You might think that amidst all this 'we support our troops' rhetoric emanating from secure locations in Washington D.C. that someone in the white house or the Pentagon would be making sure that our troops get fed decent food.
Nope. Think again. According to Heather Yarbrough, what we've got is a system in which someone whose job is monitoring the quality and safety of food served to soldiers on U.S. military bases in Iraq gets fired for doing her job.
Talk about history repeating itself. President Abraham Lincoln secured passage of the False Claims Act in 1863 in order to combat similar frauds against the Union Army, including the sale of rancid food for the troops.
Did Heather Yarbrough run afoul of a rush for profits, a system which depends on paying third-world workers pittances and of course no benefits, and gets third-world sanitation practices in return? Or did she just rile an old boy network? Either way, if her charges regarding the way soldiers' food is stored and prepared are correct, it's a scandal.
Freezers and refrigerators weren't working. Food was spoiling. The kitchen workers were exhausted, and some of them weren't following basic sanitation practices. “It became apparent to me that much of the food served at the banquet the night before was … possibly dangerous,” she wrote.
At 2 a.m. Yarbrough saw a lone kitchen worker spreading mayonnaise onto several thousand slices of bread for the next day's sandwiches. He was halfway through the job, and the mayonnaise had sat in open bowls for hours.
The kitchen's air conditioner had moderated the desert heat somewhat, but it had also spewed dust over the worker, the mayonnaise and the bread. Yarbrough conferred with a kitchen supervisor, and they agreed that the mayonnaise and partially made sandwiches should be thrown away.
Yarbrough logged the incident in the journal that she kept for her Halliburton KBR supervisor, and the next day the supervisor applauded her decision to discard the suspect food.
On her second night on duty, Yarbrough met with kitchen staff — all third-country nationals working for ESS — and wrote down a list of supplies needed for sanitary purposes: thermometers to check the heat in steam trays, test strips to measure chlorine in sanitizing water, rubber gloves and other items.
She noted that the day shift had left the dining facility a mess: dirty tables, overflowing trash, no sodas stocked. And she took some feedback from a sergeant who represented Halliburton's client, the Army. “The cream[ed] beef was greasy. Dessert table is messy with crumbs. Stock juices earlier in the morning because they want the products to be cold,” she wrote in her journal.
Over the next few days, Yarbrough trained kitchen workers in sanitation methods and taught seminars on botulism, E. coli and other dangerous bacteria. The kitchen crews seemed to be paying more attention to safety. “Overall, this is much better,” she wrote Aug. 10 in her journal.
The next day, Yarbrough recorded another confrontation with Ray, but she went on with her job. “I gave a short brief on salmonella, likely sources, mode of contamination, toxicity and symptoms of infection,” she wrote. “Cooks seem pleased with this nightly entertainment.”
She planned to give the same talk to day cooks, but she was suspended the next day, relieved of duty and told to pack up and be ready to take the next convoy back to Kuwait.
Yarbrough's supervisor told her she was being fired for wearing a dirty shirt, leaving work early once and other infractions. But Yarbrough felt certain these were bogus charges. The supervisor seemed “eaten up with guilt,” she recalled in an interview. “He wouldn't look me in the eye.”
While waiting for the convoy, Yarbrough appealed to a Halliburton district manager. She told him Ray was compromising food safety, and she believed he'd used his influence to get her fired.
“He told me that I was a danger to myself if I remained at Tikrit,” said Yarbrough. “He wouldn't tell me why, but I thought it was that somebody would have been sent to do me harm.”
…Yarbrough fears that what she saw at Camp Iron Horse is being repeated at other bases. “I am concerned that the quality of work under these contracts is compromised by the friendships between contractors and military personnel,” she said.
She also suspects that risks are being taken with food-safety and other issues so that Halliburton and ESS can meet deadlines and qualify for millions of dollars in performance bonuses.
“I first thought that my situation was just an unfortunate set of relationships at one location,” she said. But during her trip from Camp Iron Horse back to Kuwait, she met Halliburton staffers moving between bases, and they all seemed to know Ray. “Every Halliburton employee I met in Iraq and Kuwait was ex-military,” she said, adding that she wonders how many of them had friends on active duty and were using their influence as she believes Ray did.
Yarbrough also has concerns about the working and living conditions of the third-country nationals who serve in dining facilities and other capacities at bases throughout Iraq and Kuwait. “Third-country nationals have no rights, no papers and no access to medical care,” said Yarbrough.
“They are allowed no communication with their families and cannot leave the gravel surrounding the dining facilities where they work,” she said.
“I am amazed that Americans don't know anything about the TCNs [third-country nationals] doing all the work over there,” she said. “CNN is in Tikrit right now, eating at that dining facility. Why haven't TCNs been interviewed? Indians speak English.”
Aside from her humanitarian concerns, Yarbrough worries that desperate and alienated third-country nationals could pose a security risk to U.S. soldiers.