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NEWS | May 6, 2015

US military builds trust with local Afghans by reducing legal claims backlog

By By Kevin Walston, U.S. Forces - Afghanistan

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, May 6, 2015 -- U.S. military claims officials here have implemented a program to assist local Afghan citizens and as a result are strengthening the relationship between coalition forces and the local community while building trust and confidence.

More than $45,000 has been paid to Afghan civilians since March 2015 under a federal law designed to pay civilian claims resulting from U.S. military actions. The Foreign Claims Act of 1942 provides compensation to residents of foreign countries for personal injury, death or property damage caused by actions of military personnel, said Capt. Tim McCullough, chief of operational and International law for the Joint Task Force-3 staff judge advocate's office.

"Claims are payable as long as the incident didn't occur because of direct or indirect combat action," he said. "These types of cases are excluded from qualifying for payment under this act and must be considered under other statutes."

Over the past four months, McCullough said his office has reduced a backlog of claims in excess of 550 down to about 20 unprocessed claims. Most of these are for property damage that occurred as a direct result of actions by U.S. military personnel.

"A typical claim concerns a vehicle accident where a service member was believed to be at fault, or damage by a military vehicle to a person's home or other personal property," he said. "Most completed claims average about $900 to $1,000, and each of the claimants are paid in Afghani cash once their claim is closed."

If an accident occurs, or if an Afghan civilian's property is damaged by the acts of U.S. military personnel, they're given a card that identifies the military personnel involved and information about the claims process. Additional information on the card provides them with details on how to not only get in touch with the right U.S. government representative, but also more information about the process.

"On Tuesdays, we typically see about five to eight people at the gate to discuss their claims," McCullough said. "A determination is made whether or not their claim is legitimate, and then they're provided all the paperwork they'll need in order to get their claim processed."

The Afghan civilian must provide not only an estimate to fix the damage or replacement cost, but also proof of ownership and why they believe there's U.S. liability. Afterwards, a government representative conducts an investigation to determine the legitimacy of the claim. The person can return to the gate any Tuesday between 1 and 5 p.m. to complete the claim process.

"It normally takes us about seven to 10 days to fully investigate a claim," McCullough said. "Then, the claimant is notified that they can come back, and we'll present them with an offer for restitution."

McCullough added that if the claimant isn't happy with the amount the government has offered, they have 30 days to bring in additional evidence for consideration. This process gives the Army's maneuver elements more flexibility in training and conducting normal operations because the affected civilian population is aware that there will be reparations for any damages incurred.

"The population knows that if we break or damage something, we'll make restitution and aren't here just to impose our will upon them," he said. "We partner with the Afghan government to ensure we maintain good will between ourselves and the population."

Although the majority of the people they meet have potential claims against the U.S. government, McCullough said they also serve as a focal point for other types of public inquiries.

"Recently, there was a man who was dissatisfied with treatment received for his son at a local Afghan hospital and wanted to see if he could obtain treatment at Craig Hospital," he said. "Some people contact us about possibly getting their on-base jobs back. In another case, an Afghan policeman was seeking our help in working with the Afghan government to assist him with medical care."

The foreign claims payment program is having a positive impact on the local Afghan community, McCullough said.

"They're able to voice their frustrations about a multitude of things that concern them, and in cases where we're not the right point of contact, we provide appropriate contact information," he said. "We think we've helped to change the local community's view of the U.S. military, and it has resulted in greater cooperation with those units who conduct missions off base."