In February 2007, when she was only two years old, Rowa stepped out her front door when Al-Qaeda insurgents were battling American forces. A round struck and passed through one leg before embedding itself into her other leg. At this time, her city was under the control of AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) and in the grip of sectarian violence. The city’s hospital was also controlled by insurgents and was unsafe for the average Iraqi to visit.
With Rowa badly injured and bleeding, her father did what he could to stem the loss of blood before he rushed her to a safe hospital. The nearest city, Baghdad, lay down a highway known for roadblocks manned by insurgents who would stop cars and execute people who were of a different sect; this was definitely not an option for him. He was forced to travel in the other direction to Tikrit — a six hour drive. By the time Rowa’s father reached a hospital, an infection had taken hold in one of her legs; the only option the doctors had to save her life was to remove the leg at the knee.
There exists a Federal law called the Federal Claims Act (FCA); this allows residents of a nation the U.S. has a presence in to file claims against the U.S. for damages caused by Servicemembers. One important qualification for a valid claim is that combat operations are not the cause of the damages. The legal section of a deployed unit will generally (depending on local procedures) conduct a “claims mission” at least once a week. This normally entails meeting with local nationals who wish to file a claim against the U.S., and with those who have already filed one. Some claimants will be turned away due to lack of supporting documentation, some will have their claims denied, some will receive payment, and some will be kicked out of the claims area for various reasons.
In Iraq, the FCA is an industry; locals will hire attorneys to file claims on their behalf, and many photo shops will sell prints to people looking to file false claims. It is also common knowledge among Iraqis that they can receive compensation, and they share this information with their neighbors. Rowa’s father learned about the claims process in the fall of 2007 and took her to a photo studio to have a portrait taken of her with her missing leg showing. Before he was able to go to the American base, the studio sold the picture to an Iraqi woman who then used it to file a false claim.
The unit assigned there at the time received her claim and began the adjudication process on it. A week or two later, Rowa’s father showed up with his documentation and the same photo that had been sold. The legal team in place there recognized the picture, took one look at him, and assumed that he was the one trying to file a false claim. He was summarily kicked off the base. The other claim was fortunately denied due to the suspicion aroused.
Rowa’s father did not quit; he showed up at the gate every week and attempted to get seen so he could make his case. It wasn’t until my unit arrived in May 2008 that his opportunity came. I was at the gate with the unit we were replacing, learning the claims procedures that they’d been following for the past year when one of the Soldiers pointed out Rowa’s father and informed me that he was a “dirtbag.” I was told about the picture and how he continued to show up every week for nearly a year; they’d gotten to the point where they simply ignored him.
The father was fully aware that the previous unit was transitioning out and that we were taking over, so he was more insistent this time around on being seen. Our interpreter kept telling him to stand back, but he was persistent. In order to get things on track and get him on his way, I agreed to take a look at his claim and took his documents. Later, I passed them off to our interpreter for translation; the next week, he came back to the gate with his daughter, who by this time was four years old. Recognizing her from the photo, the interpreter quietly asked her who her father was; Rowa pointed at the man who’d been so dogged in his determination for nearly a year to have his claim accepted. The events I described earlier were detailed in the documents I received from him, so that’s how I know what happened.
Unfortunately though, we had no way of knowing if it was an American or an insurgent’s bullet that took Rowa’s leg. Even if we had been able to identify who shot her, we still would not have been able to pay any compensation under the FCA due to the fact that her injury occurred as a result of combat operations. Luckily though, we did have another source of funds that we could use; through some additional legal maneuvering we were able to obtain a generous sum to pay to Rowa’s father. Additionally, our interpreter had a contact in the Iraqi government and learned that according to Iraqi law, Rowa would be able to receive prosthetic legs free of charge until she turns 18.
The first time we saw Rowa smile was the day that we presented a box of toys to her that generous Americans donated for her. The picture I’ve attached to this post is of that day. Despite what some who have never been to the region may say or believe, I know firsthand the good that is being accomplished in Iraq. Personally, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to help right a wrong committed against an innocent child; I think of her often and hope that she is doing well. She turns six years old this month.
Happy birthday Rowa. You have friends in the USA.