During combat in Iraq, as in any war zone, property is damaged and innocent civilians are sometimes caught in the crossfire. Once the gunfire has quieted and the dust has settled, members of a unit of the U.S. military known as Civil Affairs come in and try to make restitution for accidental damage and death. But just who is responsible for the destruction — or whether the claims are even real — is not always an easy call, as reporter Adam Allington discovered during his time with U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
At a desolate Iraqi Police Station on the outskirts of Ramadi, three U.S. Army Civil Affairs soldiers set up a laptop in a cold, dusty room. A line of people forms outside.
The soldiers review compensation claims from Iraqi civilians against coalition forces. The stories of destruction and loss may be true, but Sergeant First Class Michael Blanford says arriving at any concrete fact is often a Byzantine and frustrating experience. In a typical exchange, he's told that a young man is 16, born in 1988. He checks the man's documentation, pointing out "Well, on here it says he's born in 1969." That observation leads to more discussion to determine the actual date of birth.
"I'm looking for those core things so that I can go back into military records and go 'OK, did this actually occur?'" Blanford explains. "Most of the time you're going to get your basic information of who they are, and you'll get like a short paragraph of 'The U.S. forces drove a tank over my front yard and knocked down my wall' and that'll be it. It won't have a date, it will not be a clear package, 90 percent of the time." It's up to Blanford's team and a translator to piece these stories together.
Blanford says the payments aren't an admission of guilt. In most cases it's just something to help a bad situation. "A door would be worth like $50. If the coalition came in and searched this and kicked this door in, we'd reimburse them $50 to replace that door," he says. "I think a cow is like $300 and then the sheep were like anywhere under $100."
Cows and sheep are one thing, but the hardest cases these soldiers deal with involve human lives… and they make up the vast majority of claims. "The maximum paid [for someone's death] is $2500, so that's what it would be for a death… it would be the maximum is $2500."
Today's claims include killed livestock, a cracked window; one man even said the U.S. Army had taken his rocks. But the most perplexing were the deaths. Almost no one could provide even the most basic information, such as dates or cause of death.
"A typical situation, we get a lot of… the majority of them are deaths," says Staff Sergeant Joseph Miller, another Army Civil Affairs officer. "Family members have been shot by coalition forces or insurgents and they're looking for money out of that."
Miller says there's often confusion about what kinds of death merit compensation. "Most of them are denied. If anything occurs by insurgents, that's not something we can control, that's not something we pay for."
That was the case for a widow who came seeking restitution. The translator explains, "Her husband was working for the Americans, he's driving a tanker vehicle and then at that time the insurgents just kill him because he is working for Americans and she is claiming now, she says, she got the little son here and they have nothing to provide for their food." Blanford is firm, "Well, we can't pay for what the insurgents did."
Blanford says people will often take claims from one review board to the next, trying to double-dip compensation payments. He says despite the fact that he knows many people are trying to 'game' the system… he thinks the same thing would happen in most poor American cities too. "You know, if there were someone who would pull up on the east side of St. Louis, and start giving out money for situations that happened, you would have a lot of people that would come in there and try to get some kind of funds. They would try to figure out what the system is and how to actually maneuver through that system to get to their ends."
Staff Sergeant Miller has been in Ramadi a little less than one month, but already, he's become a bit cynical. "The first couple [of claims] I had to deal with were, I mean, they were tough. It was pretty sobering to listen to these stories. After that you realize that some of these people have, you know, made up the story, so, a lot of what we get is just bogus claims. But, I guess it goes back to, there's always a cost to war and for them this is their cost."
According to the most recent figures from the General Accounting Office, the U.S. military has paid over $30 million in compensation payments in Iraq and Afghanistan.