|Photo by Ron Nobu Sakamoto|
Basir “Steve” Ahmed was returning from a bomb-clearing mission in Khogyani district in northeastern Afghanistan when a suicide bomber blew up an explosive-filled vehicle nearby. The blast flipped the military armored truck Ahmed was riding in three or four times, and filled it with smoke. The Afghan translator had been accompanying the 927th Engineer Company near the Pakistan border on that October day in 2008 that would forever change his life.
“I saw the gunner come out and I followed him. The U.S. Army soldiers helped pull me out, but I got burns,” says Ahmed, who had worked as a contract translator with U.S. troops for almost four years. “The last thing I remember was the “dub-dub-dub” of a Chinook helicopter.” A medical evacuation team took the injured men to a U.S. Army hospital at Bagram Base.
Three days later Ahmed regained consciousness, but was suffering from the shrapnel wounds in his scalp and the severe burns covering his right hand and leg.
A little more than three months after his accident, Ahmed was fired by his employer, Mission Essential Personnel (MEP) of Columbus, Ohio, the largest supplier of translators to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. In a statement released to CorpWatch, the company said that Ahmed’s “military point of contact (POC) informed MEP that Basir was frequently late and did not show up on several occasions. A few days later, Basir's POC called MEP’s manager and told her that they were not able to use him and requested a new linguist.”
Ahmed says he missed only one day of work and arrived late twice.
Today, he lives in hiding in nearby Jalalabad for fear that his family will be targeted because he had worked with the U.S. military. The 29-year-old has no job and had to wait nine months for disability compensation to pay for medical treatment for the burns that still prevent him from lifting his hand to his mouth to feed himself.
Ahmed is one of dozens of local Afghans who have been abandoned or poorly treated by a complex web of U.S. contractors, their insurance companies, and their military counterparts despite years of service risking life and limb to help the U.S. military in the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The company they work for has become one of the largest employers of translators in the country.
Mission Essential Personnel
In the wake of the U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, Pentagon contracts for translators to support U.S. troops hastily ballooned from one contract for 30 translators in Kuwait in 1999, to arrangements for thousands of contractors spanning several countries today. The recruitment and management of these translators was initially handled by San Diego-based Titan, now a subsidiary of New York-based L-3 Communications, one of the top ten U.S. military contractors. (See also “Outsourcing Intelligence in Iraq: A CorpWatch Report on L-3/Titan, Updated December 2008 with Recommendations from Amnesty International.”)
By 2006, Titan came under fire from the Pentagon for providing the military with fewer than half of the number of translators specified under its contract. Soldiers also commonly complained that the Titan translators, on whom they relied to communicate with Afghans and Iraqis, had very poor language skills.
When Titan’s original contract expired in 2004, the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) put it up for competitive bid. In September 2007 INSCOM awarded a five-year contract worth up to $414 million to provide 1,691 translators in Afghanistan to Aegis Mission Essential Personnel, a start-up company created by Chad Monnin, a U.S. Army Special Forces reservist who was injured in a parachute accident, and two of his colleagues.
MEP had two advantages over other businesses in competing for federal contracts: First, with revenue of less than $6 million and under 500 employees it qualified for preferential treatment as a “small business”; and second, under the Veterans Benefit Act of 2003, Monnin qualified to apply for certain federal contracts set aside to help disabled military veterans.
MEP (the company dropped Aegis from its name shortly after winning the contract to avoid confusion with a controversial British private security company) promised to provide the military with more, as well as better, translators.
Most of the Titan translators transferred to MEP under new contracts, but quickly discovered that their working conditions had taken a turn for the worse. Samim, a Pashtun translator from eastern Afghanistan who had worked for both Titan and MEP, says that MEP immediately cut salaries of the local translators to save money. A Titan translator who had spent two years with the company could expect $1,050 a month, but MEP slashed this to $900 or less. New employees who do not travel with the troops make just $650 a month.
“MEP cannot comment on Titan Corporation’s practices," said company spokesperson Sean Rushton. "This is a different contract with different pay scales.” He noted that translators who did “more difficult, more strenuous, and more dangerous jobs” were compensated at a higher rate. “When MEP took over the Afghanistan language contract, it overhauled the method by which LNLs (local nationals) were paid, improving it substantially … even while the number of contractors using it has doubled. The previous company’s payroll system was slow and inconsistent, and had a high error rate.”
But former MEP translators noted that the higher salaries for more dangerous work were still lower than Titan’s rate. “I think they don’t really care that we are the people who work hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. armed forces," said Samim, who asked that his full name be withheld for personal safety reasons. "They sacrifice their precious lives but [MEP] doesn’t care that they [the translators] are targeted. They may work for one year, but they will be targeted for the rest of their lives by the insurgents, the terrorists and the bad guys.”
For most of the thousands of translators who now work for MEP in Afghanistan, even the lower salaries were better than no job at all, so most accepted the new contracts. (Several Afghan translators told CorpWatch that no one got paper contracts. MEP said the lack of written agreements was to protect the local hires who are not allowed to carry any documents that link them to the U.S. military.)
And like Ahmed, Samim found little job security. In July 2008, an MEP site manager fired him “for starting a fight with another linguist,” according to a company statement released to CorpWatch. “During the fight, he used disparaging words regarding religion which damaged team morale.”
Samim says that he was not even present at the time of the alleged incident and that the site managers confused him with a different translator. After four years on the job, he was told to leave the base in Kunar overnight “as if I was Taliban.” Samim remains bitter. “I have saved many American lives. People even call me 'Son of Bush, infidel,' ” he said. “But MEP treats us like trash. They treat us like criminals.”
Samim appealed his case to MEP’s director of human resources, but no avail.
That kind of treatment lost MEP a skilled employee. Samim quickly found new work with DynCorp, a U.S. company with a police training contract, that valued his experience working in the field with U.S. troops in places such as the Korangal Valley in Kunar province, sometimes called the "Valley of Death." Before long, Samim was making more money than he had at MEP, and being courted by international agencies including the European Police mission in Afghanistan. Today he works for NATO in Logar Province.
“I trust him with my life”
At a table inside a safe house in Kabul, Basir Ahmed placed dozens of photos, certificates of appreciation, and letters of recommendation from the U.S. military units he had worked with between 2005 and 2009. Some pictures showed him in Nuristan wearing T-shirts and wraparound sunglasses and sitting next to the sandbags and concrete barriers. In others, he stood in camouflage gear in the depths of winter next to a snowman that looked as if it had been airlifted from a backyard in the U.S. Mid-West.
Commanding Officer J.W. Bierman, of the First Battalion, Third Marines, described Ahmed in a May 15, 2006 letter of recommendation as a “hard working and dedicated individual whose services I would actively seek in the future.”
Sergeant David R. Head and First Lieutenant Candace N. Mathis of the Provincial Reconstruction Team at Task Force Spartan at the Kamdesh base wrote on December 22, 2006 that: “his performance was superb and very professional. His skills as an interpreter were nothing less than stellar. Basir [Ahmed]…. has displayed a level of integrity, responsibility and dedication far superior to that in other interpreters whom I have worked with. He works well as a linguist, and is always punctual.”
On May 11, 2008, Ahmed received a certificate of appreciation from Lieutenant Colonel Anthony O. Wright of the 70th Engineer Battalion (Kodiaks) for his help as an interpreter during the road-clearing program from 2006 to 2008.
It was just five months later, on a similar patrol with the 927th Engineer Company, that Ahmed was injured. At the Bagram Base, the military doctors did some skin grafts, but after about 11 days, sent him to an Afghan military hospital in Kabul. The military hospital said it had no room, and sent him to a Red Cross hospital where he was given some medicines and, after two days, sent home. For two to three months he could not sleep properly, scaring his family when he woke up yelling.
Then Gabby Nelson—the MEP site manager—summoned Ahmed back to Jalalabad, where she had the military doctors look at him again. For about 15 days, they treated the burns. He had to report to the gate of the base at 7 a.m. in the middle of winter for Nelson to drive him to the hospital one kilometer away—too far to walk with his injuries. She was often an hour late, he said, a painful and cold delay, but when he asked her to be more punctual, she said she would stop picking him up. He stopped going to the hospital.
Two weeks later Ahmed says Nelson asked him to report for a 12-hour shift starting at 6 a.m. despite the doctors' recommendation for a month’s rest. After working for the full month, he received $578, significantly less than the $845 that he normally earned.
Then as luck would have it, he says, he missed work once and was late twice, because of delays on the road to the base, where the Afghan and U.S. forces often tied up traffic with their maneuvers, he explained. Nelson told him to turn in his badge. He tried to appeal to the military, but they said they couldn’t help him, so he left the base on January 24, 2009.
CorpWatch attempted to reach out to several soldiers who worked with Ahmed, and one confirmed the certificates of appreciation and recommendations about his punctuality and the quality of his work. “He did his job diligently and willingly. He served with us during the most uncomfortable times, but never complained,” said the soldier, who asked to remain anonymous.
Rushton says that the company did the best it could to help Basir “Steve” Ahmed with his medical needs. “A desire to improve treatment of linguists is what began our company,” said the spokesman.
Rushton and MEP’s senior management said that they were pained to hear that Basir was upset at being “let go.”
“Anyone reading an account of a translator who was simply let go by a company after being wounded would of course be outraged at the company, but that not only isn't true in this instance, exactly the opposite is the case,” the company said in a statement released to CorpWatch.
“We have financial records showing seven disability and salary payments between his injury and the final settlement. It has been said Basir [Ahmed] received insufficient medical care, yet MEP employees not only ensured his medical coverage, they regularly took him to his treatment and got him into a U.S. military hospital,” the company stated.
“It has been suggested Basir waited endlessly for his disability settlement, yet the funds arrived within six weeks of his rehabilitation’s conclusion. It has been suggested MEP forced Basir to return to work when he was still recuperating, yet MEP had no financial incentive to do so and in fact, at Basir’s request, MEP got him onto accommodated duty, free of physical hardship. It has been suggested MEP cut Basir loose after he was dismissed by his military supervisor, yet MEP was and is anxious to help Basir, including by considering him for a new job.”
Reached by phone for his response to MEP’s statement, Ahmed says that he still feels his employer and the military abandoned him. But he was not completely forgotten. About two months after leaving his job, he started receiving death threats. “Believe me, my family is too scared. One day I saw a night letter from the Taliban. They put it in our door: 'You three brothers work for the U.S. Army. Quit your job. Otherwise we are going to kill your whole family,'” he told CorpWatch. Although, like many of his colleagues, Ahmed had kept his employment a secret from his neighbors, he believes that the injuries provided a clue about the true nature of his occupation to Taliban sympathizers in the community.
Asked about MEP’s treatment of injured translators, MyRon Young, the public affairs officer for INSCOM at Fort Belvoir in Virginia emailed CorpWatch: “INSCOM does not have direct oversight of MEP's employees, as this contract is not a Personal Service Contract. Consequently, MEP's contractual obligations to its employees reside outside the direct Government's purview. However, MEP is expected to adhere to all Federal and State regulations in accordance with the terms of the contract.”
Mission Essential Personnel says that the company does its best to treat its Afghan personnel well. “We work hard to make sure they’re treated fairly and get every consideration a U.S. hire would get, a priority that comes straight from the company’s founders [who are] Army veterans trained in linguistics who believed they could improve the quality of services contracting to the U.S. government and offer a better environment to employees and contractors,” said company spokesperson Rushton.
MEP says that the military is very satisfied with its work, noting that it has received three back-to-back ratings of outstanding (the highest) since it started work just under two years ago. Today the company says it provides 97 percent of the translators requested by the military, compared to Titan, which only filled 41 percent of its quota.
Killed in Action
Basir Ahmed is wounded and unemployed, but he is still alive. Others have fared worse. Some 24 MEP linguists have been killed and 56 injured since the company started work in Afghanistan less than two years ago.
One such translator was 23-year-old Murtaza “Jimmy” Farukhi, who died on September 9, 2008, while on patrol with the U.S. Marine Corps.
A Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, Farukhi’s family fled their village in the 1980s after Russian jets destroyed their home during the Soviet occupation. They moved to Kabul and then, when the Taliban came to power, to Peshawar in Pakistan. When the U.S. defeated the Taliban, the Farukhi family moved to the Azaadi neighborhood just outside central Kabul.
Farukhi's father, Alam Shah, and his two younger brothers, Akbar and Kabir, said that their sibling had taken a job with Titan in 2003, because his father was sick and the family needed the money.
“He was my best friend,” Akbar, his 19-year-old brother, recalled. “He was very loving, kind, never hurt anyone. We would go to school together. He helped me when I got into fights, preventing me from getting into quarrels with other people.”
Once he started working, Murtaza Farukhi was sometimes away for three to four months at a time. His family arranged for him to marry a distant cousin who was an orphan, and in May 2008 the couple had a daughter they named Najma.
On September 8, 2008, Farukhi had a premonition that something bad would happen. His wife urged him not to go to work, but he said that she should not worry as he had been through similar incidents before. He gave his brother Akbar $50 to fix the household computer. The last Akbar Farukhi heard from his older brother was a text message checking whether the repair had been done.
The following day, Murtaza Farukhi was killed in Nijrab, Kapisa province when a roadside bomb struck the Humvee that he was riding, also killing Lieutenant Nicholas Madrazo and Captain Jessi Melton of the U.S. Marines, and Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Eichmann Strickland.
In late September Akbar Farukhi and his father were invited to Camp Phoenix to meet MEP staff. They filled out the paperwork and were given $10,000 in compensation, approximately a year's salary. The family says it is still waiting for a second installment of promised compensation.
“It is always a tragedy when one of ours is hurt or killed in the line of duty, and we regard our fallen colleagues as heroes. There are numerous examples of the MEP staff going well beyond what is required to help injured LNLs (local nationals) and their families,” says MEP’s Rushton.
Not Enough Compensation
Ahmed, too, had to wait for compensation. In early July 2009, nine months after he was injured, he got his check for $10,000.
Samim is also dissatisfied with the system. “God forgive them, but there are many interpreters who have been killed but [their families] haven’t been compensated. Even if they did get any compensation, they got it after long arguments,” says Samim, who has been keeping an informal list of killed and injured MEP translators. He ticks some them off from memory: “There was Hamid who was killed in Nuristan. Emran was killed in the Devangal Valley in Kunar Province, and another in Paktia,” he says.
MEP says that the company voluntarily provides a one-year salary (roughly $10,000) to the immediate families of its killed Afghan translators, but that disability and life insurance is provided by a separate company under the requirements of the Defense Base Act of 1941. “As a result, MEP cannot comment on actual settlements with individual families,” says Rushton. “MEP is not involved in the monetary transaction between the insurance provider and family and/or injured linguist.”
Likewise the company says it is not directly or indirectly involved in medical decisions regarding long-term care, medications or hospitalization of injured translators. “MEP would like LNLs to receive the maximum benefits, but the company is not directly or indirectly involved in making medical decisions regarding long-term care, medications, or hospitalization,” says Rushton. “These are decisions the insurance providers make in conjunction with attending physicians or medical support.”
Samim says that even the full $10,000 death compensation (provided by Zurich Financial Services) hardly compensates for the loss of a working member of a family, or for the threat of future recrimination by the Taliban. “It’s exactly not enough. If it’s not for the rest of their lives, [the compensation] should be for almost 10, 20 or 40 years. Or get [the threatened family members] out of here, give them special immigrant visas to go to the United States,” said Samim.
Murtaza Farukhi had just been accepted into such a visa program when he was killed. With his death, his family’s chances of emigration may have evaporated. (MEP told CorpWatch that Farukhi’s spouse and minor, unmarried children might still be eligible for such a visa, but the ultimate decision would be made by the U.S. Department of State.)
But emigration can be a long and complicated process that would ultimately only serve to take the mother and child away from the rest of the close-knit Farukhi family, which is now without its only bread winner.
There was only one guaranteed path for the family to stay together and support the widow and her orphan daughter. So on September 21, 2008, immediately after Akbar Farukhi picked up the check for the death of his brother, the 18-year-old walked across Camp Phoenix to register with MEP to take his brother’s place. He did this so that he could get a basic $650 monthly salary to take care of his brother, his father, his widowed sister-in-law and Najma, Farukhi’s three-month-old daughter.
Pratap Chatterjee can reached at pchatterjee [at] igc [dot] org.