November 10, 2010

Soldier’s pay?

Chapook Dizayee is a hero of the War on Terror. His family is its latest victim

Chapook Dizayee can’t get a cell phone signal. It’s July 10, 2004, and the 43-year-old Kurdish military contractor is waiting for a call from his wife, Lailan, who is five months pregnant with their daughter. Technology being what it is, Chapook’s T-Mobile service can’t penetrate the walls of Fort Benning, Ga., so he paces around, anxious.

“My cell phone in the base (gets) no signal,” Chapook says. “I know she’s coming to see me, and I want to see her, too.”

Lailan’s pregnancy hasn’t been exactly smooth. She’s suffering from subchorionic hemorrhaging, in which blood collects under the placenta and can result in sporadic vaginal bleeding and possibly a miscarriage. As a result, her doctor has prohibited traveling, including the nine-hour, trans-Atlantic flight from her naturalized home of Frankfurt, Germany, to the United States.

It’s a risk she’s willing to take, as this could be the last time the married couple see each other alive. In a couple of months, Chapook will deploy to their home country of Iraq. An employee of the Titan Corporation, which specializes in linguistic support for any military willing to pay for it, Chapook will serve as an interpreter for the Marine Corps amid mounting insurgent violence in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion, which resulted in the overthrow of then-dictator Saddam Hussein alongside intense celebrations in Chapook’s hometown of Arbil.

“I say to her, ‘I’m going to do one-year contracting with the military,’” he recalls. “At that time … I was waiting for these travel documents, and she called me and said, ‘I want to see you.’ And the whole time, I can’t go anywhere, because I’m waiting on these silly documents.”

Lailan is en route, and Chapook can’t leave Fort Benning because he’s waiting on travel documents, which he needs to be deployed despite having a green card. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — a vestibule of the bloated Department of Homeland Security — is responsible for issuing those documents and is taking its sweet time allowing the family-to-be one last reunion.

As Chapook tries to find a signal, Lailan’s Northwest Airlines flight 531 lands at Detroit’s Wayne County International Airport. Their layover quickly turns into one of those nightmare, post-9/11 police state scenarios: After a miscommunication with customs and border patrol officers, Lailan is taken to an “office” and interrogated for five straight hours for reasons she does not understand.

“Upon arrival, I was asked some questions in the English language,” Lailan wrote in a statement. “I didn’t understand what the officer was saying, because I don’t speak English. He took me to another room where there (was) another officer.”

After putting a few screws to her, the officers finally decide to bring in a German interpreter, who asks Lailan a series of seemingly straightforward questions: why she had returned to the United States, whether she was pregnant, if she was married, etc. After they’re provided with answers, the officers inform her that she has been lying to them and will not be granted entry to the United States.

“I told them all the truth,” she wrote in an affidavit. “That I’m married and I’m pregnant — and that I had not lied … I told them that I have a bad health condition and that I’m bleeding.” She provided the officers with medical documents obtained by her U.S. doctor when she overstayed a previous visa because of emergency hospitalization. “Regardless of this evidence,” she wrote, “they still sent me back to Germany the same day.”

“I get a phone call after five hours from an officer from Detroit,” Chapook recalls. “They say, ‘We’re going to send your wife back to Germany.’ I have no clue what happened. So I ask them what’s the situation?”

“Your wife lied to us,” they say. “You should apply for (an I-601 waiver for) your wife, and after that she can enter the United States.”

“I tried to talk to her,” Chapook says. “She was nervous and scared. She tried to talk but she was just crying. I asked her, ‘What happened?’ but she couldn’t talk to me. So I tell her to get me the officer.”

And what the officer tells Chapook is the abject truth of his life as an American: “I don’t know what you do for our country, but we can’t do anything for you. Everything is already done.”

The combined stress of Lailan’s interrogation and two back-to-back, nine-hour flights lead to more bleeding, which ends a month later in the birth of Lania, nearly three months premature. Lania will spend the first two months of her life in an incubator, before her body can handle the fluid in her underdeveloped lungs with the regular aid of inhalers.

Meanwhile, Chapook languishes at Fort Benning, his travel documents still being processed by USCIS. He will not see his daughter or his wife for six months, and after he has already been deployed. USCIS finally clears him in November. Chapook Dizayee returns to Iraq, where another war is already in progress.

Lost in translation

Chapook is translating for the Marines’ Task Force 3/2. His job is simple but dangerous: to provide soldiers with an understanding of his native northern Iraqi culture and to assist in house-to-house searches and interrogations without dying in the process.

“It’s a different war than you see on TV,” he says. “When you see a marine and they’ve just lost a hand, they cry. You walk on dead bodies. It’s difficult.” He tells me later that he used a piece of wood to splint the handless marine’s forearm back together.

“Normally you are not supposed to do this,” he says of his impromptu field dressing. “Because then you will be killed, too, if you stop for even a moment. We were lucky.”

It isn’t the first time Chapook has seen war. An Iraqi Kurd, he lived through the genocide and chemical warfare of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s that consumed the country’s northern, predominately Kurdish-occupied region. Following the first Gulf War, he was one of some 6,500 Kurdish refugees who unofficially aided the U.S. military via a series of Kurdish uprisings poised against Hussein. If you’ve ever seen the George Clooney film “Three Kings,” the Kurds were the people who, by the movie’s end, were left to die at the hands of Hussein’s resurgent Republican Guard following the withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces in 1991. After being held in Guam with fellow refugees in the mid-’90s, Chapook entered the United States in 1997, whereupon he moved to Louisville and began the long process of obtaining citizenship.

“We are Kurdish,” he says. “We have seen this situation a long, long time. They are 44 million people across Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan … they don’t have a land. They don’t have freedom. They don’t have a reality. There is nothing.”

A letter of recommendation from a former commanding officer sums up Chapook’s performance nicely: “He performed all duties as an interpreter in an exemplary manner, surpassing all expectations. Regardless of mission, the short notice he received prior to departing on patrol, or the harshness of living and operating conditions, he always maintained a positive attitude and provided outstanding interpreter support. His friendly, outgoing personality and skill set will be sorely missed.”

He spends his days either riding in convoys for hours on end or assisting in intense house-to-house “information gathering” patrols. By night, the “harshness of living conditions” is evident in his sleeping quarters: a man-shaped hole barely 3-feet deep cut into the earth with his own hands. The days are long and hard.

His yearlong deployment is broken up into six-month intervals, and in between, he gets two weeks of vacation. With thoughts of his wife and daughter in mind, he reluctantly agrees to help with one last mission before he travels to Germany to see his family.

“I finished my six months,” he says. “But they tell me there’s a big operation in the Al Qaim area. They said, ‘Please, hold your vacation. We need you.’ I said, ‘Man, I have a baby. I don’t want to die before I see my baby.’ But they kept saying please, please, please … and so I said, ‘OK, I will wait a month and do the mission for you.’”

Jump to the summer of 2005. Chapook and Task Force 3/2 are operating in Ubaydi, near Al Qaim, in northern Iraq. Chapook has become an integral part of the Task Force 3/2. He and another marine are conducting a house-to-house search. According to a Certificate of Commendation issued by the USMC, Chapook’s “marine counterpart was wounded in action. Mr. Dizayee provided security, under fire, for the marine while first aid was being administered and until the marine was safely brought to an extraction point.”

Chapook says it all happened fast.

“We start on the second house, me and (the marine),” he says, his voice rising. “And all around us were insurgents. They’re hitting us everywhere. The bullets went through my pant legs; my partner got shot.” He points to his thighs. “And when I see his blood, I took him to the bathroom. I went to the second room, and there’s a family inside the room. I put a T-shirt around the marine’s leg, and I go back to the door and start shooting.”

For 20 minutes, Chapook provides cover fire with an AR-15, exchanging gunfire with insurgents and effectively saving everyone in the house. Eventually, a tank arrives to pull everyone out of the fray and into safety.

“Mr. Dizayee’s willingness to take part in these dangerous operations evinced a level of dedication and service not seen in many natural-born American citizens,” wrote Task Force 3/2’s commanding officer. “(His) assistance to the marines … and service to this great nation are truly an example for others to follow.”

For a few days, Chapook managed to be with his daughter and wife, and he was happy.

By the time he returned to the United States, that happiness would be crushed by the Homeland Security apparatus Chapook had risked his life to defend and legitimize.

“The marines, they need you, OK? I don’t care about my life,” he says kind of half-joking and throwing his hands up. “I was a hero. When the marines would figure out it was me, they treated me like a hero. I had saved many people before that mission.

“But now they won’t save my wife,” he says softly, his eyes filling with tears.

Separation anxiety

Since he returned from the second leg of his deployment in one piece, life has thrown Chapook one shit-covered curveball after another.

As of this writing, it’s been two years since he’s seen his daughter Lania, now 6 years old.

In return for his service to his adopted country, he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, has lost 80 percent of his hearing in his left ear, his knee needs surgical attention, and he’s missing two teeth.

After he tried to be closer to his family but failed to adjust to life in Germany, Chapook’s insurer AIG dropped him, rendering him unable to treat his war-induced ailments. When he resettled in the United States, he invested his tiny savings into a gas station in Evansville, Ind., that went belly up in a year’s time.

In 2007, Lailan, still unable to enter the United States per USCIS’ insistence that she had committed fraud in Detroit in 2004, agreed to Chapook’s request for a divorce.

“The wait was long,” Lailan wrote of her I-601 waiver to USCIS. “And we both ultimately decided to move on with our lives.”

USCIS recently denied the waiver, prompting an appeal that Chapook’s lawyer, Becca O’Neill, says can take two to three years to wind through the system. The couple plans to remarry, if USCIS decides to listen to reason.

The grounds for USCIS’ inanity are rooted both in institutional red tape and a broken federal immigration policy that rewards undocumented indentured servitude and punishes those who jump through increasingly expensive hoops only to find out more expensive hoops lie ahead. It asks individuals to provide examples of “hardship,” be it financial, medical, emotional or otherwise. In Chapook’s case, he meets all the requisite medical criteria, but was unemployed at the time the decision was made, disqualifying him for not “having financial ties to the United States.”

The USCIS’ decision — that Chapook should just up and move to Germany even though he doesn’t speak German and suffers from numerous medical ailments — is baffling to O’Neill.

“Why should Chapook, who has assisted the U.S. military in two armed conflicts, give up his citizenship and go live in a country he has no familiarity with and where he doesn’t speak the language?” O’Neill says, adding that his PTSD exacerbates his capacity to acclimate to a new country despite being close to his family. “That is absurd to me. There was an apparent miscommunication between Lailan and the CBP folks at an airport, (and) their major beef is that they think she lied to a CBP official at the Detroit airport.”

With his appeal years away, Chapook has taken his case to Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose office declined to comment for this story.

“I went to (the immigration building), and they said, ‘We can’t do anything for you,’” Chapook says. “I went to the second floor, to Mitch McConnell’s office, because they have had my case since 2005 now. They called immigration, and (ultimately) they told me, ‘We can’t do anything.’”

The law cited in USCIS’ decision — the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act — was one of many laws modified by Congress in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks by way of the USA PATRIOT Act. So in a sense, the bipartisan legislation that paved the way for the actual War on “Terror” Chapook actively participated in has also created the legal and bureaucratic framework that makes his and his family’s life a virtual hell.

Chapook has since landed a job at CalNet, a private military contractor that was recently awarded a $66 million linguistics-training contract from the U.S. Army that doesn’t offer him any insurance. He can claim financial ties to the United States, thus aiding his appeal, but that’s where the bright side ends: His knee injuries have prevented him from leaving for a recent training session at Fort Irvine, Calif., thus jeopardizing his employment.

“My knee is gonna hurt, not being able to go out to California,” he says. “But it’s already hurting me, you know? This weather makes it really bad.”

Despite letters of recommendation from fellow soldiers, the efforts of a senator’s office and his lawyers, all Chapook can do is wait and hope his daughter doesn’t grow too much in her father’s absence.

“After Sept. 11, everybody is a terrorist,” Chapook says. “Doesn’t matter where you come from … When they see ‘born in Iraq,’ they go, ‘Whoa.’ Doesn’t matter … This is a great country, but some of the people in your government, especially in immigration, aren’t very smart.”