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FORGOTTEN WARRIORS

Foreign interpreters hurt in battle find U.S. insurance benefits wanting

For Iraqis and Afghans killed or injured while working for the U.S. military, benefits have often fallen far short of what was promised to them and their families.

December 18, 2009|By T. Christian Miller
  • Iraqi interpreter Malek Hadi lost his leg in a 2006 blast while assisting the U.S. military police. He now lives in Arlington, Texas, on $612 in monthly disability payments. "When we were in Iraq, we were exactly like the soldiers," Hadi said. "Why are we treated differently now?"
Iraqi interpreter Malek Hadi lost his leg in a 2006 blast while assisting… (Allison V. Smith / For The…)

After the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military discovered that rebuilding the country and confronting an insurgency required a weapon not in its arsenal: thousands of interpreters.

To fill the gap, the Pentagon turned to Titan Corp., a San Diego defense contractor, which eventually hired more than 8,000 interpreters, most of them Iraqis.

For $12,000 a year, these civilians served as the voice of America's military, braving sniper fire and roadside bombs. Insurgents targeted them for torture and assassination. Many received military honors for their heroism.

At least 360 interpreters employed by Titan or its successor company were killed between March 2003 and March 2008, and more than 1,200 were injured. The death toll was far greater than that suffered by the armed forces of any country in the American-led coalition other than the United States. Scores of interpreters assisting U.S. forces in Afghanistan also have been killed or wounded.

An insurance program funded by American taxpayers was supposed to provide a safety net for interpreters and their families in the event of injury or death. Yet for many, the benefits have fallen painfully short of what was promised, an investigation by the Los Angeles Times and ProPublica found.

Interviews, corporate documents and data on insurance claims show that:

* Insurers have delayed or denied claims for disability payments and death benefits, citing a lack of police reports or other documentary evidence that interpreters' injuries or deaths were related to their work for the military. Critics, including some U.S. Army officers, say it is absurd to expect Iraqis and Afghans to be able to document the cause of injuries suffered in a war zone.

* Iraqi interpreters taken to neighboring Jordan for medical treatment say they were pressured to accept lump-sum settlements from insurers, rather than a stream of lifetime benefits potentially worth more, and were told that if they didn't sign, they would be sent back home -- a potential death sentence for Iraqis associated with the American war effort.

* Interpreters who have immigrated to the United States as refugees have ended up penniless, on food stamps or in menial jobs because their benefits under the U.S. insurance program are based on wages and living costs in their home countries. Payments intended to provide a decent standard of living in Iraq or Afghanistan leave the recipients below the poverty level in this country.

Iraqi Malek Hadi was working with U.S. military police outside Baghdad when a homemade explosive detonated beneath his Humvee in September 2006. The blast tore off his right leg, mangled the left and sheared off several fingers.

Today, Hadi, 25, lives alone in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Arlington, Texas. He struggles to climb the stairs to his second-floor apartment on crutches. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but is not receiving treatment because his insurer has refused to pay for it.

He lives on $612 a month in disability payments, the maximum available under the war-zone insurance system.

"When we were in Iraq, we were exactly like the soldiers," Hadi said. "Why are we treated differently now?"

Retired U.S. Army Col. Joel Armstrong, who served in Iraq and was a leading proponent of the 2007 troop buildup, or "surge," that helped reduce violence in the country, said Iraqi interpreters were crucial to the strategy's success.

"Without them, you really can't operate effectively as a force. It's just impossible," Armstrong said. It is deplorable, he added, that interpreters injured while assisting American troops have had to fight for benefits.

"Every American should feel terrible about it," he said. "It's a shame."

American International Group Inc., or AIG, the principal provider of insurance coverage for interpreters in Iraq, declined to answer detailed questions on its policies or comment on specific cases.

Marie Ali, a spokeswoman for the AIG unit that sold the coverage, said the company "is committed to handling every claim professionally, ethically and fairly. In all cases, it is our policy to respect the privacy of our customers and claimants and not discuss the specifics of individual claims."

Claims and disputes

Under a World War II-era law known as the Defense Base Act, companies working under contract for the U.S. military overseas must provide workers' compensation insurance for their employees, both Americans and foreign nationals. The cost of the coverage is built into Pentagon contracts and so is ultimately paid by taxpayers.

The insurance system, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, once handled a few hundred claims a year. It expanded dramatically after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq because of the Pentagon's heavy reliance on civilian contract workers to drive fuel trucks, cook meals and provide other support services.

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