AFGHANISTAN: Lost in Limbo: Injured Afghan Translators Struggle to Survive

Publisher Name: 
ProPublica

Farshad Yewazi (standing, far left in light camo), 23, was wounded during an ambush while serving as a translator for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. His insurance company failed to provide him medical benefits.
Farshad
Yewazi (standing, far left in light camo), 23, was wounded during an
ambush while serving as a translator for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.
His insurance company failed to provide him medical benefits.

Earlier this year, U.S. Army soldiers traveled to a remote valley in
northeastern Afghanistan in hopes of improving relations with local
villagers by repairing a collapsed bridge.

To implement this bit
of counterinsurgency, the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry
Regiment relied upon Farshad Yewazi, a 23-year-old Afghan who served as
their translator. He took pride in his role, believing that he was
helping his fellow Afghans in helping the Americans' humanitarian
efforts.

Translators offer the villagers humanitarian aid "and
help kick enemies out of the area," said Yewazi, whose family comes
from the surrounding province of Kunar, one of the most war-torn
regions of Afghanistan and a rumored hiding place of Osama Bin Laden.

But
soon after the soldiers of Charlie Company dismounted their vehicles in
the small village of Senzo on May 9, Yewazi sensed something was amiss.
It was too late -- an unmistakable "pop-pop" rang out, followed by a
volley of rocket-propelled grenades. They had walked into an ambush.

As
the soldiers returned the fire, Yewazi hit the ground but was wounded.
A rocket-propelled grenade tore most of the flesh off his right arm. "I
cannot even tell you how much pain I was in," said the soft-spoken
translator, wincing as he recalled the incident more than five months
later. "I still cannot believe I could even tolerate it."

Yewazi
had just become one of the hidden casualties of the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. The U.S. military uses defense contractors to hire local
residents to serve as translators for the troops. These local
translators often live, sleep and eat with soldiers. And yet when they
are wounded, they are often ignored by the U.S. system designed to
provide them medical care and disability benefits, according to an
investigation by the Los Angeles Times and ProPublica.

In
Afghanistan, the system's flaws are becoming increasingly apparent as
President Obama has flooded tens of thousands of additional forces into
the country, requiring hundreds of new translators. Afghanistan's
difficult terrain, poor communications and rudimentary infrastructure
have made the delivery of promised benefits uneven, with some injured
translators going months without payments.

Even when the system
works, however, troubles remain. Injured Afghans have often been forced
to flee after becoming targets for Taliban insurgents. Those who seek
refuge in the U.S. have found themselves having to scramble to make any
kind of living in the recession-wracked American economy.

Bashir
Ahmedzai was a surgeon from Kabul who landed a job working as an
interpreter at a U.S. military hospital in 2004. After his foot was
injured in a vehicle explosion in 2007, he fled to the U.S., where he
eventually found work as "housekeeper" at a military hospital in Texas.

"I
speak six languages and I am a qualified general surgeon. But I
couldn't make enough money to support myself. I had to ask my family to
send me money from Afghanistan to survive," Ahmedzai said.

The system, which is regulated by the Labor Department under a law known as the Defense Base Act [1],
requires defense contractors in war zones to purchase workers'
compensation insurance for their employees. Paid for by taxpayers as
part of the contract price, the policies are designed to pay for
medical care and wages lost to injuries.

In Yewazi's case,
however, his insurance company failed to provide him medical benefits
to cover the cost of his health care. Instead, he was treated by U.S.
military doctors at the scene and later at Bagram, the main U.S. base
in Afghanistan.

Nor did the company, Zurich Financial Services
of Switzerland, make disability payments to Yewazi. More than six
months after the attack, Yewazi's right hand remains crippled; he
cannot eat, write or pick up anything with it. While doctors say he may
eventually regain use of the hand, for now, he is trying to adjust to
doing these tasks with his left.

Yewazi's employer, Ohio-based
Mission Essential Personnel, or MEP, is the primary provider of
translators in Afghanistan under a five-year, $414-million contract to
supply nearly 1,700 translators to the military. The company pays local
translators about $900 a month to accompany troops.

In response
to questions on the case, MEP acknowledged that Zurich had failed to
provide Yewazi with benefits. MEP said it was working to overhaul its
claims processing system to make sure that Yewazi and other injured
interpreters were paid their full benefits.

"MEP regards all its
linguists, whether a foreign national or U.S. hire, as colleagues and
heroes," Sean Rushton, an MEP spokesman, said in an e-mail response to
ProPublica.

Zurich declined to comment on any individual case.
The Swiss company has historically had a tiny share of the market for
the specialized war zone insurance, which is dominated by troubled
industry giant AIG. In recent years, however, Zurich has increased its
market share, according to one recent industry study.

Such
policies are extraordinarily lucrative. Some firms have reported
profits as high as 50 percent -- compared to ordinary worker's
compensation policies, which often provide only 1 percent to 2 percent
profit. All told, taxpayers have paid more than $1.5 billion for war
zone policies since 2002, according to Congressional investigators.

"Zurich
works to ensure each customer claim is given the utmost attention,
which includes gathering and understanding the necessary information,"
Steven McKay, a Zurich spokesman, said in a statement.

The Labor
Department, charged with ensuring the delivery of benefits, said in a
statement that it was unable to police the system. The agency has no
personnel deployed to Afghanistan to make sure claims are paid. It also
does not publish notices in any Afghan dialect informing workers of
their rights.

"We realize that some overseas claims may not
receive the same level of medical care and personal claim interactions
as domestic U.S. workers receive, however, we believe that in general
most workers are receiving appropriate care," the statement said.

However,
interviews with a dozen former MEP interpreters and their families show
that Yewazi's tale is not unusual. Injured translators and the families
of those killed have waited months for payments, lost in a bureaucratic
maze.

For example, Basir "Steve" Ahmed was returning from a
bomb-clearing mission in Khogyani district in northeastern Afghanistan
in October 2008 when a suicide bomber blew up an explosive-filled
vehicle nearby. His right hand was torn apart by shrapnel.

Although
the military doctors at Bagram were able to graft skin onto his burns,
he is still unable to lift his hand to feed himself. Ahmed returned to
work, but three months after the bombing, he was fired for coming late
to work.

Ahmed continued to get a partial salary for about six
months after his injury. Nine months after his injury he was given a
$10,000 compensation payment. After his firing was reported in
CorpWatch, a nonprofit focused on corporate accountability, MEP offered
him his job back.

Other translators have reported faster
compensation. Abdul Hameed, a translator from Jalalabad who has worked
for MEP since May 2009, was injured by a home-made bomb on August 18,
2009, in Logar province, shattering his heel. The following day, MEP
officials visited him in the hospital and by the end of the month he
was receiving disability pay of $110.01 a week -- barely enough to pay
for his medical expenses.

MEP executives said they had decided
to conduct an internal audit of their insurance contract with Zurich.
The company human resources chief traveled to Kabul recently to review
claims from injured contractors and found scores of backlogged cases.

"When
she arrived, there were over 170 outstanding claims; today there are
about 80," Rushton said. "We're committed to getting the backlog to
zero and keeping it down with process reforms."

Yewazi's case is an example of how easy it is for an injured local translator to slip through the cracks.

In
late October, at his parent's simple home in the hills of Paghman,
Yewazi showed this reporter his medical reports as well as an array of
photographs, certificates and letters of recommendations from his three
years with the U.S. military.

There are dozens of pictures of
him in the snow-covered high mountains of eastern Afghanistan
surrounded by gun-toting Special Forces. Other pictures show him
sitting down with the troops to help them communicate with village
elders.

His most prized possession is a letter from Charlie
Company, dated May 9th, 2009, the day he was injured. Written by
Captain James Stultz, it reads: "Farshad. We are hope you are doing
well. We have been thinking about you and hope that the doctors are
treating you well. If you need anything, let us know. You have risked
your life to help us and almost paid the ultimate sacrifice. You are a
brave man and we hope you heal quickly." Under Stultz's signature,
another 20-odd soldiers and translators have co-signed and added
get-well comments.

Yewazi said he had repeatedly attempted to
contact MEP and Zurich representatives for help after his injury
without success. After this reporter sent MEP a request for information
on Yewazi's case, an MEP official called Yewazi within 24 hours and
promised to expedite his claim with Zurich.

MEP's Rushton says
that they hope that the new system of "reaching out to Zurich claims
adjusters and investigators daily" will ensure that cases like Yewazi's
will not occur again. "We have requested a formal claims review from
Zurich on all open claims to ensure all records match and claims are
resolved," Rushton said.

Second Hurdle: Death Threats

When
word gets around about their injuries, many former translators face a
much tougher battle -- death threats from insurgent groups.

Ahmed Rashad Mushfiq lost both of his legs to a roadside bomb explosion. (Photo courtesy of Pratap Chatterjee.)
Ahmed Rashad Mushfiq lost both of his legs to a roadside bomb explosion. (Photo courtesy of Pratap Chatterjee.)

Ahmed Rashad Mushfiq, a 28-year-old former MEP translator from Kabul,
sustained serious injuries in Kapisa province on April 29, 2008, when
the Humvee he was in hit a roadside bomb.

The subsequent
explosion killed the driver, Airman Jonathan Yelner, 24, of California.
Mushfiq, who was sitting right behind Yelner, lost both his legs -- one
of which had to be amputated just above the knee and the other right
below.

Mushfiq was provided with prosthetic legs, although he
still needs crutches to get around. His proudest moment in his long
road to recovery was at a memorial run for Yelner in October 2008, when
he was asked to lead more than 500 runners and walkers in a symbolic
crossing of the finish line of the three-mile course at Bagram.

Mushfiq asked his former military unit to get him safe haven at Bagram. His request to come to the U.S. has been delayed by bureaucracy. (Photo courtesy of Pratap Chatterjee.)
Mushfiq
asked his former military unit to get him safe haven at Bagram. His
request to come to the U.S. has been delayed by bureaucracy. (Photo
courtesy of Pratap Chatterjee.)

Initially MEP assigned
another translator to help Mushfiq when he returned home to Kabul. But
when the second translator was approached by four young men who offered
to pay him to reveal the location of Mushfiq, the amputee asked his
former military unit to get him safe haven at Bagram.

When
Mushfiq's original unit rotated out of theater last year, however, U.S.
officials told him he would have to leave Bagram. Mushfiq moved to
MEP's headquarters at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, where he worked for a few
weeks doing desk work and attending physical therapy classes.

Then,
he fell and broke his arm. The military asked MEP to send Mushfiq home,
fearing that the translator's mounting physical disabilities would
impede his ability to seek shelter in case of attack. In July 2008,
Zurich paid Mushfiq $125,000 in compensation. Immediately afterwards,
MEP told him to leave the base.

Today Mushfiq lives in hiding.
He is hoping to get a visa to come to the U.S., but immigration
officials here have told him it will take at least another year until
he is eligible.

Increasingly desperate, Mushfiq is now
attempting to use Facebook as a tool to get out of Afghanistan. He has
signed up as a fan of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Prayers for Our
Troops!, President Barack Obama and even the American Conservative
Republican Alliance.

On November 7, he posted an e-mail message
to Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan:
"Sir, I am living in Afghanistan with a lot of problems i applied for
immigrant visa to USA but my case is still pending i beg for your help
sir God bless sir."

Third Hurdle: Emigrating to the U.S.

In
late November, Mushfiq sent an e-mail to Staff Sgt. Ronald Payne, a
military nurse who runs an intensive care unit at the headquarters of
the U.S. Army's Medical Command at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

In his spare time, Payne heads up a volunteer project called the Allied Freedom Project [2]
to help Afghan and Iraqi translators come to the U.S. Over the last
couple of years Payne estimates he has helped some 500 former
translators in the process of "immigration, reception and integration
into American life" -- including picking them up at the airport,
arranging accommodation and signing them up for food stamps and other
benefits when they land in the country.

Payne said that Mushfiq
and other injured translators are stuck in bureaucratic limbo land
because the U.S. has failed to fully implement the Afghan Allies
Protection Act. The act, signed into law in March 2009, authorizes an
additional 1,500 special visas annually for the next five years to
employees and contractors of the U.S. government in Afghanistan "who
have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a
consequence of that employment."

The new quota will add
significantly to the 600 or so that have been authorized since the U.S.
toppled the Taliban in 2001. (By contrast over 26,000 Iraqis have been
authorized to settle in the U.S., a process that is well under way)

But
even if Mushfiq is able to complete the immigration process, it will
not be the last hurdle. Disability benefits are based on salary -- and
since local Afghans made less than $12,000 a year, their disability
benefits are in most cases beneath U.S. poverty levels.

Public
benefits are also limited. Depending on the state, refugees can expect
about six months of help in the form of food stamps and rent subsidies.
After that, they have to fend for themselves.

"Welcome to
America, you are on your own," said Payne, who emphasized that he was
not speaking on behalf of the U.S. military. Without a job, he said,
"They are screwed."

From Surgeon to Used Car Salesman

Ahmedzai,
the surgeon who injured his foot, traveled to San Antonio under the
sponsorship of the Allied Freedom Project in July 2008. After six
months, Ahmedzai was able to get a job at the Brooke Army Medical
Center at Fort Sam Houston in housekeeping, making $11.23 an hour.

Three
months later, Ahmedzai quit and set up a business buying used cars to
ship to Afghanistan. In the last six weeks, he has been able to clear
about $2,000, allowing him to finally send $200 to his wife and six
children.

"They ask me even today; you sacrificed your life for
the U.S. army. Why didn't they do anything for you? It is a shame for
you!" says Ahmedzai, who says he is now looking for another part-time
job so that he can save the money to bring the rest of his family to
live with him in Texas.

This past Thanksgiving, he joined
friends for the traditional evening meal in San Antonio. When it came
to his time to give thanks, he was silent for a moment and then he
finally said. "I am just thankful that I didn't lose my leg."

Pratap
Chatterjee is a freelance investigative journalist and editor at
CorpWatch. He has written two books on military contractors - Iraq,
Inc. (Seven Stories Press, 2004) and Halliburton's Army (Nation Books,
2009). He can be contacted at pchatterjee@igc.org

T. Christian Miller contributed to this report.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
  • 24 Intelligence
  • 116 Human Rights
  • 187 Privatization