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EXCLUSIVE: Triple Canopy Employee Killed in Iraq of Apparent Electrocution, Family Searches for Truth

StorySeptember 11, 2009
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The private military contractor Triple Canopy is at the center of a new controversy in Iraq. A twenty-five-year-old employee named Adam Hermanson died ten days ago after apparently being electrocuted while taking a shower in his living quarters at Triple Canopy’s base inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. Hermanson’s family is alleging Triple Canopy misled them about how he died, perhaps to cover up faulty electrical wiring at the firm’s facilities. In a Democracy Now! exclusive broadcast, we speak with Adam Hermanson’s mother Patricia, his seventeen-year-old brother Jesse, and with investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, who broke the story in The Nation magazine. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The private military contractor Triple Canopy is at the center of a new controversy in Iraq. A twenty-five-year-old employee named Adam Hermanson died ten days ago after apparently being electrocuted while taking a shower in his quarters at Triple Canopy’s base inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. Hermanson’s family is alleging Triple Canopy misled them about how he died, perhaps to cover up faulty electrical wiring at the firm’s facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: We called Triple Canopy yesterday, but they refused to answer any questions regarding the case. They emailed us a short statement saying, quote, an “employee died from a non-combat incident” and the company was, quote, “cooperating fully with the investigation.” They added, “We are saddened at this terrible loss and offer our deepest condolences to his family.”

Well, independent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill broke the story about Adam Hermanson in The Nation magazine. Yesterday I spoke with Jeremy, as well Adam Hermanson’s mother Patricia and his younger brother Jesse. I began by asking Jeremy to lay out the story.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I got an email from a young man named Jesse, who told me that his brother had died in Iraq and was working for a private military company called Triple Canopy and that it appeared as though his brother had died of electrocution. And in this message that I got, it was indicated that the company, Triple Canopy, may have told the family one version of events that was then showing not to be true, that the young man did not have marks on his bed, where he was found. The family later learned that he was found in a shower.

    And what drew my attention immediately to this, other than the fact that I was getting an email from someone saying that his brother had died under these mysterious circumstances, is that I’ve covered the electrocution problem in Iraq, where you have, since 2003, eighteen US soldiers and contractors have died from electrocution, several of them in showers. And the company that’s been at the center of this, KBR, has been — which is the largest contractor in Iraq, former Halliburton subsidiary — has been under a congressional investigation for months now. Senator Byron Dorgan, Senator Bob Casey and others have been investigating them. And the military right now is doing a review of 90,000 facilities that KBR runs and did the electrical wiring for in Iraq. So this is a problem that is reaching almost pandemic proportions.

    The most high-profile of these thus far has been a Green Beret named Ryan Maseth, who the Army investigators, when they — the Pentagon investigators determined it to be criminal negligence, but ultimately then the Pentagon decided not to press charges against anyone from KBR.

    So the context for it is that here we have another young man who had served six years in the United States Air Force, started working as a contractor earlier this year for Triple Canopy, is in Iraq, and then his family says that he died from electric shock in a shower.

    AMY GOODMAN: And this company, Triple Canopy?

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Triple Canopy is now the new Blackwater in Iraq. It is the company that the Obama administration has selected to take over most of Blackwater’s security contracts in Iraq. So they’re a huge, essentially mercenary company.

    But my understanding is that Adam was working doing training for Triple Canopy and was not a security operator escorting US diplomats, but that he was working on some kind of a training contract for Triple Canopy. This is now the company that is getting many of the huge contracts for security in Iraq in the aftermath of all of the Blackwater scandals.

    One thing that I have to say, though, it’s unclear who wired the building where Adam died, did the electrical wiring. In fact, a KBR spokesperson issued an emphatic denial yesterday to me, saying that KBR didn’t wire the building, had nothing to do with it, wasn’t involved with the maintenance of it. The Pentagon would not return my calls asking for them to confirm or deny KBR’s version of events.

    AMY GOODMAN: Again, Patricia and Jesse, thanks so much for joining us, because I know how difficult this must be for you. Patricia, tell us how you learned about Adam’s death?

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: I was — they phoned me, and I thought it was Adam calling, because I hadn’t heard from him for a week and a half, and I noticed the number, and it seemed like the number he had used before. And I was in a movie theater, and I ran out, because I missed it, and I called right back. And the person who answered said, “This is Triple Canopy, Jeff Wizak.”

    JESSE HERMANSON: Jeff Wilczak.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: Wilczak, whatever. And he says, “Are you Patricia Hermanson?” And I said, “Yes.” “And your son is Adam Hermanson?” And I said, “Yes.” And I says, “What’s wrong? What happened?” And he says, “I’m afraid I’m — I have to inform you that your son was found collapsed by his bed, and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.”

    AMY GOODMAN: How old?

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: Adam was twenty-five years old.

    JESSE HERMANSON: He just turned twenty-five.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: Just turned twenty-five.

    AMY GOODMAN: Health problems?

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: Very healthy. Healthy —-

    JESSE HERMANSON: None whatsoever.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: —- as I said before, strong as a tank. Healthy. Highly trained. And he was good at everything he did. And he was —-

    AMY GOODMAN: He had been in the military before Triple Canopy.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: He had been in the military for six years, and he served in the Security Forces. And he was deployed to Iraq three times, into Afghanistan once. And each time, as a mother would do, I worried. I worried, because I knew he was in harm’s way each and every time. I was afraid for that one call. I was afraid for somebody to come to my door and tell me something happened to him. But when this happened, and the way it happened and everything else, it’s not the way that I thought anything -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Did they say why he collapsed?

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: They didn’t say why he collapsed. And when they were asked if he — by my brother, who asked questions for me — they asked if there — my brother asked if there was any bruises or marks on his body, anything that —-

    JESSE HERMANSON: Physical marks that they could see.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: Physical marks that would show any kind of, you know, accident or just reveal anything. And they said there was no marks whatsoever.

    And then we get pictures, which I can’t look at, that show visible physical marks on his left hand. One consists of a blackish kind of discoloration on his left hand. And then, on the outside of his left hand was a mark, a wound of some kind, and then it led up his arm, where there supposedly was an exit wound, which was open. So there you can see the conflicting story -— two already: where he was found and wounds on his body. And they said no.

AMY GOODMAN: Patricia Hermanson is the mother of Adam Hermanson, who died ten days ago after being electrocuted while taking a shower in his living quarters at Triple Canopy’s base in Baghdad. He was twenty-five years old. When we come back, we’ll also speak with his seventeen-year-old brother Jesse. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday Jeremy Scahill came into our studio with Patricia and Jesse Hermanson. Patricia lost her son Adam Hermanson in Iraq. He was twenty-five years old. On September 1st, he was apparently electrocuted while he took a shower. I asked Jesse, Adam’s seventeen-year-old brother, how he and his mother found out Adam had died.

    JESSE HERMANSON: September 1st, it was around 2:30 or 2:45, and she and I had got a voicemail. And I didn’t listen to it until about 3:15. And once I had heard about that, you know, I mean, I just — I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know why. You know, it’s my big brother. And, you know, my mom, she’s really frantic and, you know, just — I never heard my mom like that before, you know? And I called my uncle, and I asked him, you know, “Is this real? You know, is this really going on?” And he says, “Yes, your brother’s gone.” You know? The voicemail that she had left me said, “Jesse, your brother’s — you brother’s dead.” And she’s, you know, hysterical and crying and, you know, all of that. You know, I just — I broke down myself. And I find out later that my mom was — you know, went into the hospital. But, yeah.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what have you found out since that day, since September 1st?

    JESSE HERMANSON: There’s been a lot of conflicting stories. You know, we’re looking for a straight answer, and they haven’t give us a straight answer for anything. You know, Triple Canopy hasn’t informed us about any of this. There was, you know, just a couple people that I have been talking to. They found out —- they found out more information on September 2nd than we have in the last week and a half, you know, since that had happened. So, you know, it’s just -—

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: I might mention that shortly after we arrived at Dover, Delaware, the person from Triple Canopy or who represents Triple Canopy, the bereavement —-

    JESSE HERMANSON: Dr. Martin.


    JESSE HERMANSON: Mike Martin.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: — came to us the second day we were there and said, “Well, I have some information. They have removed all the plumbing, the water heater, the electrical wiring.” And so, I said, “OK, alright.” I said, “You’re going there with this.” That’s all that — he didn’t tell us anything else, except for that, and that was the only piece of information that we had, until we found out that he actually did have — and that was when his body arrived with a mortician.

    AMY GOODMAN: And who actually saw, as we show these photographs — who took these photographs of your son?

    JESSE HERMANSON: Myself and my cousin and my uncle.


    JESSE HERMANSON: At the funeral home

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: —- funeral home.

    AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised, Jesse?

    JESSE HERMANSON: Well, they had — yeah, I mean, because they told us that there was no physical marks or anything when we had asked them, and they had clarified, you know, and said again and again that there was no marks on his body. And obviously they had just straight-out lied to us.

    AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy?

    JEREMY SCAHILL: When I first started talking to Jesse and his cousin, they were in the process of gathering this information. And I believe the first time that you really learned that there were these marks was when you talked to the mortician at the private funeral home?


    JESSE HERMANSON: Yeah, we had to find out by ourselves. We, me and my cousin, stayed behind. We had asked him, “Is there any physical marks and whatnot?” And he said, “Well, yes, you know, up on his left arm, all the way from his hand, his forearm all the way up to his bicep.” You know, up here in that general area.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: And then, after that, then Janine Hermanson, Adam Hermanson’s wife, spoke to the medical examiner from the military. She also, Janine Hermanson, was in the Air Force for four years. That’s where she met her husband.

    And the reason that Adam — the primary reason that Adam had signed up to work with Triple Canopy is that they planned on buying a house together in Pennsylvania, and he was basically going for a four-month contract. He was, by my understanding, getting paid somewhere around $300 a day to work for Triple Canopy in Iraq. And his plan, as I understand it, Patricia, was that he was going to come back then and put a — try to put a down payment down on a house so that they could sort of start their life back in the United States.

    So, when Janine talked to the medical examiner from the military, the medical examiner said, you know, “This is preliminary, because we have to do the toxicology reports, but it appears that the cause of death was a electric shock, a low-voltage electric shock.” And that was what the medical examiner told her. So that then concurs with what Jesse and others heard from the mortician, who said that it appeared as though there were these electric burns on his left hand and going up his arm.

    AMY GOODMAN: You’re getting a private autopsy done?


    PATRICIA HERMANSON: We did have a private autopsy done.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what are the results?

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: We don’t have any results yet.

    JESSE HERMANSON: We haven’t got them back yet, but it should be soon. But they also had said that there was still a low electrical current in his body, you know, and —-

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: When he was found?

    JESSE HERMANSON: Yeah -— no, no, no. Just when they did the autopsy, the first autopsy. And —-

    AMY GOODMAN: And to be clear, Jeff Wilczak of Triple Canopy -—


    AMY GOODMAN: — told you he collapsed by his bed.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: That’s the first thing he told me.

    AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened? What did you learn the next —- in the next days?

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: The next day, as I said, my brother asked the question again. And then that’s when it changed to the shower, that he was found by the shower. And -—

    JESSE HERMANSON: There was just conflicting stories anyways, that his roommate had found him and a co-worker had also found him. You know, there wasn’t — we haven’t gotten any straight answers from Triple Canopy themselves.

    AMY GOODMAN: Have you been able to talk to the other people —-

    JESSE HERMANSON: Doctor -—

    AMY GOODMAN: — he served with or worked with?

    JESSE HERMANSON: Oh, well, see, that’s the —-

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: Well, what happened is that because of the change in stories, we were told not to talk to Jeff anymore, but instead talk to Mike, Dr. Mike Martin. And from -—

    JEREMY SCAHILL: This was a bereavement counselor that Triple Canopy sent down —-


    JEREMY SCAHILL: —- to Dover to be with the family.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: So we were actually, you know, told, “Don’t talk to Jeff anymore.”

    JESSE HERMANSON: Yeah, he told us no longer to ask any more questions to — you know, basically not to deal with Jeff Wilczak, that Dr. Martin, if you have any more questions or anything, that it would all go through him.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I called Triple Canopy yesterday repeatedly through the day, and I emailed them, and eventually a spokesperson emailed a statement back that said — that expressed condolences for Adam’s death and said that Triple Canopy wasn’t going to be issuing any comments until the investigation was complete.

    And then, later in the day, I followed up, and I wrote back to the spokesperson, and I said, “I just have one question for you: who did the electrical wiring in the building? Did KBR do it? Did you do it?” — meaning Triple Canopy — “Or did you have another outside contractor?” And the spokesperson wrote back and said, “I don’t have any information that I can give you on that right now. And I would appreciate if you just used the original statement that I sent you.”

    AMY GOODMAN: Which was…?

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Which was just expressing condolences and saying that we’re not going to issue any statements on this.

    I mean, one of the crucial, among many, questions that this family has every right to ask, one of the crucial questions right now: who did that electrical wiring? That’s a key question to know, because of this broader problem that we’ve seen in Iraq.

    AMY GOODMAN: And Jeremy, explain exactly where this building was.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, this is — I mean, one of the terrible tragic ironies of this is that Adam was a combat vet who had been in Iraq, had been to Uzbekistan, had been in other places, and he is in the most secure fortified fortress that the US military has on planet earth, you know, inside of the Green Zone, where they have swimming pools and cappuccino and fast food and all these things. So he doesn’t die outside of the Green Zone, you know, in combat or IED, you know, improvised explosive device; he dies apparently taking a shower in this heavily fortified fortress. He was in Camp Olympia, which is essentially the sort of private operating base of Triple Canopy.

    You know, they put up these makeshift buildings so fast, you know, and the whole idea is just you get up these sort of trailers or sort of shack-type things, you know, or big warehouses that are put up instantly, and they wire them with electricity, and they put the water in there. And a lot of times it’s done just really, really fast. That’s how a lot of these problems go down in Iraq.

    The other thing is that a lot of the electricians that have been hired to do this work on thousands and thousands of facilities, according to KBR’s own electricians in front of Congress, are not even up to code with US and UK standards. They’re hiring electricians from Bangladesh and other countries that don’t even have certification to do this kind of work in the United States, and yet they’re wiring buildings for US soldiers and contractors.

    AMY GOODMAN: And again, how many people have died of electrocution in Iraq?

    JEREMY SCAHILL: Eighteen that we know of. And, you know, who knows more? But there also were, I think, ninety reports in 2008 — ninety-four reports, I think it is — of soldiers seeking medical help, US soldiers seeking medical help, for electric shock-related injuries. And according to KBR’s own data, there were more than 200 instances of these kinds of shocks that occurred.

    AMY GOODMAN: Patricia, how long had Adam been in Iraq this time?

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: Around three months. And I must say that I did — I practically begged him not to go, because —-

    AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about how he went from being a soldier to working for Triple Canopy?

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: Well, when he got out of the military, he went to Las Vegas, where we live, and he worked as a private protector -—

    JESSE HERMANSON: Bodyguard. Yeah, basically.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: — bodyguard for a billionaire. And he put in different applications for — to work with different —-


    PATRICIA HERMANSON: —- law — you know, Metro, Highway Patrol and —-

    JESSE HERMANSON: Las Vegas, North Las Vegas Police Department.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: Yes. And he was getting impatient and didn’t want to wait for them, because of this -— all this hiring freeze. So he was looking into it, and he would mention it, that — you know, about these people. And I was — we were all — the whole family was very leery. Everybody in our family — it’s a close-knit family — told him: that’s a bad organization, Triple Canopy is just an extension of Blackwater, and they have a bad reputation, and it’s dangerous, and you shouldn’t have anything to do with them. But Adam joined — he actually signed up and joined without telling me until the day that —- about a day and a half before he left. And -—

    JEREMY SCAHILL: You thought he was in Kuwait.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: Actually, yes, he did. He tried to protect me from worrying, as I have worried for the six years that he was in harm’s way in the military. And I thought that he was in Kuwait. And he didn’t want to worry me, and he told me, “Mom,” he goes, you know, “don’t worry about me. I’m going to be in Kuwait.”

    JESSE HERMANSON: “It’ll be a piece of cake.”

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: “It’ll be a piece of cake.”

    AMY GOODMAN: Jesse, did you know he had gone into Iraq?

    JESSE HERMANSON: He — yes, he had told me. I guess my cousin had found out first, and I had found out about a week and a half before, you know. And I tried talking him out of it, you know, tell him it wasn’t worth it, just stay here, you know, just stay with the family. And, you know, I mean, he was a big family guy. That’s all he did, was protect us. He was a protector. And he was a natural-born leader. He was a warrior. You know, it was just — it’s not right.

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: I must say, too, when I talked to him last, I asked him, I said, “Well, how is it going there, Adam?” And he says, “Well, Mom, you know, I really can’t say.” And I said, “Well, you know, just watch your back and be careful. And don’t trust anybody.” And he says, “Oh, you know. You know that’s the way I am.” And I said, “OK.” And he says, “Well, you know, I really — I’m thinking seriously about getting out and being home by November.” And I said, “Good, Adam.” I said, “I want — you should be home.” I always had a bad feeling about these people that he was working for.

    AMY GOODMAN: Finally, did the US government call you? And then I want to ask Jeremy what it means to work for one of these military contractors, in terms of US government liability in a US war zone, in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan. Has the US government called you?

    PATRICIA HERMANSON: No. Nobody has called us except for Triple Canopy. And we mostly have been talking to their, you know, bereavement psychologist, who has made our arrangements over here.

    JESSE HERMANSON: Yeah, we ask him question after question. You know, he just doesn’t give anything out, you know. I guess he’s been told, you know, not to talk — say anything about this case or whatnot. I don’t know.

    JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, you know, the fact that your brother also had residence in Nevada, you know, at a point. I mean, Harry Reid is the most powerful person in the United States Senate. He represents the state of Nevada. This should be Harry Reid’s business. Harry Reid should be involved with this. He should be looking at this immediately. I know that Senator Byron Dorgan’s office and some others are looking into this case right now, and they’ve been on this issue for quite some time, but this definitely needs to be investigated thoroughly, and the representatives of the state of Nevada have an obligation to this family to take it up.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what about the way these military contractors fit into the war picture?

    JEREMY SCAHILL: What’s incredibly —-

    AMY GOODMAN: And whose responsibility are the deaths, ultimately?

    JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, what’s really, really heartbreaking also about Adam’s story is how common it is, in terms of why he joined up with Triple Canopy. You’ve got these guys that spend their whole lives -— as Patricia says, they’re training to be warriors. I mean, he wasn’t just in the US Air Force; he was in the Security Forces of the United States Air Force and was a guy who had all sorts of certifications and advanced training and was working — you know, is working as a bodyguard, but these companies dangle the money in front of you, and they say, “Hey, man, you can go into the war zone, you can be there three or four months, you can get that money to put a down payment, to open that gym,” in the case of Scott Helvenston, who died working for Blackwater.

    It’s like we hear this story over and over. And these guys go over there, and they work for these companies that are literally making a killing off of this war. Yeah, they pay the guys a few hundred dollars a day, and it seems like really good money, but relative to what the companies make, it’s peanuts, you know, in terms of the profits that these companies turn. So they take these guys, and they put them in these war zones, and they have very little accountability for the forces when they go out in the field and end up, you know, interacting with civilians, in the case of Blackwater, when they, you know, shoot civilians, what have you. Triple Canopy also has a very questionable history in that regard.

    So, on the one level, you have that there’s no accountability for the individual guys who are doing the shooting on the ground, but then there’s no accountability for the company. I mean, you look at Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater. He’s faced no consequences thus far legally for any of the actions. It’s ironic that it’s left up to lawyers suing these companies to try to get any semblance of justice for either the victims on the civilian side or the victims that end up working for these companies and die under mysterious circumstances. This is an utter scandal that this has not been confronted by the Congress or by the military, for that matter, or the State Department, which gives these huge contracts out.

JUAN GONZALEZ: After Amy Goodman conducted this interview yesterday, the Pentagon gave its first statement on Adam Hermanson’s death. Major Shawn Turner, a Pentagon spokesperson, told The Nation magazine, quote, “It appears as though our first thinking is that local nationals were responsible for the wiring there.” Major Turner said there is “no indication that US forces will be launching a formal investigation.” Even though Hermanson was working for Triple Canopy on a Department of Defense contract, his death, Major Turner said, took place at a facility that, quote, “does not fall under DoD responsibility.”

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