The death of Adam Hermanson

September 17, 2009

Independent journalist Jeremy Scahill reports on the death of Adam Hermanson--a U.S. military contractor who was electrocuted while working in Iraq.

THE FAMILY of Adam Hermanson, a 25-year-old military contractor who died in Baghdad's Green Zone on September 1--apparently of electrocution in a shower--is alleging that Hermanson's employer, Triple Canopy, initially misled them about how he died.

Relatives of Hermanson, a U.S. Air Force veteran who began working for Triple Canopy after his discharge from the military, also say that a Triple Canopy representative told them that the company had dismantled electrical wiring and other equipment in Hermanson's quarters after his body was found, which could make it harder to determine the circumstances surrounding his death.

"We're looking for a straight answer, and they haven't given us a straight answer for anything," says Jesse Hermanson, 17, Adam's brother. "We haven't gotten any straight answers from Triple Canopy." Patricia Hermanson, Adam's mother, said that from the first call she received from the company--to inform her of her son's death--she felt the company was not being straight with her about what had happened.

Adam Hermanson
Adam Hermanson

On the afternoon of September 1, Patricia was at a movie theater in San Diego when she received a call on her cell phone. Thinking it was Adam, whom she had not heard from in more than a week, she rushed from the theater to answer the call. On the other end, she says, was a Triple Canopy representative named Jeff Wilczak. "He says, 'I'm afraid I have to inform you that your son was found collapsed by his bed, and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful,'" Patricia remembers.

In the meantime, Janine Hermanson, Adam's wife, said she received a call from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad telling her that her husband had died in a shower at his living quarters in Camp Olympia, Triple Canopy's base inside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

This discrepancy, according to Patricia, was the first sign that something was off. When she spoke to Wilczak:

nothing was mentioned about a shower or anything like that. I would have remembered that. I can remember this until the day I die. He said Adam was found unconscious by his bed, and unfortunately, efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. There's no question in my mind.

PATRICIA SAYS that she was in such shock and pain after learning of her son's death that she asked her brother, Paul Moreno Jr., to handle all communications with Triple Canopy on her behalf. The next day, according to Moreno, Wilczak's story changed. "Wilczak told me Adam had not collapsed in his room, that he had collapsed in the shower," Moreno says.

Moreno consulted with other family members, and they developed a list of questions that they wanted answered about Adam's death. When his body was found, were there signs of struggle? Was anything lodged in his mouth? Were there any bruises or scratches or any marks on his body?

Wilczak, Moreno says, answered no to every question. As for the issue of marks on Adam's body, Moreno says: "I had half my family at the kitchen table in on the conversation, and I asked him repeatedly that question. Repeatedly. I asked him over and over and over, 'Were there any cuts or scrapes or bruises or marks on his body?' And he said 'No.'"

He says that Wilczak did not mention electrocution or electric shock. "Nothing like that."

A Triple Canopy spokesperson rejected The Nation's request to interview Wilczak, saying, "As previously stated, the investigation is ongoing, and we cannot comment further at this time." On his LinkedIn profile, Wilczak lists his job as a senior manager and the recruiting operations supervisor at Triple Canopy.

Patricia says, "They didn't say why he collapsed; and when they were asked by my brother if there's any bruises or marks on his body, any physical marks that could show any kind of accident or just reveal anything, they said that there's no marks whatsoever."

On September 4, the family flew out to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where Adam's body was returning to the United States. Triple Canopy brought in a bereavement counselor named Michael Martin to meet with the family. Dr. Martin is identified in a 2006 letter to Congress from a Triple Canopy executive as a "professionally trained and licensed counselor" who is "on retainer for emergencies."

Dr. Martin informed the Hermansons that they were to have no further contact with Wilczak and that he would now be their source of information. "When the story changed and they said [Adam] was found by the shower, we were told not to talk to Jeff anymore, but instead to talk to Dr. Martin," recalls Patricia.

According to Moreno, Dr. Martin said he was a longtime neighbor of Triple Canopy's CEO Ignacio "Iggy" Balderas. "He said he was very, very good friends with him--he said Ignacio was a nice guy," Moreno recalls.

On the second day in Dover, Dr. Martin came to the Hermansons' hotel room and told them that Adam's quarters in Baghdad had basically been gutted. "He said, 'Well, I have some information,'" Patricia recalls. "'They have removed all the plumbing, the water heater, the electrical wiring'" from the quarters.

According to Moreno, Dr. Martin told them that "the water heater had been taken out, the electrical box, all associated wiring in the building had been taken out." When the family asked why, Dr. Martin said he thought Triple Canopy wanted to inspect it.

Patricia said she thought Dr. Martin was implying that the company didn't want anyone else to get hurt, but his statement also led the family to suspect that crucial evidence may have been tampered with; evidence that could help to answer their lingering questions about Adam's death.

AFTER AN autopsy was performed on Adam by a military medical examiner, Adam's body was released to a private funeral home that would then prepare the body for cremation, which was Adam's wish. That's when Jesse learned some disturbing news. "When [Adam's] body was taken to the funeral home, my cousin and I stayed behind and we asked the mortician if there were any visible marks, and he said, Well, yes, up on his left arm all the way from his hand to his forearm, all the way up to his bicep, in that general area," Jesse says.

Jesse and his cousin took pictures of Adam's left hand, arm and shoulder and provided them to The Nation. The pictures show several marks that appear to be burns and other wounds on Adam's left arm. The family postponed the cremation and performed their own autopsy, the results of which are not yet available.

That same day, Janine met with the military medical examiner, who told her that the preliminary cause of death was "low-voltage electrocution." Triple Canopy "told us that there were no physical marks when we had asked them, and they had clarified and said again and again that there was no marks on his body," says Jesse. "Obviously they had just straight-out lied to us." Jesse adds: "When the military did the autopsy, they said that there still was low electrical current in his body."

The issue of who, if anyone, may be held accountable for Adam Hermanson's death is a complicated one. Initially, spokespeople for the Department of Defense and the State Department each told The Nation that the other was responsible for the Triple Canopy contract on which Hermanson was working. On September 10, the Pentagon acknowledged that it was in fact a Department of Defense contract.

Meanwhile, Triple Canopy will not say who did the electrical wiring or plumbing in the facility where Adam Hermanson died. KBR, which has been under investigation by Congress over the issue of electrocution deaths of U.S. troops, issued a strong denial that it had any relationship to Triple Canopy's Camp Olympia facility.

In an interview with The Nation, the Pentagon gave its first statement on the issue: Major Shawn Turner, a Pentagon spokesman, said, "It appears as though our first thinking is that local nationals were responsible for the wiring there." If true, that could put the issue of potential liability on whatever U.S. entity hired those individuals if equipment was not installed properly, as has proven the case at many facilities in Iraq.

Maj. Turner said the Department of Defense's Task Force SAFE did an initial review of Hermanson's death but said there is "no indication that U.S. forces will be launching a formal investigation."

Even though Hermanson was working for Triple Canopy on a Department of Defense contract, his death, Maj. Turner said, took place at a facility that "does not fall under DoD responsibility."

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