“Delays and denials in paying claims are the rule” Henry Waxman
Published June 12, 2009 5:38 pm
Rabeh Morad removes his right leg. And then his left. He sets aside the prosthetics and pulls down an elastic sock, exposing a shriveled stump, just below his knee.
“This,” he says, “is what I gave to America.”
He’s a proud man, stout in frame and loud in voice. He was a successful electronics merchant in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah before answering the U.S. military’s call for interpreters.
Now he’s a refugee. Jobless, distraught — sometimes suicidal — he’s struggling to pay the rent on the small, tidy apartment he shares with his wife and 12-year-old daughter in West Valley City. Along with his other bills, he owes the United States $90 a month for his family’s airline tickets out of the Middle East.
Morad, 54, is among hundreds of wounded interpreters forced to flee Iraq after being exposed as American collaborators. Many waited in other Middle Eastern nations, dreaming of the welcome they’d get once they received permission to immigrate to the United States. Dozens have completed the journey.
Now, they’ve found themselves in a nation not nearly so grateful as they’d imagined it would be.
‘American was going to give us freedom’
Morad had picked up bits of English while working as a merchant sailor on an oil liner in the Persian Gulf. Even today, he struggles to express his thoughts in his second language, but when the U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority took over Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s 2003 ouster, it came with woefully few officials who spoke Arabic.
Morad’s broken English was good enough for provisional government work; he was employed by the CPA for half a year.
Three years later, with violence mounting in Iraq’s Shiite-dominated south, the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division needed an interpreter near the holy city of Najaf. San Diego-based Titan Corporation, which has taken in billions of dollars providing translators to the U.S. military, offered Morad the job.
“I thought Saddam was a criminal,” Morad says. “America was going to give us freedom, and I wanted to help with this.”
Titan paid Morad $242 a week. The Army sent him to work with Lt. Emily Perez, a recent graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Twenty-four years her senior, Morad called Perez “my beautiful child.”
On Sept. 12, 2006, during a patrol near the city of Kifl, a roadside bomb — shaped to ensure maximum lethality — exploded below the Humvee in which Morad and Perez were passengers.
Perez was killed. Morad lost his legs.
‘I always believed’
When U.S. military members lose limbs in combat they’re stabilized in Iraq, evacuated as quickly as possible to the Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, then sent to specialized care facilities in the United States. They’re provided physical therapy, job training and counseling. Some receive computerized prosthetic limbs that cost more than a house. Many heal so well that they end up back in uniform — and some who have asked to do so have even returned to combat.
Titan’s interpreters took a different route. After initially being treated at U.S. military hospitals in Iraq, most were sent to Amman, Jordan, where they lived dormitory-style in a hotel owned by a local doctor. There they awaited surgeries and — many hoped — a ticket to the United States. Their care was basic, their prosthetics decidedly low-tech. In most cases, they were treated only for physical injuries, not psychological wounds.
Morad spent a year in Jordan waiting for doctors to tell him he had reached “maximum medical improvement.”
That’s where he met Diyar al-Bayati, another interpreter who, like Morad, lost both legs in a bombing while working for the U.S. Army. Just 20 years old, al-Bayati underwent painful surgeries in Jordan while holding fast to the belief that a grander life awaited him in the United States. He figured his sacrifice would help expedite the immigration process he’d started months earlier, at the urging of the U.S. soldiers he worked alongside.
“I always believed that I would live in America,” he said. But, he sadly adds, he figured he would come here with legs.
Last spring, al-Bayati finally arrived in Utah — and by coincidence, just weeks before Morad — but he found his service to this country counted for little when it came to accessing medical care. He’s still waiting for a set of prosthetic legs. He wheels around in a simple folding wheelchair, and sometimes in a second-hand motorized chair donated by a good Samaritan.
Someday, he says, he’ll return to Iraq.
‘I could not go back’
It was more money than he’d ever seen, but Morad knew he was getting a bad deal when a representative from Titan’s insurance company, AIG, offered him $112,000 in compensation shortly before he was discharged from the Jordan hospital. Settlement documents, written in Arabic and English, said that amount “adequately covers the cost of any necessary future medical treatment.”
Morad disagreed. He wanted to immigrate to the United States and knew the costs of medical care would be high. “But the man told me ‘You are old, so this is all you will get.’ ”
Morad signed the contract. “There were some who refused to sign, and they were sent back to Iraq,” he said. Officials who have worked with injured interpreters have confirmed that the men were often pressured to sign settlements they deemed insufficient, under threat that they would be dropped off at Iraq’s border if they refused.
At that time, about 250 of Titan’s interpreters had been killed in Iraq — many executed in retribution for cooperating with U.S. forces. And when insurgents couldn’t get to the interpreters themselves, they went after their families.
“Of course, I could not go back,” Morad said.
While disappointed, he figured he could use the settlement to start a small business in the U.S. — creating a job that would keep him on his feet for only a few minutes at a time, which is as long as he can stand.
Morad arrived in America last spring. But he never got the lump sum he expected.
Instead, he receives a check for $344 every two weeks. That and the limited money he receives as a refugee — money that is about to run out — pays his rent and little more. At the rate he’s being paid, it will take Morad 13 years to receive all the money in his settlement.
AIG declined to comment on how it compensates injured Iraqi interpreters. But officials familiar with the system say the benefits are dictated by the policies purchased by Titan and other defense contractors.
Most companies buy the minimum amount of coverage required by the Defense Base Act (DBA) for contractors operating alongside the military. The 67-year-old law ties compensation to a contractor’s wages — not to the cost of their future care or living expenses.
Still, California Rep. Henry Waxman is confident that insurers can and should do more. During a May hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which he chairs, Waxman complained that insurance companies have pocketed extravagant profits while the American taxpayer — who foots the cost of defense contracts — gets stuck with the bill. In one case, he noted, AIG was paid $284 million to cover contractors employed by the defense company KBR. Of that amount, just $73 million went to injured contractors.
Meanwhile, the injured “have to fight the insurance company to get their benefits,” Waxman said. “Delays and denials in paying claims are the rule
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