By Edward Lee Pitts, Military Affairs
BALAD RUZ, Iraq -- Spc. Josh Mooney counted the $10, $20 and occasional $100 bills out one at a time, slapping them with the precision of a banker into the smiling Iraqi's hands.
"Congratulations, buddy," said Spc. Mooney, 21, of Crossville, Tenn., after he gave the Iraqi more than $1,000 for money confiscated but never returned during a search last year.
"Congratulations to you, too, and for me for getting married," replied the Iraqi in broken English, adding he would use the money for his nuptials next week.
This transaction was just one of many here Thursday, the day on which members of the 278th Regimental Combat Team accept and settle claims for damage caused by the Tennessee National Guard-based troops.
Capt. Leland Price, one of the regiment's judge advocate generals, said similar claims days occur in major cities throughout the 278th's sector. The regiment so far has paid about $30,000 for 34 claims averaging about $800 of U.S taxpayers' money per claim. Officers have denied 14 claims.
"We pay it trying to make the Iraqis whole when we make mistakes" said Capt. Price, of Knoxville, who is authorized to approve payments up to $15,000. "It goes a long way toward fostering good will. If we were to say, 'Tough luck,' we would be destroying that guy's livelihood."
CARS AND LIVESTOCK
Soldiers review claims for Iraqi deaths and injuries, but the most common claims involve damage to cars and livestock. Damage often occurs as a result of military vehicles traveling on narrow and poorly paved roads, said Capt. Patrick Spence, 1st Squadron's claims officer.
Claims submitted Thursday included one from a shepherd who said U.S. soldiers test firing their weapons at nearby Camp Caldwell killed eight sheep and wounded one. The going rate for a sheep here is $100.
Payments made on this day included $650 to a man for damage to his car's radiator and engine after U.S. soldiers manning a road checkpoint shot at the car when the man failed to stop in time. Another man received partial payment for injuries and damage sustained when a 278th tank hit and overturned his truck.
One of the claimants, Joseph Khald, of Balad Ruz, said Iraqis depend on their vehicles. The cost of repairs is often too high for the average person, such as a teacher, who Mr. Khald said makes just $200 for 90 days work.
"If they destroy his vehicle, it is too difficult to keep a living for his family," Mr. Khald said. "It (the payment plan) is making good friends between the people and the coalition (forces)."
Capt. Spence said payments are in cash because there is no reliable banking system in this part of Iraq. The claims are paid out as long as the damage is not a direct result of combat.
"We are not here to tear up their town, but if something occurs we will take responsibility for it," said Capt. Dale Bradley, the commander of 1st Squadron's Cleveland, Tenn.-based Apache Troop, which oversees Balad Ruz.
The claims soldiers said they have processed since taking over this area about 90 days ago include many left over from their predecessor unit, the 30th Brigade Combat Team from North Carolina.
Two men came in Thursday for claims stemming from a Dec. 19 incident when a convoy came through Balad Ruz and fired shots into the crowded market area, killing one civilian, wounding an unspecified number of others and damaging property and livestock. Col. John Zimmermann, the regiment's lead judge advocate general officer, said an investigation forwarded to the 42nd Infantry Division determined that no 278th or 30th soldiers were involved in the Dec. 19 shooting.
Capt. Price said no claims are pending regarding civilian deaths from the actions of 278th soldiers.
The road through the heart of Balad Ruz is a main supply route for U.S. forces, and Capt. Bradley's Apache Troop sometimes has to act as a highway patrol unit, policing convoys that speed through the area and put civilians in danger.
"I tell them, 'You are not going to blow through our town and make life more difficult for my soldiers here,'" said Capt. Bradley. He said the civilians at the market applauded after Apache soldiers stopped one recent high-speed convoy.
LEARNING RED TAPE
The multistep claims process gives the Iraqis a hands-on lesson in the paperwork involved in a democratic country. Civilians arrived Thursday at the mayor's building clutching legal-size folders stuffed with documents. The Iraqis are required by U.S. forces to submit pictures of the damage or injuries, a letter written in English describing what happened, and written repair estimates or medical bills.
Capt. Spence said the hardest claims to prove are the deaths of livestock because the animals usually are eaten or sold at the market within 24 hours of the incident.
Spc. Mooney and other soldiers check the documents against the patrol reports filed by commanders after every mission. They determine if U.S. soldiers actually were there when the incident occurred, and if the officer in charge made a note of it. During the investigation Spc. Mooney, the 1st Squadron's paralegal, or others may interview the soldiers involved. The investigators send a recommendation to the regiment's judge advocate general's office where final denial or approval occurs.
Sometimes the claims are outlandish or impossible to verify, soldiers said. One civilian claimed on Thursday that he owned land where Camp Caldwell now sits before Saddam Hussein's Army turned it into a military base now jointly occupied by U.S. forces and the Iraqi Army. But Capt. John King, 1st Squadron's Civil Affairs officer, said such claims may never get processed with no deeds or land maps in Iraq showing proof of ownership.
"Their boundaries are a stack of rocks," said Capt. King, 31, of Joelton, Tenn.
The claims investigators with the regiment have to be vigilant. The first Iraqi to make a claim Thursday in Balad Ruz already had been paid the maximum amount for the same claim on Monday in the nearby town of Mandila.
"If one person knows about an incident then 40 people come forward to make claims," Spc. Mooney said. "Then you get the pictures of a dead animal with the bloody rock next to it."
Capt. King said those whose claims are denied can get upset and often want to argue, responding with questions that translate into, "How have I wronged you?" or "Why is there no justice?"
One Iraqi whose claim U.S. forces denied soon returned with a lawyer.
"Unfortunately they are picking up some of our bad habits," Capt. Spence said.
Spc. Mooney and Capt. Spence said they also get their share of unusual claims.
One man on Thursday demanded the return of a rare coin collection he said turned up missing last year after U.S. soldiers searched his home. He said the disappearance of the coins started a string of hardships in his life including his wife's leaving him.
"I lost everything," he managed to say in English before letting out a deep sigh.