Contractor accused of negligence in soldier deaths

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, and 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 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, based in Columbus, Ohio, and 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 said Ahmadi’s actions were “entirely unforeseeable” and said the incident at Nunez was shocking and tragic.

The company said 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.” It said Ahmadi “exhibited no signs of mental distress nor were there any other indications he might commit this criminal act.” 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, Johnpaul Thompson’s widow.

The lawsuit seeks financial compensation from MEP, although it does not 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 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.”

The Decoteaus and Emily Thompson met with Chris Taylor, MEP’s chief executive, for more than two hours Wednesday near Fort Bragg, N.C., where the soldiers were based. Brad Henry, the Boston attorney representing the families, said this was the first contact they ever had with anyone from the company. MEP agreed to the meeting under the condition the participants not publicly disclose what was said, according to Henry.

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. 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.

But the government’s dependence on the private sector makes it especially difficult to impose what critics describe as effective accountability. “The government is so reliant on contractors, particularly when it comes to translators or linguists, that when there’s a problem the government can’t do anything about it because the bottom line is they’ve got to have that contractor,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group in Washington.

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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 claims 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.

At the time, command officials estimated about 3,000 interpreters would be needed to support military operations in Afghanistan. But when troop levels swelled by the thousands to beat back a resurgent Taliban, so did the need for more Dari and Pashto-speaking interpreters, and the military counted on MEP to deliver them. By early 2010, there were more than 6,800 linguists.

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 alerted by the military to any linguist accountability problems, it said.

The oversight team’s reports were provided to the Intelligence and Security Command’s headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va. It’s unclear how military commanders responded to the reports. The Intelligence and Security Command refused to discuss MEP’s performance, saying such information is barred from release by federal acquisition regulations.

Another military report accused an MEP interpreter at a U.S. base in western Afghanistan of ties to the Taliban and said the interpreter was paying off tribal leaders and extorting money from local businessmen. MEP was rebuked for failing to be more engaged with its employees and for “sheltering negative incidents” by waiting more than one month to tell military officials what had happened, according to the report.

An unspecified number of linguists hired in the United States were caught claiming to be at work when they weren’t for months at a time — a few had even returned to the U.S. when they were supposed to be working in Afghanistan, according to another report, written in the late summer of 2010.

MEP terminated employees when they were caught. But the root of problem had not been fixed: Linguists could access their payroll time sheets from any computer in the world claim to be working. “MEP does not have in place an effective, systemic method of insuring that their U.S.-hire linguists are actually at their duty location performing the services they are being contractually paid to do,” the report said. MEP told the AP that it fired four employees in spring 2010 for entering fraudulent time entries and said those were anomalies.

There is only a passing reference to Ahmadi’s crimes from one of the reports written in early 2010. Immediately after the incident at Nunez, the Army opened a criminal investigation that kept details of the shooting under tight control.

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Ahmadi was born in southern Afghanistan in 1987, according to documents from the Army’s investigative report that included portions of Ahmadi’s employment application with MEP, his resume and other records obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Fluent in Dari and Pashto, the two primary languages in Afghanistan, he took English training while in high school in Kabul.

In 2004, he worked as an interpreter with a consulting company in Kabul. A year later, the records show, Ahmadi went to work for International Management Services, a Maine company that provides interpreters to the U.S. military, militaries from other countries and businesses. While employed by IMS, Ahmadi served with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan and volunteered to accompany the troops on combat missions in hot spots like Helmand and Kandahar, according to his resume.

In early 2009, with a recommendation from an unnamed Army general, Ahmadi earned a visa allowing him to immigrate to the U.S., according to documents. As a U.S. resident with his language skills, Ahmadi’s earning potential was 10 times greater than someone living in Afghanistan.

Ahmadi began working for MEP in August 2009, according to documents. His annual base salary of $85,000 would kick in when he deployed to Afghanistan. He was also eligible for a new hire bonus of $10,000 after 90 days, and hazardous duty and hardship pay, too. All told, Ahmadi could have made nearly $155,000 in his first year, the records show.

He arrived at Nunez in mid-September 2009, according to the lawsuit, just a few months after the Special Forces compound was set up. The base was located on a larger U.S. military installation at Sayed Abad in Wardak province, about 20 miles southwest of Kabul.

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It wasn’t long before some soldiers at Nunez determined that Ahmadi was a liability, according to witness statements included in the Army’s investigative report. Ahmadi “was a horrible combat interpreter because he was always ad-libbing and making stuff up,” an unnamed senior enlisted soldier told investigators. A verbal miscue could lead to serious problems, so they decided to keep Ahmadi on the base.

Soldiers described Ahmadi as timid, submissive and a loner. He could also be unnerving, according to witness statements. He threatened to kill a coworker with an axe. He was reading a book called “What Happens When You Die.” Rotten food, dirty dishes and rat droppings littered his living quarters.

They thought he had a drug problem. The lawsuit accused Ahmadi of using “nass,” a mix of finely cut tobacco, paint thinner and, occasionally, powdered hashish.

The lawsuit said soldiers at Nunez did not recall an MEP manager coming to the base to check on Ahmadi or the other company interpreters stationed there.

In November 2009, Ahmadi’s supervisor at MEP gave him the second highest score possible on a performance evaluation, according to employment documents included in the Army’s investigative report. But Ahmadi’s signature, required at the bottom of the evaluation form, appears substantially different from the signature he used on many other documents in the file. The supervisor’s name was removed from the document.

A handwriting expert who reviewed the documents for the AP said he could not say with certainty whether it was Ahmadi’s signature because the documents were photocopies of the originals. “There is evidence to suggest it’s not written by Ahmadi,” said Dennis Ryan, who is certified by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners. “It’s not consistent with the other signatures.”

In written responses to questions from the AP, the Intelligence and Security Command said its contracting officers have never authorized MEP’s linguists to carry weapons. It remains unclear why an MEP interpreter had an AK-47 and whether any other interpreters had weapons.

The lawsuit said MEP knew that at least some of its linguists carried weapons but did nothing about it and sought to keep that information from the military’s contracting oversight officers.

The troops at Nunez made sure Ahmadi wasn’t given a weapon, according to the lawsuit and the witness statements from the Army’s investigative report.

MEP said it did not issue Ahmadi a weapon nor did it authorize him to use one.

Chief Warrant Officer Russell, 37, remains on active duty and is still recovering from his wounds. Master Sgt. Eric Hendrix, a spokesman for U.S. Army Special Operations Command, said Russell declined the AP’s request for an interview. Henry, the attorney representing the families, said Russell had been ordered by his commanders not to speak to the AP.

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Johnpaul Thompson and Russell, close friends and members of the 3rd Special Forces Group, arrived at Nunez within a few weeks of each other in January 2010. It was Thompson’s third tour in Afghanistan, and Russell’s fourth.

Decoteau, who was 11 when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, got to Nunez the same time Thompson did. Like his father, he was an airborne soldier. Decoteau was assigned to the 4th Psychological Operations Group.

After conferring with his team and soldiers from the unit it was replacing, Thompson decided Ahmadi had to go, according to the investigative report and the lawsuit. Late in the afternoon on Jan. 29, the team’s master sergeant informed Ahmadi of the decision.

Ahmadi became angry and said he was going to call his employer. One hour later, the soldiers at Nunez heard gunfire. Many assumed it was an accidental discharge. Then more shots rang out. Soldiers scrambled to unlock their weapons and grabbed their body armor.

Decoteau, who had no role in Ahmadi’s dismissal, apparently was the first person Ahmadi came across. He was leaving his room, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and his camouflage Army-issue pants. Ahmadi fired 10 rounds into him, killing him instantly. “He was not in any way ready for what happened to him,” Mark Decoteau, his father, said.

Thompson and Russell were in the camp’s operations center when they heard the shots. They moved through the door, toward the sound of the gunfire and saw Ahmadi staring at them with an AK-47. Ahmadi fired as Russell pulled Thompson back through the door. Three bullets hit Thompson as he and Russell fell to the floor.

As Thompson lay fatally wounded, Ahmadi stepped over him and shot Russell, hitting him the left foot and right leg. One of the bullets went through his calf and into his elbow.

Before Ahmadi could fire again, Sgt. First Class Steve Kimsey, who was in the operations center, pulled his pistol and killed him.

A medevac helicopter rushed Thompson and Russell to another base where there was a surgical team. Thompson died from his wounds. He was 39.

Thousands of miles away in North Carolina, Emily Thompson had just picked up her girls from school and was driving home. As she neared the house, she saw a white van with government license plates in her driveway. When an Army colonel stepped out of the van, she said, she knew.

That was the worst moment of her life. Telling her girls their father had died was the second worst.

“I want MEP to change,” Emily Thompson said. “I don’t want soldiers to die because of their negligence. I don’t want another wife to come home from work to a van in their driveway because MEP can’t do the right thing.”

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