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Putting prices on death and destruction

Marketplace Staff Jan 11, 2008

Putting prices on death and destruction

Marketplace Staff Jan 11, 2008


TESS VIGELAND: U.S. Warplanes dropped 40,000 pounds of bombs in a matter of minutes today in an area on the outskirts of Baghdad believed to be a haven for several Al Queda groups. It’s part of a nationwide offensive that U.S. forces announced this week. The targets may be insurgents. But, inevitably, property is damaged and innocent civilians get killed. Once the gunfire stops, military officials move in to make some kind of restitution for accidental damage and death. As Adam Allington reports from Ramadi, it can be a tough call.

ADAM ALLINGTON: 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.

Joseph Miller: How old is he? He’s 16?

Translator: He’s born in 1988.

Michael Blanford: Well, on here it says he’s born in 1969.

Translator: Oh my gosh …

Blanford: I’m looking for those core things so that I can go back into military records and go “OK did this actually occur? 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. He says the payments aren’t an admission of guilt. In most cases it’s just something to help a bad situation.

Blanford: That door would be worth like $50. If the coalition came in and searched this and kicked this in, we’d reimburse them $50 to replace that door.

ALLINGTON: How much for a cow? how much for a sheep?

Blanford: I think a cow is like $300. And then the sheeps were almost 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.

ALLINGTON: How much for a human life?

Blanford: The maximum paid is $2,500, so that’s what it would be for a death. It would be the maximum is $2,500.

Of the claims that I witnessed, some included 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.

Staff Sergeant Joseph Miller also works for Army Civil Affairs.

Miller: A typical situation, we get a lot of … the majority of them are deaths. 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.

MilleR: Most of them are denied. If anything occurs by insurgents that’s not something we can control, that’s not something we pay for.

Widow (translation): Her husband was working for the Americans, he’s driving a tanker vehicle and then at that time the insurgents just like that kill him because he is working for Americans that time. And she is claiming now, she say, she got the little son here and they have nothing to provide for their food, so …

Blanford: 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 probably happen in most poor American cities too.

Blanford: You know, if there were somebody that would pull up and start giving out money for situations that have 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 only been in Ramadi just shy of one month.

The first couple I had to deal with were, I mean, they were tough. It was kind of sobering to listen to these stories. After that you realize that some of these people have made up the story. So, a lot of what we get is just… it’s bogus claims. But, I guess it goes back, I mean, 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.

In Ramadi, I’m Adam Allington for Marketplace.

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