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Blinded From a Sniper Bullet and Shortchanged by the System

PHOENIX, Ariz. – While Iraqi interpreters served directly with U.S. troops, hundreds of other Iraqis have been injured or killed while working behind the scenes to help the U.S. war effort.

And just like the interpreters, these support workers have also found themselves shortchanged by the U.S. system designed to protect workers injured or killed on the job, according to a ProPublica review.

Hakee Aidan, 28, drove trucks for an Iraqi company that held a subcontract with PWC, a Kuwaiti firm now known as Agility which transported good for U.S. troops. Aidan would routinely drive unarmored tractor trailers on Iraq's most dangerous roads, carrying food, water and even ammunition for American and Iraqi forces.

In January 2006, Aidan was driving toward Ramadi in western Iraq when a sniper's bullet pierced his face from left to right, blowing out both of his eyes. He managed to pull his rig over by the side of the road, where American soldiers rushed him to a military hospital.

A few days later, AIG paid to have Aidan taken to Jordan for treatment. Under a U.S. law known as the Defense Base Act, defense contractors must pay private insurance companies for workers compensation policies to cover their employees. The Labor Department regulates the system, which is financed by taxpayers as part of contract costs.

A year later, after more than a dozen surgeries, a doctor who worked for AIG called Aidan to his office. Aidan, a high school graduate, said he thought that he was getting a payment for his injuries and a temporary discharge from the hospital.

Instead, Aidan placed his thumbprint at the bottom of a document in which AIG agreed to pay Aidan $93,356 to cover full disability payments for the remainder of his life. He also received another $96,644 to cover the costs of any future medical treatments.

The disability amount was based on a yearly salary of $7,500—far below the $50,000 which Aidan said he earned. At that pay scale, Aidan would normally have received well over $1 million to settle his claim, according to Labor Department formulas. Even at the lower salary, Aidan was still entitled to about $170,000 in disability pay alone.

AIG declined to comment on any specific case or address questions about how the payment to Aidan was calculated. In a statement, the company said it was committed to handling all cases "professionally, ethically and fairly."

Aidan said he did not understand the settlement, or that he had the right to protest AIG's calculations for his wages. In court fights here in the U.S., claimants' attorneys have consistently charged that AIG understates wages to avoid paying higher disability benefits. In a majority of cases reviewed by ProPublica, judges have sided with claimants attorneys' arguments.

The Labor Department ultimately approves all settlements. Labor officials would not comment on individual cases. It was unclear why the department would approve a settlement for Aidan at a level below the full amount to which he was entitled. Aidan, who does not speak English, said he had never spoken to the Labor Department. He said friends had sent letters to Congress on his behalf, but he never received a response.

Now living in Phoenix with his wife, three children and several family members in small, house with a bare dirt yard near an interstate, Aidan said he had exhausted his settlement funds. He now gets by on Social Security disability payments of about $600 a month. Medicaid covers his medical bills.

"When my check arrives, three minutes later I have no money," said Aidan, 28, a burly, broad chested man whose eye sockets are angry red holes in his face. "Is this the way they treat people who served in the U.S. military? If I were an American soldier, would I be treated like this?"

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