This article belongs to Shooter's War column.
TAJI, Iraq—My husband is dead, the woman explained through an interpretor. She was covered from head to toe in black burka. Only her eyes showed through.
Her husband killed, she said, by an accident with a US Convoy. This woman, and many others pass through the halls of the Government Information Center (GIC) at Camp Taji, North of Baghdad. Various US bases have GICs. Usually, they deal only with the Iraqis in their area of operations.
These centers offer answers to the Iraqi people for such things as information about detainees, if the Coalition Forces have them, etc. And if damages have occurred to an Iraqis' property in combat or not, the GIC has offices that allow them to file paperwork that may allow them some compensation or condolence pay, depending on the circumstances of the individual incident.
Sgt. 1st Class Rickey George, 50, is the Non Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of Taji's GIC. Everyday, he meets the Iraqi people that come into his office, which is outside the wire of Camp Taji.
"It's interesting," George said of his job. "Sometimes it's very trying."
Often, George has to deal with very unhappy people, who are crying over the deaths of their family members, or upset about the destruction of their houses. Sometimes, the people are obviously trying to scam the US Government for money.
George does not have to investigate the claims. Other soldiers spend time on that project and carefully look into matters before paying out any money. Over $600,000 has been paid out of his office in the last six months to the Iraqi people.
Capt. Tom Calhoun-Lopez deals with issues such as the destruction of property by US forces in non-combat situations in his office. For instance, if a tank backed up into a house or a convoy accidentally bumps into an Iraqi car, Calhoun-Lopez meets with the Iraqi and reviews their claim.
In the GIC, the Iraqis have taken to calling Calhoun-Lopez "The Judge." Of course, that is in Arabic. He is a lawyer who works in Legal Services with the US Army. Once a week he meets with the Iraqis. The rest of the week, he attends to various legal jobs relating to the 1st Calvary, 1st Brigade whom he serves with.
The money that Calhoun-Lopez dispenses comes from Foreign Claims Act.
Enacted in 1942, the Foreign Claims Act, ( -2736), or FCA, is a that outlines compensation to inhabitants of foreign countries for personal injury, death, or property damage caused by, or incident to non-combat activities of United States personnel overseas.
Throughout the morning that I observed Calhoun-Lopez working he apologized to every Iraqi for the incident that they claimed occurred.
"I am very sorry for . . .," was repeated again and again. Calhoun-Lopez appeared sincere each time.
For incidents that involve combat related property destruction, injuries or deaths, Calhoun-Lopez refers the Iraqis to the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) office where the matter can be investigated.
In the event of a death, the term used is "condolence payment" and it is not to be confused as a form of compensation.
"We cannot compensate for deaths," said Maj. Steve Espinoza, the Brigade Civil Affairs officer. In the event of a death, he said, it was unavoidable and the condolence pay is something to help, but not compensate.
Throughout the day, Calhoun-Lopez also talked with Iraqis about their detained, missing, and wounded family members in his office. Another team of soldiers were present, getting ready to take over the job when Calhoun-Lopez leaves Iraq.
In many situations, soldiers give a receipt to an Iraqi after the damages occur so that they can present that as proof at the GIC. Usually the from is written in Arabic by the interpretors traveling with the given military unit.
In cases of fraud, I was told, the GIC office will receive a several xeroxed receipts of the same claim.
The first case of the morning reviewed by Calhoun-Lopez the day I was present involved damages to some electric wires and an irrigation canal from explosions.
Calhoun-Lopez asked a series of carefully worded questions through an interpretor. He needed to know about the explosions to make sure that they are not combat related.
"Thank god they told us that the explosions were going to happen," the Iraqi man said through the interpretor.
"We can only pay for non-combat damages," Calhoun-Lopez told the man. The soldiers that wrote the receipt would be contacted and once that was verified, the claim could be processed, depending on what was said.
The second Iraqi to visit the office was accompanied by a Major in the US Army. The Iraqi was part of the Iraqi Army. He came in on behalf of a family member who he claimed had their house destroyed by the US Army.
They had left the house, he said, and it was possibly used by Iraqi insurgents.
Sgt 1st Class Howell, who over looks the disbursement of money to the Iraqis said that he has seen "fifty of these types of cases."
A third soldier, Staff Sgt. Price, investigates the claims by contacting the soldiers that wrote the receipts for damage, or in the case of no receipt, attempts to locate the soldiers by the area and date that the incident took place.
Calhoun-Lopez told the Iraqi soldier that he is limited to the amount of money that can be paid out—it will be much less than the price of the house he was asking for. The Iraqi says that is OK. Something, he said, is better than nothing.
The next case involves a truck hit by an IED. The owner of the trailer the truck was towing was looking for it. The information he had was that the US Army has trailer. The driver was medivac from the scene after the explosion.
After a few minutes of discussion, Calhoun-Lopez and the other soldiers tell him they do not know where the trailer is—it is not visible in the lot it would have been taken to, and they ask him to contact the office via cellphone later.
Most cases can be resolved in less than two weeks.
Some people have been awarded payments, but did not come back—maybe they are dead, a Staff Sgt. tells me.
The GIC has paid out over $600,000 from the FCA funds in 138 cases over six months, 281 cases were referred to CERP and 94 were still pending.
Sgt. 1st Class George sat in on claims session the day I was there. He arrived in Iraq in April and wanted to make sure he has a good idea of the process to better help the Iraqis that come to his office. He also added information as needed for Calhoun-Lopez to understand the various claims.
The next visitor, George said, the Iraqi claims "You gave him the money, but it was the wrong amount."
"We've heard that before," laughed one of the soldiers.
An Iraqi man, probably in his 20s entered with his father. He said he was traveling at night, when he stopped at an Iraqi Army check point. At the check point his headlights stopped working. He says the Iraqi Army searched his car, found his money and confiscated it. He had a receipt. There was a problem with the amount of money recorded on it. An American soldier filled out the form and the amounts were confused from Iraqi Dinars to US Dollars. The man claimed to be carrying a large amount of money—somewhere in the thousands of dollars, which would be the equivalent to a years average pay of an Iraqi.
Calhoun-Lopez tells the man he is sorry for his troubles and asks him to call back next week after he talks to the soldier that filled out the receipt.
The next case a Sheik enters with another man. The Sheik is wearing a headdress and brown suit over which he has a lacy cloak.
The Sheik starts off talking about his family history. He said that his family was not allowed to go to school. They were not supporters of Saddam Hussein, he said and his father worked with Americans.
The other man said he was a US citizen and showed his blue passport. The Sheik said he was missing his brother and that US forces were detaining him. He said that certain Iraqis that do not like his brother and falsely reported him as an insurgent—but his brother was definitely not an insurgent in any capacity.
While the Sheik waited, a message was sent up the chain of command and someone was on their way down to talk to the Sheik. They were also going to check the Sheik out to make sure that he was not involved in the insurgency. The Sheik was still waiting when I left for lunch.
For the next visitor, George asked the interpretor to go out and talk to the waiting Iraqi couple.
"See if you can get the real deal," George said. "That way, we know what we are doing when they get in here."
In walked a very pleasant Iraqi couple. A man, woman and small baby girl.
The man said he rented his house to the US military to use at a check point. He said he was paid for that, but when he came back the house, it was destroyed.
He said he has six children but no place to live, now.
"I work as a cab driver," he said through the interpretor. "I need a place to live."
Calhoun-Lopez apologized for the troubles and accepted the mans claim. They exchange cellphone numbers so that an update can be given in the next week.
The next case an Iraqi man comes in and is referred to CERP. George said he already referred the man to talk to CERP, but he wants to hear it from "The Judge."
The case involved the man's brother. He said his brother was paralyzed from an incident with US troops. He showed pictures of a car with bullet holes. This, Calhoun-Lopez told him, makes it a CERP case.
"I've read your packet and very sorry for your loss," Calhoun-Lopez said.
After the man left, one of the soldiers told me that the Iraqis come to the GIC even if the death or damages were caused by insurgents. They know that the Americans will pay, I was told.
Of course, Calhoun-Lopez and his team spend time investigating each claim and do not sign off until they are certain that the claim is legitimate.
Just before lunch, the last case of the day is brought in. The woman was described in the beginning of this story. Covered in her black burka, with only her eyes exposed, she came alone to the office.
The woman claimed her husband was killed by US troops. Calhoun-Lopez noted that her claim was already processed and denied. He said he did not know why.
The woman had a notarized letter from an Iraqi soldier that was there when her husband died.
She said a convoy hit his vehicle and he passed away.
"Why was this denied?" she asked, sobbing. "Whatever paperwork you need I can get," she continued through the interpretor.
She said she has an infant and other children. With her husband dead, she said she has no means to survive.
"I don't believe that this was caused by an accident with an American vehicle," Calhoun-Lopez said.
"We will take a look again," Calhoun-Lopez said.
An uncomfortable silence fills the room, punctuated by the crying Iraqi woman.
They exchange cellphone numbers and the woman left the office.
Calhoun-Lopez was visibly disturbed. He looked pale and stared off into space after she left.