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Veterans Who Worked as Interpreters Say Pentagon Failed to Pay Bonuses

Members of the California National Guard stand in formation before undertaking operations on California's southern border, September 2010. (Staff Sgt. Jessica Inigo, California National Guard)
Members of the California National Guard stand in formation before undertaking operations on California's southern border, September 2010. (Staff Sgt. Jessica Inigo, California National Guard)

WASHINGTON -- When the California National Guard desperately needed interpreters to accompany troops headed to Iraq and Afghanistan, it promised enlistment bonuses of up to $20,000 each to dozens of Arabic, Dari and Pashto speakers.

The Pentagon's need for crucial language skills on the battlefield was so great that some interpreters were put in uniform even though they were too old or had health problems that might have disqualified them from military service.

That relaxing of the rules has come back to haunt them. Many of the interpreters who went to war were only partially paid their bonuses because the California Guard later decided they were unfit for the military service that they already had given.

Some say they are now unemployed, suffering from post-traumatic stress and combat injuries. Many are embittered at the California Guard, which they say broke its commitments.

"As far as I know, it's only the interpreters who didn't get paid," said Khatchig Khatchadourian, an Arabic interpreter from Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley who says the California Guard still owes him half the $20,000 bonus it agreed to pay when he enlisted in 2008. "They think we're stupid because we are immigrants."

The plight of the interpreters, known in military jargon as 09 Limas, offers a new wrinkle in the enlistment bonus scandal that has roiled the California Guard and the top levels of the Pentagon.

The Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau reported last month that the Pentagon was demanding repayment of enlistment bonuses paid to nearly 10,000 California Guard soldiers at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago.

In response to a public outcry, and at the urging of the White House, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordered a suspension of the repayment program and set up an appeals process to review the debts.

But the 09 Limas are different. Unlike soldiers who received large bonuses and were ordered to repay the money years later, the interpreters say they were never paid.

The California Guard has identified 44 interpreters who were affected by the shifts in recruitment standards or other problems, said Col. Peter Cross, a spokesman.

"The complexity arose in cases where neither the soldier nor the Guard could locate a copy of any agreement, although work was done by the soldier that likely would have given rise to a bonus payment," he wrote in an email.

Nearly half the 09 Limas deployed within the first year and then requested to go to the Inactive National Guard to work as private contractors, who normally were paid much more, Cross said.

That violated the bonus terms of their enlistment contracts, he said. To add to the confusion, soldiers serving in the same unit often enlisted under different terms and different bonus entitlements.

Enlistment bonuses for the 09 Limas also were blocked after California Guard auditors noticed that some interpreters had served in the Army even though they had failed to meet normal enlistment standards.

The translators say recruiters assured them that the 09 Lima program had eased recruitment rules so they could enlist even if they were too old or in poor physical condition or had scored too low on aptitude tests.

Before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon didn't recruit many soldiers who were fluent in Middle Eastern and South Asian languages, relying on contract interpreters instead.

But as the conflicts intensified, deploying combat units needed thousands of native speakers to communicate with Iraqis and Afghans on patrols or in meetings with local officials.

Although contractors were still widely used, the Pentagon wanted at least some interpreters in uniform who were trained as soldiers and who couldn't quit on short notice or refuse dangerous assignments.

To meet that goal, the Pentagon in 2006 ramped up the 09 Lima program. It offered special bonuses, eased enlistment standards and even accelerated U.S. citizenship applications for immigrants who agreed to join the Army.

National Guard recruiters, including California's, scoured the country for Arabic, Dari and Pashto speakers.

One of those who signed up, now a 47-year-old resident of Brentwood, near San Francisco, said the California Guard informed him in 2011 that he would not get his $10,000 bonus because he had failed an aptitude test required of all Army recruits.

Yet his low score had not stopped the Army from accepting him in 2008 and sending him to Iraq.

Like several interpreters interviewed, he asked that his name not be made public, fearing public attention would further complicate his attempts to get paid.

He was in many respects an ideal 09 Lima recruit. The son of a Libyan military officer, he was a U.S. citizen because he was born at Fort Benning, Ga., in the 1960s when his father was on a military exchange program.

The married father of three enlisted as an Arabic interpreter after losing his job in the 2008 recession. Promised a $10,000 enlistment bonus, he received half after completing boot camp but never got the rest despite his appeals, he said.

In Iraq from 2009 to 2011, he was close to bomb blasts and other combat while accompanying U.S. troops on missions, he said.

After he returned home, a Veterans Affairs doctor diagnosed him with mild traumatic brain injuries. He also needed shoulder surgery for noncombat injuries in Iraq.

When he left the Army in 2014, he gave up trying to get the bonus money. He is now in college using GI Bill benefits he is entitled to as a former soldier.

"I'm proud to have been in the service, but I don't understand why they would say you get this amount, then all of a sudden say you don't get it," he said. "I'm disappointed."

Another former interpreter, a 45-year-old resident of Glendale, was born in Iran and immigrated in 1998. He joined the Army reserves in California in 2008 after his truck business failed.

He deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 and spent six months translating for a Marine special operations unit in Shindand district near Iran. In 2010, he returned for a second tour.

"When I came back (home in 2011) I was mentally not stable," he said. "I would get drunk at 10 or 11 in the morning until I passed out."

When the Army Reserve rebuffed his claims for the unpaid half of his $20,000 enlistment bonus and for back pay he says he was owed, he contacted Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., his congressman.

Schiff's office wrote the Pentagon, which partly backed down and sent the interpreter $6,000 in back pay. He insists he is still owed the rest, but he has lost documents to support his claim.

"It's an honor to have served," he said. "But that's not enough. I have lost my hope in the whole government system."

Khatchadourian was born in Syria and grew up in Lebanon before he moved to Los Angeles with his family in 2006. He joined the California Guard two years later after finishing high school.

In return for a $20,000 bonus, he agreed to sign up for three years as an Arabic interpreter. He planned to use the money for college.

"It was mixture of serving my country, something to do (and) money," he said, recalling his motivation.

His bonus agreement, signed by Khatchadourian and his California Guard recruiter, reads, "I will receive a total bonus of $20,000 ... less taxes."

He got the first $10,000 after he finished boot camp in 2009. He expected the remainder in December 2010, his second anniversary in the Army.

He was then in Iraq with the 224th Sustainment Brigade, a California Guard support unit based in Long Beach. He says he never got the check -- or an explanation.

When he returned home in 2011, California Guard officials said they had found a problem with his enlistment contract. He would not get the second $10,000 -- and he might have to give back the first $10,000.

Khatchadourian said he later learned that auditors flagged his bonus because he had failed to initial one page of an addendum to his contract.

In October 2015, after years of appeals, he received a letter from the National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon agency that oversees state Guard organizations, ruling that he was eligible for his entire $20,000 bonus.

Khatchadourian "accepted an incentive offer in good faith and has otherwise fulfilled the obligations under the contract," it read. "Therefore, withholding payments of this incentive would be against equity, good conscience and contrary to the best interest of the military."

A year later, he is still waiting for the money.

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