PAGHMAN, Afghanistan -- 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, 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, 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.
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 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 [email protected]
T. Christian Miller contributed to this report.