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Published: Tuesday, 2/10/2009

Death by shower

NO BETTER metaphor for the misbegotten tragedy of Iraq can be found than the cases of soldiers who were electrocuted in their showers in the battle zone. All wars have their accidental deaths, but these electrocutions were the result of negligence and could have been prevented.

U.S. servicemen have done their duty magnificently in Iraq, but the same cannot be said for others who put them in harm's way - even in their own barracks.

One of the key decisions taken in this war by the Bush administration was to rely heavily on military contractors in Iraq, and they sometimes hired unqualified foreign nationals to do electrical work at U.S. military bases. Apparently you get what you pay for.

In one case, Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, of Shaler, Pa., a Green Beret, died of cardiac arrest on Jan. 2, 2008, after being electrocuted while taking a shower in his barracks in Baghdad.

Subsequently, his parents filed a wrongful death suit in Pittsburgh's Allegheny County, against Houston-based KBR Inc., alleging that KBR allowed U.S. troops to continue to use electrical systems that it knew to be dangerous. The soldier's mother, Cheryl Harris, also testified before Congress.

For his part, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey has been zealous in keeping this issue alive by demanding explanations from the Defense Department. The combined pressure seems to have paid off: The Associated Press reported that an Army investigation now deems the soldier's death a "negligent homicide" instead of an accident.

According to Senator Casey's office, 18 electrocutions occurred in Iraq between March, 2003, and August, 2008 - 16 military personnel and two civilian. While the majority of these could be put down to the mischance of war, for example a vehicle snagging low-hanging power lines, three occurred in showers and half a dozen more were because of equipment or grounding problems.

Senator Casey is still pressing for answers. He and Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, who has held hearings on contracting abuses, are demanding accountability for the death of Sergeant Maseth and others. It's long overdue.

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