U.S. welcome disappoints Iraqi interpreter who lost his legs
This story first ran Jan. 4
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."
He called the situation "really disgraceful."
Rick Kiernan chose a different word. "It's disappointing," said the former Army colonel, a spokesman for L-3 Communications Corporation, which purchased Titan in 2005 and now supplies about 20 percent of the interpreters who work with the U.S. military in Iraq.
Kiernan called the Iraqi interpreters "very, very brave men and women," but said that did not entitle them to anything more than what was in their hiring contract. "This is the contractual arrangement they made," he said.
He said that if L-3 was to go above and beyond the basic limits of the DBA, it would come at an additional cost to the government.
'They're not like any other refugee'
Colleen Driscoll first met Morad in the intensive care unit of the U.S. Army's 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad.
Driscoll, a former L-3 benefits manager, told Morad she would take care of him. But she said she knew that L-3 wasn't interested in providing anything more than basic care. She recalled asking John Miller, then-president of Titan's linguist division, whether she might be reimbursed for clothing and small gifts she had brought the wounded interpreters.
"He said, 'Sure, but remember we're not Santa Claus,' " Driscoll said.
That summed up L-3's approach, Driscoll said. "The company just wasn't doing enough."
Driscoll left L-3 in 2007 and has since founded the Injured Allies Fund, which helps wounded Iraqis in the U.S. pay for continued medical treatment. She's spent much of her savings and has even brought a wounded interpreter into her Colorado home. She wonders why others don't do more.
"In my eyes they're heroes," she said. "They're not like any other refugee. They have very serious injuries, and they need continued medical care."
Many, she adds, "are suffering from very serious post traumatic stress, and they're just not being treated for that."
The U.S. military estimates that about one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan needs treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. By contrast, AIG has approved fewer than 1 percent of the injured workers it covers for PTSD treatment.
Kiernan, the L-3 spokesman, said he didn't know what more his company could do about the plight of its former contractors. He suggested that wounded interpreters might find help through the U.S. military members they worked alongside.
'Must I beg?'
Morad takes pride in speaking about the man he used to be in Iraq. "I had a nice, big house," he says. "I could get for my family whatever they want."
Here, when he needed clothing and blankets for his family -- which is shivering through its first Utah winter -- he says he was told to visit a second-hand shop. It was humbling, but he did it.
When Morad complained that he could not find a job and needed money to pay his bills, he said a state worker suggested he go wait outside a church or mosque and beg for money. But that was too much for his pride to bear.
"To ask for money like some poor man?" he asks, his eyes redden and fill with tears. "I need help, yes. I am poor now, yes. But must I beg? Is this America? Is this what I gave my legs for?"
Morad drops his head into hands. "Sometimes I think that suicide is good for me," he cries.
He wipes his tears away, sits up and takes a deep breath. He gazes sadly across the room at his daughter, who flashes her father an encouraging smile.
"I just wanted to give her everything I could," Morad says. "That's what I wanted to do."