Driving into Danger
Tony Johnson died in a gun battle near Baghdad International Airport. But Johnson was not a soldier; he was a truck driver for Halliburton. His family claims he died because the company decided to endanger his life in its pursuit of profit.
On Tuesday, nearly one year after his death, Johnson's daughter has brought a federal lawsuit against Halliburton. It is just the first of what will be a string of lawsuits to be filed against the Houston-based company by families of the men who lost their lives on one fateful day in April, 2004.
Johnson was one of 19 truck drivers carrying fuel for the United States military from Camp Anaconda to the airport. The convoy soon drove straight into a major gun battle on what has become the world's most dangerous highway. Two hours later six drivers were dead, one had been kidnapped and one had disappeared. Only 11 made it to their destination alive.
Johnson's daughter April and her lawyers want the world to know that these men were willfully misled by Halliburton, both about the dangers of working in Iraq and their rights to protect their own lives.
"It is our opinion, based on our investigations, that Halliburton's management has systematically, intentionally, and fraudulently misrepresented the true nature of their civilian employees' duties," says Ramon Rossi Lopez, the trial lawyer representing April Johnson. "Simply put, Halliburton intentionally placed its employees in harm's way and received lucrative payment for a private, unarmed military force."
Halliburton has approximately 24,000 employees in Iraq, which includes thousands of poor Americans from small towns who are lured into these jobs by the promise of making up to $100,000 a year, tax-free. The company hires them through a Cayman Island-based subsidiary named Service Employees International, then flies them to Houston and Kuwait for training. Eventually, many – like Tony Johnson – end up working alongside the military in camps, providing various forms of logistical support – from digging toilets and cutting soldier's hair to preparing food and delivering mail. So far, about 61 have died in the line of corporate duty.
Convoy to Death
On the morning of April 9, 2004, Johnson was told to join a convoy – led by Thomas Hamill – to transport 125,000 gallons of jet fuel. It was a particularly dangerous time to travel in Iraq. Less than a week earlier, the Moqtada al Sadr-led Mahdi army had seized control of several cities in the south, just as the United States had started the first bombing of Fallujah. On the April 9 itself, the fiery young Shia leader had issued an order commanding his militia to attack everyone who left their homes. A Halliburton convoy had been attacked a day earlier, and on April 9, two other convoys had already turned back because of violence on the road.
Overnight, miles of razor-sharp concertina and barbed wire had been wrapped around every road intersection to block anyone from coming within half a mile of the hotels. Every half hour, a voice over the loudspeaker warned people to stay indoors. Numerous heavily armored tanks were deployed near the Palestine and Sheraton hotels, where many Halliburton employees stayed in Baghdad.
The coalition forces weren't taking any chances. The U.S. military had officially declared a "black" alert – the highest in the color-coded system of threat levels in Iraq, which ranges from "green," i.e., no threat, to "black," which bans all traffic on the roads.
On this day, Halliburton ordered 19 uneasy men to take to the road to deliver fuel to the airport. According to the plaintiff's lawyers, Halliburton knowingly failed to inform the drivers before their departure of the "black" status alert and instead told them that the road conditions were at a low "amber" status.
The truckers say that the company dispatched the men on an unfamiliar route, despite the fact that another company convoy traveling the same route had been hit earlier in the day, losing several vehicles. Worse, they were driving unarmored military vehicles rather than their normal white civilian trucks, which made an even more attractive target for insurgents.
The men left the base at about 10:40 a.m., and arrived in the vicinity of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison shortly after noon. Roy Stannard, a former Marine from El Paso, Texas, says that the drivers soon caught sight of the trucks from the previous convoy – they were still burning. But it was too late to turn back – they were already caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between U.S. forces and the insurgents.
Stannard ran into a group of soldiers who were furious that the convoy was driving through the area. A soldier yelled at him: "What the hell are you doing here? We have been under heavy attack for 48 hours!"
It was only a matter of time before the convoy was attacked by insurgents. Of 43 men on the convoy, including the military escorts, 25 were killed or injured, making it the deadliest incident involving American contractors in the war in Iraq. Only 11 of them, including Stannard, made it to the airport, where they were taken to a makeshift hospital. The best known survivor of this deadly incident is Thomas Hamill, the convoy leader, who was kidnapped but managed to escape and later wrote a book about his experience.
Soon after the incident, Halliburton quickly arranged for the surviving men to be flown out of the country, to the regional headquarters at the Khalifa Hilton in Kuwait. There the men were treated to a fancy private dinner and awarded specially inscribed gold coins for their bravery under fire by Tom Crum, the Middle East chief for Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) subsidiary.
Wrongdoing or Communication Failure?
Over the last ten months, the military has compiled its own report on the events. Written by Col. Gary Bunch – the commander of the 172nd Corps Support Group, which escorted the convoy – the 280-page document blames the tragedy on a breakdown in communications between the military and Halliburton failed. "If the information was properly sent to subordinate units, actions could have been taken to potentially minimize impact of hostile engagement, the report states.
It is clear that at least some of blame does likely lie with the military. For example, the U.S. soldier who approved the route is said to have changed his mind minutes later. He then sent an e-mail advising Halliburton that the road was closed, but accidentally sent the e-mail to himself. Moreover, the 19-truck convoy had just six soldiers as its military escort, even though a military order issued on the morning of its departure recommended a minimum ratio of one soldier to every two trucks.
For its part, Halliburton declined to comment on the the lawsuit itself, but its spokeswoman Beverly Scippa stated in an e-mail that the company "remains deeply saddened by this tragedy. KBR has cooperated fully as the Army has spent the past year investigating these attacks, and we will continue to do everything we can to help piece together the events of April 9."
Scippa claims that it is the U.S. military and not Halliburton that has ultimate command and control of all convoys in Iraq: It is not unusual for the military to change a route several times before a convoy departs, based on the best and most current information available from its own intelligence briefings and assessments.
Setting a Precedent
The Johnson lawsuit is just the second major wrongful death lawsuit against a U.S. company hired to spearhead the reconstruction of Iraq. The first was brought against Blackwater Security Services by the families of four contractors – Wesley Batalona, Scott Helvenston, Michael Teague and Jerry Zovko – killed in the now infamous ambush in Fallujah in March 2004. (Blackwater contractors were working on a subcontract that was ultimately controlled by Halliburton.)
Filed in North Carolina – where Blackwater is based – by California attorney Dan Callahan, it may set an important precedent for the Halliburton families. But in many respects, the Johnsons have a much stronger case.
The Blackwater employees – all military veterans – were paid to provide security from hostile fire. Indeed their contract spelled out the dangers to their lives in graphic detail, and included "being shot, permanently maimed and/or killed by a firearm or munitions, falling aircraft or helicopters, sniper fire, land mine, artillery fire, rocket-propelled grenade, truck or car bomb, poisoning, civil uprising, terrorist activity, hand-to-hand combat, etc." These men had also signed a release that ceded most of their rights (as well as those of their families and estates) to sue Blackwater if something were to go wrong.
The Halliburton workers, on the other hand, did not sign any such waiver even though their contract requires them to enter arbitration rather than sue the company. Under normal circumstances, contractors are also eligible for compensation under the Defense Bases Act, the military equivalent of workers' compensation insurance.
The key aspect of the Halliburton case, however, is the fact that employees were not informed of the risks to their lives. They were instead assured that all employees would receive military protection on the job. "What Halliburton did was criminal and the public needs to know," Kim Johnson says. "They took good, honest Americans and didn't tell them that if they didn't do a mission, they would lose their job. They were told that at the slightest hint of danger, they could leave and come home."
Moreover, as Halliburton spokeswoman Scippa confirms, "KBR can refuse a mission if a convoy is improperly constructed, if the security provided by the military does not meet the established criteria, or if route conditions are not within guidelines." Several truckers, who worked for Halliburton in Iraq at the time, told AlterNet that company recruiters informed them that the few civilians who had died in Iraq had been victims off "their own tomfoolery." The drivers assumed that the military would quickly rescue them from any potentially dangerous situation.
According to Scippa, after the attack, Halliburton and the army jointly agreed to suspend convoy movements until the security requirements could be reassessed and additional security measures enacted. She says that the company "continues to work closely with the military to ensure the safety and security of our employees."
The Johnson lawsuit marks an important moment in the war in Iraq. A successful outcome in this case could trigger dozens of new lawsuits from families of deceased contractors and those injured in Iraq, including Iraqi nationals caught in the crossfire. Thus far, Halliburton has made over $10 billion because of the war in Iraq. If April Johnson has her way, at least some of that money will end up in the pockets of the employees who earned Halliburton that money with their lives.