As U.S. soldiers advanced on Baghdad in March 2003, Mazin al Nashi was in a Titan Corp. conference room in Fairfax, Va., preparing for his own deployment.
At 50, the Iraqi-born La Mesa resident was too old for the military. But he was fluent in Arabic, French and English, a valuable skill to the San Diego defense contractor as it scoured the nation and beyond for translators willing to help the war effort.
Nashi was more than willing. He felt a duty to serve his adopted country.
"When President Bush said, 'You are either with us or against us,' I wanted to serve because I knew for sure that I could help," Nashi said recently.
He quit his job as a private security guard to join Titan as a translator, a job that would pay more than $70,000 a year. By April 2003, he was on the ground in Iraq.
Seven months later he was back home, a victim of a friendly-fire accident that he said left him blind and in constant pain.
Nashi said going to work for Titan was the biggest mistake of his life.
He said Titan neglected him from the time he set foot in Iraq and has fought him over medical costs and disability payments since his return home.
"Titan did not treat me with respect," he said.
Company spokesman Wil Williams confirmed that Nashi worked for Titan in Iraq but declined to elaborate. Likewise, Army representatives declined to comment on specifics regarding Nashi's claims.
The U.S. Department of Labor, which is involved in Nashi's disability claim, confirmed the accident and said Nashi was wounded by a piece of shrapnel.
Nashi's tenure with Titan started full of promise. A March 27, 2003, welcome letter from the company began, "We are most impressed by your capabilities and past performance and are delighted to consider you part of our growing team."
In Fairfax, he passed the language tests and was told that his diabetes would be no problem in Iraq because he would have ready access to needed medication. He said he also was told that he would be housed, fed and supervised by a site manager throughout his time there.
But he said that after landing in Kuwait he was put on a bus, without Army escort, on its way to Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run prison 300 miles south of Baghdad. He said he was dropped off at the prison and, from that point on, essentially left to fend for himself.
"I was thinking we would have a building to live and work in, cold water, a generator," Nashi said. "We had nothing. Titan made absolutely no arrangements."
Titan officials say many linguists from the United States have been taken aback by the austere conditions in Iraq. The company even mentions in employment ads that linguists work in harsh environments.
Nashi said that at first he couldn't even get a tent. The U.S. soldiers, whom he said were often jealous of civilians who make far more money, told him they didn't have a tent for him. He said he ended up sleeping in a tent provided by the British army.
His worries escalated when he learned that the fledgling Iraqi insurgency had put a $250,000 bounty on the heads of interpreters. He had never received any body armor from Titan.
"I couldn't go out on the streets," he said. "I would have been killed."
As Nashi's months in Iraq went by, his wife grew increasingly worried about his situation. She said she called Titan repeatedly, but that no one responded. Eventually, she turned to the San Diego office of the Red Cross.
Layla al Nashi's call was answered by Fabrizio Casini, the San Diego chapter's Armed Forces Emergency Services call-center coordinator. He still remembers details from her initial call Aug. 11, 2003.
"She was in tears. She was desperate for help," Casini recalled. "She was afraid that he was dead."
The Red Cross was able to get her message to her husband within a week. On Aug. 16, the couple spoke, but it was only for two minutes because the phone kept cutting out.
Over the next three days, Mazin al Nashi's situation got worse.
He said that on Aug. 19, he was riding in a Humvee with a group of soldiers from the 400th Military Police Battalion when a soldier accidentally fired his weapon. He said the bullet ricocheted inside the vehicle and hit him on the side of his helmet.
"It felt like a big hammer had hit me on the head," Nashi said.
Another bullet punctured the Humvee's gas tank, and everyone began a mad dash out of the vehicle, fearing that it would explode, Nashi said. In the confusion, he was hit with the butt of a rifle and knocked unconscious.
He was alone in the Humvee until a soldier dragged him to safety. But because he was a civilian, the MPs didn't know what to do with him. So they took him back to his tent at the jail.
"I was crying. The pain was terrible," Nashi said.
He said that a few hours later, a Titan official came to his tent and took him to the Army hospital at the Baghdad airport. But he said no tests were done and that he received no treatment other than pain relievers.
Then, at 4:45 that afternoon, the United Nations compound in Baghdad was bombed in one of the first major blows by the insurgency in Iraq. The hospital was suddenly overrun with patients in more critical condition than Nashi, so he was discharged. The Titan official took him back to his tent at the Army base at the airport and left, Nashi said.
For three days he lay alone in his tent, slipping in and out of consciousness, he said.
Despite his injuries, Nashi said, he decided to return to work because it seemed safer than remaining alone and semiconscious in his tent. But he said his eyesight deteriorated over the next two months to the point where he could no longer walk without assistance.
He begged his Army handlers to send him to Kuwait, which they eventually did. From Kuwait he was sent to the Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
William Black, an American working in Germany at the time, said he took Nashi under his wing after finding the forlorn translator sitting alone at the hospital.
"I remember him; he was kind of an odd duck," Black said in a telephone interview from his home in Germany. Nashi was spending 18 hours a day in a bunk at Ramstein Air Force Base and apparently trying without success to get medical treatment at Landstuhl.
Black, a former Marine Corps officer, had just started a volunteer effort to help wounded warriors who were hospitalized at Landstuhl. He included Nashi in one of the first trips he organized, which included dinner at a local restaurant and a tour of a famous German castle.
During the dinner, Nashi said his blurry vision was suddenly getting worse.
Alarmed, Black quickly ended the dinner and returned Nashi to the emergency room at Landstuhl. He said he also tried to get someone from Titan to help.
"We contacted Titan four or five times, and they just gaffed off," Black said. "They didn't care."
On Nov. 25, 2003, just over six months after an excited Nashi had hugged his wife and boarded a plane to Fairfax, he was back at Lindbergh Field in a wheelchair.
In addition to his blindness, Nashi said he has strokelike symptoms on the right side of his body. He said he experiences pain in his neck so severe that he cannot stand up straight for any length of time. He said he rarely sleeps through the night.
He is receiving disability payments though AIG, Titan's insurance carrier, but said the payments are hundreds of dollars less a month than he is due. He has also spent thousands on medical care that he said Titan should pay.
The former security guard now spends most of his days sitting at home. Every Wednesday, he attends life-skills classes at the San Diego Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired.
"He is an American citizen. He went to serve his country," Layla al Nashi said, crying. "What we created for our life is going down the drain."
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