Treating the Troops Like Trash

It should also be no surprise to anyone when the company hired to manage Walter Reed Army Medical Center is managed by some of the same people who worked for Halliburton in Iraq.
03/07/2007 04:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The appalling conditions at Walter Reed -- the supposed "crown jewel" of veterans hospital facilities -- not only punctures for good the Bush/Cheney high-handed claim to "support our troops" but like Iraq and New Orleans, reveals what's more important -- helping their friends make money off others' misfortune.

This story should not only lead to an investigation into conditions at Army and VA facilities around the country, but raises once again the issue of whether outsourcing and privatization undermines the very purpose of government, whether it's essential services or military missions.

Note the pattern: the mistreatment of troops by contractors hasn't just been occurring after they get home: Recall the case of Halliburton serving contaminated water to troops in Iraq.

Not to mention their own employees: I'm reminded of a call I received a few months back from a former Halliburton/KBR employee who explained how he got sick while working for the company in Afghanistan. The caller said he has asthma and other signs of immune system damage (joint problems and chronic fatigue) for which he can't get treatment -- all as a result of being exposed to toxic emissions from a "burn pit" that KBR operates in Camp Kandahar.

I asked him to describe the conditions there and he said they're burning "anything you can think of that ends up as garbage at the base" -- including ammunition boxes (untreated wood), asbestos (insulation), rubber (tires), plastic tents (green), chlorine-based bleach (which means lots of dioxin from the burning), and oil." About 18-20 dumpsters stationed around the base are emptied into the burn pit each day. KBR employees pour gas on what's left and burn it: "It burns all night."

Camp Kandahar covers some 58 acres -- and supports about 25,000 troops and 2,000 KBR employees. The "burn pit" is about the size of a football field. Sound nasty? The people who work in the pits have no protection from the ash or toxic fumes. It's worse for Afghan nationals who KBR hires to pull any metal out of the ash (they also pull out MREs to eat or take home to their families) before they haul it offsite (where, "no one knows).

The company's defenders might say there is no evidence that the guy's illness was caused by the work he was ordered to do (one standard corporate evasion tactic for occupational illness cases). But the camp dining facilities are just 200 yards away from the burn pit, and the sleeping quarters aren't much farther.

According to this guy, after Abu Ghraib the company began checking their emails to make sure no one had a camera.

If contractors treat their employees and the troops that badly abroad, how surprising is it they get treated like trash when they come home, especially when it seems that the President's primary goal is to let his friends in the private sector compete for up to half of all federal jobs? It's kind of the contractor equivalent to blowback.

It should also be no surprise to anyone when the company hired to manage Walter Reed Army Medical Center is managed by some of the same people who worked for Halliburton in Iraq.

Walter Reed contractor, Florida-based IAP Worldwide Services is headed by former Halliburton executive Al Neffgen, who was previously employed as the chief operating officer for KBR Government Operations, a subsidiary of Halliburton that handled the company's military contracts in Iraq.

"We have performed, and performed well, for our soldiers and our country," Neffgen told a congressional committee investigating Halliburton's oil price rip-offs in 2004. "While we have undoubtedly made some mistakes, we are confident that KBR has delivered and accomplished its mission at a fair and reasonable cost," he said at the time.

But that's not what the army concluded. They dropped that part of KBR's contract after the company got caught saddling taxpayers with tens of millions of dollars in overcharges.

Meet the new boss...

Additional Halliburton/KBR people now working for IAP include:

President David Swindle, formerly responsible for business development operations for the KBR Government and Infrastructure division, the Army's largest service contractor;
Craig Peterson, Senior Vice President for Major Programs -- who is "responsible for the pursuit and development of major new operations contracts to provide logistics, life support, and procurement and operations support for the services sectors of the Department of Defense, including the Logistics Contract Augmentation Program (LOGCAP)" -- which is not only the contract that was used to illegally give Halliburton its initial no-bid oil contract in Iraq, and the contract under which is made most of its billions were made, but is also the contract that the Army said it would break up to ensure other companies would be able to get in on the action. Which I'm sure the ex-Halliburton employees working for IAP find convenient! "Prior to coming to IAP, [Petereson] served as Vice President of Contingency and Homeland Operations for Kellogg, Brown and Root. Prior to that, he was the Deputy Commanding General for Homeland Operations and the Director of Integration for the Department of the Army." Oh how the revolving door spins;
David Roh left KBR to become Director of Global Services for IAP; and
David B. Warhol joined IAP as Vice President of Human Resources, coming to the company with "extensive corporate experience in the development and management of staffing strategies and delivery systems that efficiently provide adequate resources to meet organizational needs," according to Neffgen. "He has a proven track record of workforce planning, development of deployed technical competencies, and managing resource development." He was once the Director for Americas Region Staffing and Resource Development for all Halliburton, which means he was responsible for keeping the revolving door well greased and making sure that new hires bring their government rolodexes with them.

Although the company says that the bad conditions at Walter Reed existed long before it took over (true), the Washington Post published its expose of the poor conditions and neglect after it was hired, and a facility commander says the army's decision to outsource Walter Reed's patient care services to Neffgen's company has caused an exodus of "highly skilled and experienced personnel." A memo the commander wrote concluded that "patient care services are at risk of mission failure."

(After the award of the contract to Neffgen's company, the number of federal employees involved in support services at Walter Reed dropped from 300 to 60 and Neffgen eventually replaced those 60 workers with 50 IAP Worldwide workers.)

In a letter to Walter Reed officials, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) concluded that, "It appears that one of the factors that may have caused or contributed to the abysmal conditions at Walter Reed was the push to outsource base support services to [Neffgen's company] IAP."

Even if the idea was to improve services and cut costs, the record of IAP's top leaders while working at Halliburton in Iraq should have given them pause before inking the contract. Neffgen, for example, was a senior executive with Halliburton when it was serving contaminated food at military dining halls and providing the troops in Iraq with bathing water soiled with human fecal matter. Nevertheless, in January 2006, the army gave Neffgen's company a $120 million "cost-plus" contract for support services and facilities management at Walter Reed hospital.

The Walter Reed story another chapter in the long saga of outsourcing, privatization and crony contracting run rampant during the Bush administration, and before. The long pattern of contract abuses in Iraq and at home were described by Rep. Waxman's staff in their review of government contracting under the Bush administration, which concluded that under the Bush/Cheney wholesale outsourcing of government, it's cost a lot of dollars, but made no sense.

Fortunately, there is good legislation that would address a great deal of the problem. For more information check our site.