By DAVID GROVES
For Arne Bjorkelo of Seattle, “Support Our Troops” means a lot more than a bumper sticker. It means living and working in the most grueling, dangerous conditions to make sure American soldiers are as safe and comfortable as possible.
Bjorkelo, a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 46, and his fellow IBEW electricians from across the United States are doing electrical repair work at U.S. and NATO-occupied camps in Afghanistan.
“We are proud and grateful to support our troops, doing what we can to make their lives safer and more tolerable,” Bjorkelo told The Stand. (He is a regular reader.) “We ensure that electrical installations on the most remote locations are safe. Often, we are the difference between showers and no showers in this most harsh environment.”
Three years ago, military contractor KBR — a former Halliburton subsidiary — was called out for endangering U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with faulty electrical power systems installed by unqualified workers at U.S. bases. At least one military investigator believed KBR’s reckless endangerment of U.S. troops merited criminal changes.
At the time, Pentagon officials estimated that at least 18 troops had been electrocuted — many due to faulty wiring and improper grounding. The Defense Contract Management Agency documented 231 shock incidents from September 2006 through July 2008 alone and concluded that KBR “failed to meet the basic requirements to identify life-threatening conditions on tanks, water pumps, electrical outlets and electrical panels.”
It’s the job of Bjorkelo and other IBEW electricians — like Tony Johnson of Birmingham, Ala., Claude Brusseau of Burlington, Vt., Tovar Camp of Atlanta, and Bill Mlnarik of Green Bay, Wisc. — to clean that mess up. They do electrical inspection and repair of U.S. occupied camps throughout Afghanistan.
On Monday, a suicide car bomber at the gates of Jalalabad airport in eastern Afghanistan killed nine people. Also destroyed was much of what Bjorkelo and his colleagues had installed over the past month.
It’s dangerous and grueling work, but it’s being done with pride by union members eager to protect American soldiers.
“We are proud of our union affiliation and have an entire workforce in theater made up of IBEW members,” Bjorkelo said. “Members work in the most remote areas under grueling conditions, including knee-deep in snow and in 115-degree heat.”
He says the best way to ensure that qualified electricians are serving U.S. troops in the Middle East is to “require UNION affiliation” and to hire “tradesmen with the consistent training that the JATC provides. It is awesome to be recognized, IBEW and a NECA contractor working together!”