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Families of dead US soldiers sue over Afghan interpreter's armed rampage

A wrongful-death lawsuit has been filed against Mission Essential Personnel, the US defence contractor that hired Nasir Ahmad Ahmadi as it rushed to put more interpreters to work in Afghanistan, after he killed two soldiers and wounded a third on an army base in Afghanistan.

Captain David Thompson at home with his wife Emily, left, and daughters Isabelle and Abigail in North Carolina in 2009. Thompson was killed in January 2010 by Nasir Ahmad Ahmadi, a contract interpreter on his base in Afghanistan. Thompson Family / AP Photo
Captain David Thompson at home with his wife Emily, left, and daughters Isabelle and Abigail in North Carolina in 2009. Thompson was killed in January 2010 by Nasir Ahmad Ahmadi, a contract interpreter on his base in Afghanistan. Thompson Family / AP Photo

WASHINGTON // Nasir Ahmad Ahmadi was hired to work as an interpreter alongside American troops in Afghanistan. But soldiers were alarmed by his strange behaviour, 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 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 shootings in January 2010, the survivor and family members of the murdered soldiers filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Mission Essential Personnel, the US defence 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 Captain 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. Mr Russell survived.

An alert army sergeant ended the rampage when he drew his pistol and killed Ahmadi, a 23-year-old Afghan who had emigrated to the United States in 2009.

In their lawsuit, filed in federal court in North Carolina, Mr Russell and the families of Decoteau and Thompson accuse Mission Essential Personnel, based in 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 US 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 US$629 million (Dh2.3 billion) in revenue last year, up from $6.7 million in 2005.

In a statement on 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 US 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 authorised 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.

Nancy Decoteau, Marc Decoteau's mother, said as she recalled reading the army's investigation of the shootings completed several months after her son died: "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. That was not how Marc wanted to give his life."

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.

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 US officers in Afghanistan responsible for the day-to-day monitoring of MEP's handling of the contract. The records 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 did not know where all of its interpreters were, what units they were assigned to and whether they were even showing up for work.