), has for months been at the center of a Congressional investigation into the electrocution deaths because the company has the massive LOGCAP contract and is responsible for almost all of the electrical wiring in US-run facilities in Iraq. The eighteen soldiers and contractors died as a result of KBR's "shoddy work," according to Senator Frank Lautenberg.
Janine Hermanson, who served four years in the Air Force, where she met her husband, said Adam will be cremated on Wednesday and a funeral service will be held Saturday. "I just want whoever is responsible to pay for it," she says. "It's not right. I know there are many cases, and it shouldn't keep happening. It should stop." Patricia echoed those sentiments. "My son went over to Iraq four times, and he was in harm's way every single time, and for him to die like this is just wrong," she says. "We want justice for this. It is shocking and unbelievable that he died, but worse is how he died."
KBR has long denied that it has been responsible for any of the deaths in Iraq, and the company says it had nothing to do with Hermanson's death. "KBR has no operations or maintenance responsibility for the living, office, or shower facilities at Camp Olympia, the Triple Canopy compound where the death occurred. Nor does KBR maintain the electrical system in the facilities or for the camp," KBR spokesperson Heather Browne said in a statement to The Nation. "We have found no evidence that that KBR constructed the camp, installed the electrical system, or ever had any operations or maintenance responsibility for the living, office, or shower facilities." The Defense Department, which is responsible for KBR's work in Iraq, did not respond to requests to confirm or deny KBR's claims. Triple Canopy would not comment on whether it did the electrical wiring for the facility where Hermanson died or if an outside contractor was involved. A Triple Canopy spokesperson told The Nation she was "unable to provide additional information at this time."
The problem of electrocutions and shocks in Iraq has become a major issue because of the number of deaths and incidents involving soldiers and Defense Department contractors. The military is making its way through inspections at the more than 90,000 US-run facilities in Iraq, a massive undertaking. According to the Associated Press, "KBR's database lists 231 electric shock incidents in the more than 89,000 facilities the company runs in Iraq, according to military records."
As The Nation has previously reported, the Defense Department paid KBR more than $80 million in bonuses for contracts to install electrical wiring in Iraq. The award payments were for the very work that resulted in the electrocution deaths of US soldiers, according to Defense Department records. More than $30 million in bonuses were paid months after the death of Sgt. Ryan Maseth, a highly decorated 24-year-old Green Beret who was electrocuted while taking a shower at a US base in January 2008. His death, the result of improper grounding for a water pump, was classified by the Army Criminal Investigations Division as a "negligent homicide," but the Pentagon recently announced there would be no criminal charges filed in the case. Two other soldiers who died from electrocution while showering are Navy Petty Officer Third Class David Cedergren and Army Cpl. Marcos Nolasco.
As for Hermanson's death, a Triple Canopy spokesperson said the company is "saddened at this terrible loss," telling The Nation, "As a matter of policy, Triple Canopy will not comment further until the investigation is complete." The State Department did not return calls requesting comment. Hermanson's family members, however, say they will not give up until they get to the bottom of Adam's death. "I know at the end Adam was fighting—fighting to stay alive even as he was being electrocuted," his mother says. "Now we need to fight for him."
Editor's note: A State Department spokesperson called The Nation shortly after this story was posted to say that Hermanson was working on a Defense Department contract at the time of his death.