by JIM HIGHT
ON JULY 17, 2003, HEATHER YARBROUGH [photo at right] flew to Kuwait to start a new job: monitoring the quality and safety of food served to soldiers on U.S. military bases in Iraq. Her employer was the Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) Government Services division of Halliburton, the Texas-based oil company formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney that has contracts with the U.S. government to support military personnel in the field and to help with Iraq reconstruction.
Yarbrough, 33, felt upbeat and excited. She had trained hard for a position like this, one that required expertise in food and science. She was banking on the high salary -- $1,500 a week -- to pay off her student loans. And unlike many of her fellow students at Humboldt State University, she supported the Bush Administration and its war on terrorism.
Yarbrough never dreamed she'd be fired a month later for what in her view was simply an effort to implement the Army's own safety and sanitation standards. Nor did she imagine that she'd be telling congressional staffers about potentially dangerous food being served to U.S. soldiers by ESS Support Services, a food-service subcontractor to Halliburton.
While Yarbrough did not see any soldiers fall sick from food served by ESS, she did witness something else that disturbed her: the labor system that feeds and supports U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait. It's a system in which highly paid Americans oversee a huge corps of Indians, Pakistanis and other so-called "third-country nationals" working in sweatshop conditions for as little as $3 a day.
Yarbrough is not alone in pointing to problems in Halliburton's military contracts. Congressional watchdogs criticized excessive costs charged by Kellogg, Brown & Root (now a subsidiary of Halliburton) in the late 1990s at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo.
Early in the Iraq war, the head of Army logistics complained that Halliburton and its subcontractors were deploying too slowly to forward areas, forcing soldiers to go longer than necessary without fresh food, showers and other amenities, according to the Houston Chronicle.
And last month a flurry of media coverage ensued after it was revealed that the Pentagon is investigating whether Halliburton and its subcontractors overcharged the United States as much as $61 million for fuel and inflated cost estimates by $67 million in a proposal for dining facility services.
Of dust and mayonnaise
It was to one of these dining facilities that Yarbrough was assigned soon after arriving in Kuwait. After working in a temporary post at Truckville, a part of Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, she travelled north through Iraq in a four-day convoy to what was supposed to be a yearlong assignment at Camp Iron Horse in Tikrit, field headquarters of the Army's 4th Infantry Division.
It was Aug. 6, opening day for the camp's dining facility. "Two thousand five hundred anxious soldiers, many waiting to eat their first cooked meal in months, stood around us [at a ribbon-cutting ceremony]," she wrote later in her Web log (www.humboldt.edu/~hdy1). "Dinner was served on time, and it appeared to be a smooth operation."
But the next evening, when Yarbrough started her first 12-hour overnight shift, she was shocked at conditions in the kitchen. 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.
About midnight, an American who managed the dining facility for ESS came into the kitchen. Yarbrough read him the list of sanitary items needed, described the problems in the dining room and relayed the Army sergeant's requests.
But before she finished, the man she knew only as "Ray" erupted in anger. "He told me that I was not aware of my position or duties," she wrote later that morning in her journal. "He told me not to attempt to address [kitchen workers, only the] night manager."
To underscore the point, Ray stepped menacingly close to Yarbrough. "With riveted eye contact [he] reminded me of his instruction." Then he left.
This wasn't entirely surprising to Yarbrough. She'd done quality control and quality-assurance work before, and she'd expected some tension with kitchen managers.
But she'd read her job description carefully and knew that she was responsible for the quality and safety of food served on her shift. She was also certified in safety and sanitation by the National Restaurant Association, and was constantly referencing the Army's food-safety manual, known as TB Med 530.
There were 160 employees in the massive kitchen, and when she saw workers returning from breaks without washing their hands or using spoiled BBQ sauce, she was going to continue speaking to them directly instead of wasting time searching for the night manager.
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.
Good ol' boys
But while conditions in the kitchen were improving, Yarbrough's position in the dining facility's power structure was deteriorating. She'd learned from co-workers that Ray was tight with her supervisor. Even more ominous, the Army officer in charge of food services at Camp Iron Horse was also a friend of Ray's.
On Aug. 11, that officer called Yarbrough angrily to an impromptu meeting. When she began to take notes, he stopped abruptly and walked away.
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 still felt confident that when she talked to senior managers back at Camp Arifjan, they would put Ray in his place -- he worked for a Halliburton subcontractor after all -- and send her back to work making food safer for soldiers in the 4th ID.
But Yarbrough says these managers refused to listen to her. Instead, they polished up their own version of events to match that of Ray and his friends. They told her that they had lost confidence in her, and that the military had asked them to remove her from Camp Iron Horse.
Back in the United States, she appealed to Halliburton's employee relations office. "I thought I'd be sent back to work in Iraq, if not Tikrit," she said. "I liked my job, and I wanted it back." After more than a month, she was informed that her termination was final.
London-based Compass Group, the parent company of ESS Support Services, did not respond to several e-mailed and faxed requests for an interview.
A Halliburton spokeswoman declined to comment on Yarbrough's firing or her allegations about food safety problems. She wrote in an e-mail message that the company was "not aware of reported cases of food poisoning" at Camp Iron Horse.
As for the cronyism Yarbrough describes, the spokeswoman wrote: "Company policies are designed specifically to prohibit these types of activities and/or relationships."
But a government official familiar with the dining facility at Camp Iron Horse confirmed this aspect of Yarbrough's story. "The three people she's talking about had all worked together in the past," said the official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity. "Two [civilian contract employees] were former military, and one guy was still on active duty.
"I think it was someone in the Army who requested she be removed," he explained. "That's not within their jurisdiction. We have no authority to tell a contractor to hire or fire somebody."
But he attributed Yarbrough's firing to a combination of "personality conflicts" and her own lack of experience. "She had high ideals and wanted to do things like we do them back home," he said. "In the field environment, you just can't. You have to do what you have to do to get the job done."
"Meticulous" is a word that several of Yarbrough's former professors and employers use to describe her. "She is meticulous about everything [and] good on details," said William Allen, a professor at Humboldt State University.
"Sometimes she has a tendency to reinvent the wheel because she wants to make sure other people's work is trustworthy," said Jacob Varkey, another HSU professor who has supervised Yarbrough as a laboratory employee.
But when Varkey, Allen and others who know Yarbrough heard her story this fall, they believed her.
"She's very straightforward and honest," said Robin Meiggs, who coached Yarbrough on the women's rowing team for three years. "Some people may not want to hear the truth, but when she talks about her story, you can see it in her eyes."
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.
On her Web log, Yarbrough has posted detailed chronological stories and supporting materials, including a transcript and photocopies of her Camp Iron Horse journal.
She also has a binder full of documents, including two that seem to validate most strongly what she says about being fired for doing her job and a cover-up within Halliburton: the job description she was given when she started work in July and a Sept. 29 e-mail message from an employee relations manager citing the official reasons for her termination.
"Interfering with [dining facility] operations," states the e-mail message from Halliburton employee relations. "Interfering with management of subcontractors; [and] discarding food without consulting the client or management."
Dated June 20, 2003, her job description says she and other Halliburton staff are "responsible for the overall sanitation and food safety of the operation."
"Ensure that our clients are receiving the best in customer service while monitoring the subcontractor," states the document. "Be ready to jump in and help when needed. Do not convince yourself that you are an inspector and your sole purpose is to observe and take notes.
"Stop all unsafe and unsanitary acts immediately," it reads.
Heading for Houston
At HSU this fall, Yarbrough completed courses she needed to add a chemistry minor to her bachelor's degree in biology. She moved from Arcata over the holiday break. Her first scheduled stop was Houston, where her parents live and where Halliburton is headquartered. She planned to try once again to find a Halliburton manager to hear her out.
"I want my job back," she said.
But wanting her job back hasn't stopped Yarbrough from trying to blow the whistle on what she perceives as unsafe and corrupt practices by the company's staff.
She was interviewed by telephone in November by an aide for the House of Representatives Government Reform Committee, and a source with the committee's staff told the Journal that Yarbrough's information might figure in future investigations.
Freelance writer Jim Hight is a former Journal staffer.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.