AP Enterprise: Families sue after soldiers' deaths

July 12, 2011 - 2:59 PM
Afghanistan Interpreter Killings

This February 2010 photo provided by the family of Army Capt. David Johnpaul Thompson shows Army Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Russell, wounded and recovering, by the side of his friend and commander Capt. Thompson inside a C-17 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Thompson was killed and Russell wounded by interpreter Nasir Ahmad Ahmadi on their base in Afghanistan. Just a few months after Ahmadi arrived at an Army Special Forces base near Kabul, he was ordered to pack his bags and leave. The soldiers were alarmed by his strange behavior, his inability to do the job and the foul condition of his living quarters. Instead of getting ready for the next flight out, Ahmadi grabbed an AK-47 assault rifle from another interpreter’s room on the base and started shooting. (AP Photo/Thompson Family)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nasir Ahmad Ahmadi was hired to work as an interpreter alongside American troops in Afghanistan. But soldiers were alarmed by his strange behavior, his inability to do the job and the foul condition of his living quarters. They suspected he used drugs.

Just a few months after he arrived at an Army Special Forces base near Kabul, Ahmadi was ordered to pack his bags and leave. Instead of getting ready for the next flight out, Ahmadi grabbed an AK-47 assault rifle from another interpreter's room on the base and started shooting. He killed two unarmed soldiers and wounded a third.

On Monday, nearly 18 months after the January 2010 shootings, the survivor and family members of the slain soldiers filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Mission Essential Personnel, the U.S. defense contractor that hired Ahmadi as it rushed to put more interpreters to work in Afghanistan.

During the rampage at Firebase Nunez, Ahmadi killed Specialist Marc Decoteau, a 19-year-old just a few weeks into his first tour of duty, and Capt. David Johnpaul Thompson, a veteran soldier and the father of two young girls. At close range, Ahmadi shot Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Russell, hitting him in the legs. Russell survived.

An alert Army sergeant ended the rampage when he drew his pistol and killed Ahmadi, a 23-year-old native of Afghanistan who had immigrated to the United States in 2009.

In their lawsuit, filed in federal court in North Carolina, Russell and the families of Decoteau and Thompson accuse Mission Essential Personnel, based in Columbus, Ohio, of negligence and breach of contract for failing to look into Ahmadi's background and not properly testing him to ensure he was psychologically sound before giving him a job.

Mission Essential Personnel, better known as MEP, was founded in 2004 and is the U.S. government's primary supplier of linguists, with more than 8,200 personnel in Afghanistan and a dozen other countries, according to the company's website. The company had $629 million in revenue last year, up from $6.7 million in 2005.

In a statement Monday, MEP called the incident at Nunez shocking and tragic and said Ahmadi's actions were "entirely unforeseeable."

Ahmadi "was thoroughly vetted for his deployment, including medical, psychological and counter-intelligence screening, and was approved by the U.S. government to deploy to Afghanistan," the statement said. Ahmadi "exhibited no signs of mental distress nor were there any other indications he might commit this criminal act," it added. The company also said the interpreter was under the operational control of the soldiers at Nunez and no one at the base ever raised any concerns to company managers about his performance or conduct.

The company said the military has consistently rated MEP's performance as outstanding. "The big picture is clear: MEP is a good company that has grown because of its good work and commitment to supporting the troops."

MEP's interpreters in Afghanistan were not authorized to carry weapons, the military said. Another MEP interpreter at Nunez had an AK-47 in his living quarters, violating the requirements of the contract, the lawsuit said.

"Knowing that an employee of Mission Essential Personnel, who was mismanaged, came up behind Marc in a dark hallway and shot him to death, took you back to square one in your sense of loss," said Nancy Decoteau, Marc Decoteau's mother, as she recalled reading the Army's investigation of the shootings completed several months after her son died. "That was not how Marc wanted to give his life."

The families said MEP's reaction to the shootings compounded their grief. No condolence letters. No one from the company attended either funeral. No apologies. "I would have been so much more receptive to them showing up at the funeral to say, 'I'm sorry this happened,'" said Emily Thompson, David Johnpaul Thompson's widow.

The lawsuit seeks financial compensation from MEP, although it doesn't specify an amount. Judgments or settlements in wrongful death cases are difficult to predict, but can reach millions of dollars.

Mark Decoteau, Marc's father and a West Point graduate, said money isn't the objective. He said he wants to prevent tragedies for other military families.

"They're using taxpayer dollars and they are not upholding their end of the contract," he said of MEP. "They're not doing what they are supposed to do and we can't let that go on and have somebody else in our position. I just don't know what I would do if that happens again."

Even after the violence at Nunez, the Army increased MEP's contract to provide thousands of Dari and Pashto speakers by $1.2 billion as the demand for interpreters steadily increased.

Dari and Pashto are the two primary languages in Afghanistan. Without skilled linguists, U.S. forces would be unable to talk to the Afghans, gather critical intelligence or quickly translate intercepted Taliban radio traffic that could reveal plans for roadside bomb attacks or the locations of enemy leaders.

Most of the increase came in May 2010, weeks before the Army completed its investigation of the shootings at Nunez. Earlier this year, the contract was increased again by $525 million, pushing the total value to $1.98 billion, according to government documents.

Seeking to expand its choices, the Army announced last week that it had selected MEP and five other companies for a linguist services contract worth as much as $9.7 billion over the next five years. The companies will compete against each other to supply linguists for military operations around the world.

The violence at Nunez came as MEP was struggling to control its workforce in Afghanistan, according to confidential government reports written in 2009 and 2010 by U.S. officers in Afghanistan responsible for the day-to-day monitoring of MEP's handling of the contract. The records, obtained by The Associated Press, describe breakdowns in management and mirror the lawsuit's claim that Ahmadi and other MEP employees were not closely supervised.

The Army Intelligence and Security Command awarded MEP the contract in September 2007. According to the contract terms, MEP would recruit qualified linguists, ensure they were medically and psychologically fit, perform security reviews, get them to Afghanistan and manage them while they were there. Interpreters were expected to live and work in harsh and hostile environments.

The records show MEP didn't know where all of its interpreters were, what units they were assigned to and whether they were even showing up for work. "MEP's inability to track their linguists continues to be a problem," according to one of the military reports from late 2009. "Despite MEP's acknowledgment of this issue little has been done to correct the problem."

The trouble continued into 2010. "MEP's linguist accountability completely collapsed ... following months of deterioration," another military report said.

MEP told the AP that it provides daily reports to the military that track all its linguists on the ground, in transit and on leave. The company has never been informed by the military of any problems with linguist accountability, it said.