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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Health Benefits Are Hard to Get in War Zone

U.S. officials and contracting experts are worried that many companies working in Iraq are not providing required insurance.

September 25, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — They called him Homeboy.

He was an Iraqi, hired by U.S. defense contractor Titan Corp. as an interpreter for soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division. He talked for them, prayed for them and even fought for them.

But a year after his leg was blown off during a skirmish, Hayder Kharalla hops around his house in Baghdad, unable to walk more than a few hundred yards or carry his young son.

Kharalla still believes in the America that said it wanted to free his country. But he doesn't understand why Titan, one of the U.S. government's biggest contractors, has failed to deliver on its promise to provide a prosthetic leg or rehabilitation therapy to help him walk again.

"I feel inside a little sorry for myself," said Kharalla, 30, who was being paid $10 a day by the company. "I worked so much. And this hurts me so much."

With perhaps as many as 150,000 people -- U.S. citizens, Iraqis and other foreign nationals -- employed under reconstruction programs, U.S. officials and contracting experts increasingly worry that companies are not providing required health benefits and insurance.

There have been at least 134 reported deaths and 858 reports of injuries involving workers from the United States and other countries since the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003, according to government figures. By comparison, more than 1,030 U.S. military personnel have been killed and more than 7,000 wounded.

With experts believing that the contractor statistics may fall short of reality, there is growing concern that some companies may be unaware of their responsibilities, especially in regard to Iraqi workers. Also, logistical difficulties in a war zone, such as inadequate communications, have made it difficult for companies to know when workers are injured.

The Labor Department, which monitors compliance, has had a number of meetings with companies and insurance providers to determine how best to increase awareness of the relevant law, the Defense Base Act.

But so far, Iraq's chaotic situation has stymied efforts to improve matters. The country has no banking system able to process insurance payments, no legal system to enforce compliance and no tradition of litigation to file complaints. Also, the department has no personnel in Iraq.

"There are problematic issues coming up that you don't normally see," a department official said.

One U.S. Army Reserve judge advocate who has dealt with such cases criticized the department for not doing more for injured workers in Iraq.

"Most executive branches have offices at the U.S. Embassy. Why not the Department of Labor?" the judge advocate asked. "It's possible to have more outreach."

Titan declined to comment on the record, citing privacy concerns. One spokesman said the company was trying to help Kharalla and other injured translators obtain treatment outside Iraq. Titan has given Kharalla a raise and continues paying his salary, now $600 a month.

"Our insurance company and Titan personnel have been coordinating the movement of this action, but due to the lack of a stable Iraqi government structure, we have not been able to obtain the required travel requirements and logistics yet needed to make this ongoing effort possible," the spokesman said.

A slight man with dark eyes and a quick wit, Kharalla watched the bombing of Baghdad in the opening days of the war with fear and relief.

The repressive regime that had once threatened to kill his father, a government lawyer, was on its way out. He had high hopes for a new, free Iraq.

When U.S. troops came knocking on his door a few days later in a search for unexploded bombs, Kharalla impressed them with his English, acquired during a childhood spent in England. They offered him a job as an interpreter.

Kharalla became the voice for the troops. He explained U.S. intentions to rebuild Iraq at neighborhood meetings. He calmed angry crowds of people who swarmed troops. He was at the front door during raids, asking permission to enter.

"He got along great with the guys," said Lt. Matt Adamczyk, a commander with the 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. "He was very pro-America, and it showed to us. He was interested in a better Iraq. He believed, like we did, in what we were doing."

Kharalla became their voice, but U.S. troops became his window on a life he had seen only on television. They talked to him about freedom. They played rap music while driving around Baghdad in Humvees. They gave him his nickname, Homeboy.

"It was a dream, honestly," Kharalla said as he sat in his family home in a middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad. "I loved the people I worked with. I became exactly like them."

In the summer of 2003, the military began to consolidate its interpreters with Titan, which provides translators through a contract originally awarded in 1999. The contract is now the company's largest source of revenue, worth up to $657 million. Last year, Titan reported $1.9 billion in revenue.

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