An Iraqi hero awaits thanks

Disabled military translator feels forgotten after move to the U.S.

August 04, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun reporter

Three years ago in Iraq, Saad Ahmed was hailed by Americans as a hero after he extinguished a fire in a Humvee with five U.S. Army soldiers inside. Unfortunately, the danger for Ahmed did not end then.

A year ago, the 33-year-old Iraqi nearly died working as a translator for the U.S. military. A roadside bomb mangled both his legs at the knee, scorched his left hand, damaged nerves in his eyes and boggled his memory. For weeks afterward, he floated in a coma-like state.

$5,000 payment and no further coverage, he said. (AIG, based in New York, says it cannot comment on specific cases but strives to handle all cases fairly and efficiently.)

Nhiel recently began teaching Arabic part time but says he feels betrayed.

"We were there helping when they needed us, but we didn't see help here when we needed it," he said. "If I could go back to Iraq, believe me today I will pack my bags and go back."

Insufficient payouts

Ten days after his arrival, Ahmed received a visit in Prince George's County from Barnes, the former Louisiana National Guard sergeant.

"Hey, Barnes! Hey, buddy, how are you?" Ahmed shouted with glee as the former soldier leaned down to embrace his friend. They caught up despite Ahmed's now-halting English and frequent memory lapses.

"Wish you would have made it a little sooner," Barnes said quietly after a few minutes. "Maybe this wouldn't have happened. But we got you here, that's the most important thing." Barnes has set up a MySpace page for Ahmed: www.myspace.com/helpsaad2008.

Days later, two other soldiers - Stirn and another sergeant - flew up from Tampa, Fla., for a visit. They took the Ahmeds to see the National Mall, taught Alyaa how to use the crosswalk (she'd been weaving her brother's wheelchair through traffic) and bought them dishes, a lamp and special handles and chair to help Ahmed maneuver into the bathtub.

Stirn took it upon himself to contact AIG, the insurer, after Alyaa complained she could not get through. At first the claims examiner in Texas could not find Ahmed's file because his name was misspelled. Then she said she would transfer the file from Dubai to the U.S.

That could be good news for Ahmed. Driscoll, the former benefits manager, said many wounded Iraqi translators signed meager settlements at AIG's prompting before they left the Middle East. Some signed here. One Iraqi man now living in Colorado got $13,000, and Driscoll said that sum probably will fall short of the cost of his future medical care to treat nerve damage resulting from a mortar attack.

AIG notes that it is bound by the federal Defense Base Act workers' compensation law. Under Department of Labor guidelines, even an Iraqi refugee who was gravely wounded while working for the U.S. military often must take a lump-sum payout - if a doctor concludes he or she is "permanently and totally disabled." Sometimes the sums reach well into six figures, but Driscoll criticized the payouts, based on a complex formula, as often being woefully inadequate.

Still, so long as a doctor thinks someone in Ahmed's situation has the potential for medical improvement, that individual could receive treatment and possibly a motorized wheelchair and suitable prostheses, said an AIG official, speaking generally and not about Ahmed's case.

"As long as it's prescribed by a licensed medical physician and it makes good sense, and it's usual and customary, sure, we would pay for it - whatever the device might be," said the official, who insisted on anonymity because of company policy. (Ahmed could also qualify for about $160 a week in disability pay.)

AIG's coverage would be separate from whatever benefits Ahmed might qualify for during his eight months on Medicaid. Ahmed has no idea what either program might offer him. Right now he simply wants to have his first doctor visit since arriving in Maryland and does not know why it hasn't happened by now.

One day at his apartment, Ahmed was musing aloud about a future less gloomy than his present. "I want to run again," he declared. In his imagination he had already discarded the heavy, clunky, virtually unusable legs he got in Jordan. And he had tried on a new pair, the best America has to offer.

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

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