THEY CALL HER Mama Tara, and on the walls of her office, next to a three-dimensional puzzle of the globe, completed and turned to Africa, is a slip of paper with a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case.”
Mama Tara is Tara Coughlin, a lawyer from the suburbs of Detroit who has taken on the task of defending Ugandans wounded on American bases in Iraq. When these Ugandans were hurt, they entered an insurance bureaucracy that seemed to fight at every point to deny them, through sheer gridlock, the compensation to which they were entitled. For Ugandans unable to make sense of a compensation system based halfway around the world, Coughlin became an unlikely and invaluable ally.
The 37-year-old lawyer lives in Harrison Township on Lake St. Clair in the predominantly wealthy and white suburbs of Detroit. Her first job after earning her legal degree from the University of Colorado was defending insurance companies for a law firm in Detroit. She disliked the job, hated fighting against what she saw as the little guys. “It wasn’t for me,” Coughlin said, her high voice trailing off, as it often does, as she considered her words. “I can say it definitely wasn’t what I was called to do.”
She began sending care packages to American soldiers in Iraq and struck up a correspondence with a Navy chaplain assigned to Al Asad Air Base, about 150 miles from Baghdad. American troops, the chaplain said, drowned in care packages — they piled up in storage. Why not send care packages to the 300 Ugandans who worked as security guards on the base?
Coughlin began sending packages to Ugandans in her spare time, putting her email address in each box. The Ugandans wrote back to her about their days, their families back home, their supervisors, and Ugandan food. But one of her Ugandan pen pals wrote that he had been injured. By this time, Coughlin had left her legal job, but she drew from her knowledge of insurance law to help him get a settlement. Just this once, she thought.
Word of the settlement spread. Ugandan guards began reaching out to her. One of them was Charles Mbule.
THE TRAFFIC IN KAMPALA swirled around me. I was on the back of a boda boda motorcycle as the driver sliced through the frenzy of the city center. A horn burst, so loud it seemed disembodied from any object. I felt the red dust of Uganda in my nostrils. We picked up speed, escaping the traffic as we roared outward from Kampala toward the Baha’i House of Worship. The temple, one of only eight in the world, rests on the crest of a great hill. From the top, you can see the many hills of Kampala, cloaked in sun and smog and elephant grass.
Charles Mbule lives near the bottom of the great hill. He was once a foreman at the house of worship. Six feet tall and lean then, with a kind face, he tended the gardens. Cypress and cedar trees. Roses and hibiscus. Raised in a rural village, he enjoyed working with his hands. He knew how to bring life from the dirt.
On July 18, 2007, Mbule came home and told his wife, Nanapovu, that he was going to Iraq. He would be a security guard on an American base. Uganda, a poor, English-speaking nation with thousands of recently demobilized soldiers, proved fruitful recruiting ground for companies contracting labor for American bases. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Ugandans left for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005 to 2010. Just one year of work could be enough to secure the future of Mbule’s family.
The night he left, Mbule and his family shared a last meal of beans, vegetables, and matoke, a starchy banana dish common to Uganda. The next morning, he departed to be a security guard for $1,000 a month, with a company called EOD Technology Inc. Three days later, he arrived at his tent at Forward Operating Base Shield, near Baghdad. The guards, having just received their weapons, sat down and waited for ammunition. Gunfire chattered in the distance. Probably just marksmanship training, the other guards said.
Then the bullet hit him.
It pierced the right side of Mbule’s back, tearing through his right kidney. He fell to the ground. He saw one guard running out of the tent, another guard dragging him and calling for help. He clutched his side, looked down, and saw blood. He thought his life had ended.
Perhaps, in a way, he was right. The moment the bullet hit, Mbule lost agency over his life. The day I visited, he was laid out on a couch, his crutches near his feet. Since his injury, his right leg had become paralyzed, he had frequent headaches, and his remaining kidney was failing. The bullet remained in his body. He had shooting pains all over.
When Mbule returned to Uganda, he hobbled to the offices of Askar Security Services. Askar was the Ugandan company that had recruited him, trained him, and contracted him to EOD Technology, which in turn was contracted by the U.S. Department of Defense. If Mbule wanted compensation, he would have to work with EODT’s insurer, the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania, a subsidiary of American International Group Inc. Making sense of this bureaucratic maze proved difficult, and he soon realized Askar had little way or intention of helping him.
Mbule began receiving temporary benefits, two-thirds of his former salary. Then, after a year of emailing back and forth, Mbule was told his temporary benefits would end. An AIG claim examiner told him he would be reimbursed an additional $53.04 to cover his past travel to the hospital and back. “We are otherwise declining to make further payment,” the examiner wrote in the email.
Mbule began to borrow money from relatives, including a loan from an acquaintance of his father. His father-in-law gave money too, and let Mbule and his family stay at his house. Mbule spent his days sending emails to faceless corporations, going to the hospital on borrowed money, and paying for medicine he could only sporadically afford. He lived in stasis, stuck in a failing body, his days gripped by suffering and gnawing pains.
Then one day, while carrying X-rays during a visit to Mulago Hospital, Mbule ran into a friend who told him he had been in a similar situation. “Do you have a lawyer?” the friend asked. This seemed an absurd question to Mbule. How could he afford a lawyer? But over the coming years, Mbule would learn that his friend, who had been Coughlin’s first client, had found something more than a lawyer.
WHEN COUGHLIN FIRST LEARNED about Mbule’s case in 2009, she knew it would likely go to trial.
“The insurance company had just flat out rejected his case, denied all responsibility for everything, which to me seemed ludicrous,” Coughlin told me when I visited her. “I thought it was crazy. Charles was so obviously injured.”
Coughlin’s specialty is Defense Base Act cases. The DBA covers workers on U.S. military installations. After an injury, a contract worker and his or her insurance company discuss compensation. This compensation is typically equal to two-thirds of the worker’s average weekly earnings and can be payable for life if the worker is permanently disabled. If there is a dispute, the worker files a claim and the case enters a system administered by the Department of Labor.
Coughlin said she had grown up a soft-spoken “girly girl.” In her heart, she was a homebody who enjoyed quiet nights watching movies like Out of Africa and The Blind Side. She had spent almost her entire life deeply rooted in the suburbs of Detroit. Her great-grandfather was an editor with the Detroit Free Press. Her grandfather was a Detroit judge and a writer of courtroom dramas. Her father, Bill Coughlin, is a patent attorney and president and CEO of Ford Global Technologies, a subsidiary of Ford Motor Co.
It was her father who turned her attentions outward. Growing up, Tara thought of him as the legendary lawyer Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird, which was her father’s favorite book. At their home, the Coughlin family often hosted missionaries from the Lakeside Bible Chapel, back in the United States with tales from abroad.
Mbule would be Coughlin’s second DBA case. She was nervous about taking the case on, and her family was nervous, but in the end, on two week’s notice, she booked a flight to Kampala to see her new client. Her father, ever protective, even paid for a friend to escort her.
When Coughlin arrived in Kampala, there was a blackout, and from the car she saw the city as pitch black, illuminated only by little candles in the shop windows. She remembers feeling like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when she came down from the tornado and found herself in a new land. But then she met Mbule, on his crutches, and knew she had to do everything possible to help him win.
For decades, the Defense Base Act was an obscure law within the dusty corners of the federal bureaucracy. Then came the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. military’s reliance on civilian contractors. In testimony before Congress, defense expert Moshe Schwartz testified that contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan represented 52 percent of the total force, averaging 190,000 contractors to 175,000 uniformed personnel from 2008 to 2011.
Official Department of Labor reports from 2013 show there were 2,933 civilian contractor deaths and 25,839 casualties since the start of the conflict. A Brown University study that same year, however, placed a more likely total at 6,285 civilian contractor deaths and 55,373 casualties. Because civilian casualties are reported by employers, true casualty numbers are assumed to be much higher than official reports. Nearly 22,000 injury claims were filed by contract workers from 2003 to 2007, including 11,000 in 2007 alone. DBA injury compensation and medical expenses totaled $9.4 million in 2001, rising to $115.8 million in 2006, and then to $415.2 million in 2011.
The overloaded and antiquated DBA system was created in the days when workers at big naval bases, upon injury, could go to the local courthouse for their day in court. In today’s wars, however, a case may present clients in Uganda, with evidence in Germany, lawyers in Detroit, and judges in Virginia. The next day, the clients may be in Fiji with evidence in Afghanistan. As a result, DBA cases present enormous logistical difficulties, especially since the Department of Labor only has 40 administrative law judges nationwide.
Often, a worker’s only source of information was the person negotiating against him. A Ugandan guard named Stanley Kiwanuka, for example, showed me emails about his DBA case. Kiwanuka had suffered a hernia while working in Iraq. His insurer, CNA Financial Corp., had given him temporary disability for $80.55 a week for seven months. Kiwanuka then settled for a lump sum payment of $2,500 in exchange for closing his case.
In the course of showing me these emails, Coughlin’s name came up. She had contacted him, Kiwanuka explained, but he hadn’t responded because he already had a lawyer. He showed me an email from the lawyer. Who he thought was his representative turned out to be a prominent attorney representing CNA.
Many foreign contractors simply do not know their rights under U.S. labor law, and a lowball offer by an insurance company can seem like manna to people born in poverty. “A lot of times,” said Troy Green, a lawyer Coughlin hired to help on cases, “you get the impression that the carriers believe because these guys are African, they think they can get away with giving them an amount sufficient for Africa but not sufficient under the law.”
I met Green when I visited Coughlin in Detroit. Green said he and Coughlin often feel like Davids to the insurance company Goliaths. For instance, under DBA regulations, lawyers like Coughlin must pay their expenses out of pocket and work for free until they win. As a result, few lawyers have the means to travel overseas to learn about the stories of their clients and collect evidence.
“There aren’t,” said Judge Daniel Sarno, who would oversee Mbule’s case, “a lot of Tara Coughlins out there.”
AFTER VISITING MBULE, I got back on a boda and went in search of Saul Rwomushana, another Ugandan represented by Coughlin. Rwomushana had been a security guard for a company known at the time as Triple Canopy. He was training at Sullivan Range, near Baghdad, on July 22, 2010, when he was hit by a rocket. The blast injured 15 people and killed three. Shrapnel pierced Rwomushana’s right leg and forehead. Days later, he had his first seizure. He had seizures two times every week for the last six years.
I entered his house and his nurse, clad in green scrubs, said they had not been expecting me. The nurse entered Rwomushana’s bedroom in the back, and I could hear ragged moaning. On the walls of the living room, someone had hung multiple framed portraits of Coughlin.
The nurse came out and said he would take Rwomushana out of his bed and put him into a wheelchair. But Rwomushana began convulsing. He sprawled back in his wheelchair, one hand holding his nurse and the other clutching his head as if to push it into his body. Spittle came out of his mouth. The nurse held Rwomushana’s hand and said he couldn’t talk right now. “It comes and goes,” the nurse said.
Coughlin told me that Rwomushana might need brain surgery to repair the damage to his brain and stop the seizures, which cause him to fall out of bed, re-aggravating his thigh injury. Rwomushana had no bed when he first met Coughlin during one of her visits to Uganda. Using her own money, she got him one. She also got him a 24-hour nurse. She even won his case, but not much changed.
The Department of Labor judge in Rwomushana’s case ordered CNA to pay both disability and medical expenses. Yet CNA has been a reluctant payer. The company is paying disability expenses and began to support his medical costs — but stopped paying medical costs in June 2015, Coughlin said. Getting the company to pay is difficult, because placing a company in contempt of the labor court’s order requires another step: filing a district court case. Because the death rate is the same as the disability rate for injured contractors, but death eliminates the costs of medical care, Coughlin believes CNA might be dragging its feet, waiting until Rwomushana dies. (CNA refused to comment on Rwomushana’s case but said in an emailed statement that the company “operates within a strict regulatory environment to fairly and expeditiously attempt in good faith to make a compensability decision within the 14-day statutory period. Recognizing each claim is unique, we are committed to doing everything we can to quickly and appropriately make claim decisions.”)
I left Rwomushana’s room and breathed fresh air. A man with one arm approached me. He had heard there was a muzungu, a Westerner, in the area, and had sought me out. He was once another one of Coughlin’s clients. His name was Pascio Mutuba.
Late one June night in 2009, Mutuba lost his arm at a base called Camp Prosperity, near Baghdad. It was a bad year for contractors, the first year in which more contract workers died in Iraq than soldiers. Mutuba was standing guard at a vehicle checkpoint and the driver of a waiting truck grew impatient. The driver flipped the ignition and began moving the truck through a narrow corridor, trapping Mutuba against a wall. The wheels passed over his arm and the side of his face. According to documents from the accompanying investigation, U.S. military police officers found Mutuba bleeding from his mouth and nose, his shirt soaked in blood, his left arm dangling unnaturally.
Because of his poor English, Mutuba enlisted the help of local Ugandan lawyers as a liaison between him and Coughlin. After a series of misunderstandings between the two legal teams, Coughlin asked Mutuba to begin a new case with her as the sole representative. He agreed, but continued to talk to the other lawyers without her knowledge. He didn’t see anything wrong with consulting other lawyers. He never quite understood lawyers and their legalese, he said.
Then, in 2013, his health fell apart. After the accident, he developed diabetes and high blood pressure, but did not have enough money to go to the hospital or pay for insulin. He shivered on his couch, surrounded by his family. He thought his life was ending. He asked Coughlin whether the case would be settled soon, and she told him that he would have to be patient.
Coughlin was working on a settlement that, if successful, would win $3 million. Emails show that opposing counsel thought $3 million was “grossly excessive.” Coughlin believed $3 million would be enough to buy a prosthetic arm and address his other health concerns. Mutuba, on what he assumed was his deathbed, decided he could no longer be patient. It had been four years since his injury. He wanted to take back control of his life.
He contacted representatives of the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania and began negotiating a settlement. Coughlin learned about this through an email from the insurance company’s lawyer. She was told her client had sent an unsolicited request to them. Mutuba ended up firing Coughlin. “Effective immediately, I will no longer be representing Mr. Mutuba,” Coughlin wrote in an email to Judge Sarno. “His decision would go against my advice, but Mr. Mutuba has made decisions I cannot control.”
Mutuba settled for $100,000. It was enough to pay for his immediate needs, but not enough for an artificial arm. At the time, Mutuba told himself that he needed the money to live. He spent $90,000 for medical expenses and $10,000 for family expenses. The money is now gone.
Today, Mutuba struggles adjusting to life as an amputee. He showed me the books of sudoku he uses to fill his mind, to not think about the future. He said he remembers when he awoke from a coma in a Baghdad hospital, surrounded by American faces. He felt a pain in his left arm and turned to look at it, but there was just emptiness. The American doctors, seeing him thrash in vain to find his arm, restrained him. They brought him to a mirror so he could see his left arm was missing.
Even now, Mutuba forgets his arm is missing. When he sits, he often grabs the stump of his shoulder. It’s as if he’s feeling his arm again, he said. The necks of his T-shirts are worn loose from the way he stretches to grab the stump of his missing arm. He reaches because he has phantom pains. These are pains he can feel but cannot remedy. They are pains just out of reach.
Mutuba said he now regrets taking the smaller sum, but it was necessary at the time. Taking the money seemed more real than having faith in one woman’s crusade. He has never met Coughlin — he communicated with her through email — but he still calls her Mama Tara. Some days he curses her and blames her for his misfortune, and other days he says he still admires her as a lawyer, and the two of them just had different incentives.
“If I did not get that $100,000, I tell you, by now I would be completely dead,” Mutuba said. “Not even dead — buried.”
Like his neighbor Mbule, he lives at the foot of the Baha’i House of Worship and its great hill. After the settlement, he thought he could sue for more. When he wrote to ask for more money, he was told his case had been closed. This spring, after years of seeking a visa, he came to America hoping for compensation from the company whose impatient driver ran him over. Pulled by the same forces that led him to work in Iraq, he continues to scramble to provide for his family’s future. At this point, he has no other choice.
ON JANUARY 24, 2011, Charles Mbule prayed in his home in Kampala as his case went to trial 7,000 miles away in Newport News, Virginia. He received a call at 9 p.m. Kampala time. It was Coughlin’s assistant, with news of the outcome of his trial.
During the trial, Coughlin presented evidence that because one of his kidneys had been damaged by the bullet and removed, the other began failing. This was partly due to pain medications and partly due to his pain raising his blood pressure, further taxing his kidney. AIG and EODT conceded the shooting was a workplace injury, but argued that Mbule’s remaining kidney had quit for other reasons. They also argued that Mbule had not properly warned them of his surgeries, that he should have waited for authorization first, and that the receipts for his surgeries were fraudulent.
Judge Sarno dismissed almost all arguments against Mbule, awarding him $67,790 compensation for his surgeries plus $777 for his medications. The judge also held AIG and EODT responsible for all future medical expenses. This included money for Mbule to see a doctor for his kidney and to see a neurosurgeon in South Africa for evaluations on the bullet in his spine.
Mbule listened to the results over the phone, but he was not filled with joy or satisfaction. He hung up and went to his wife. She had been crying. When their youngest daughter was born a few months earlier, they named her Hope, after the hope that Mbule would soon resolve his case. But the baby, now 5 months old, was sick.
Neither Mbule nor his wife knew what was ailing her. They did not have enough money to bring her in for a checkup. All they knew was that she had a fever and diarrhea. That night, six hours after Mbule learned he had won his case, his daughter Hope died.
The funeral took place three days later. Mbule borrowed money to pay for the coffin and transport the body to the village where his ancestors are buried. On that day, everyone gathered around the infant’s grave, and Mbule’s faith in God wavered. He thought of the pain he still felt in his body. He thought of how dependent his life was on the actions of people on the other side of the world. He never learned who shot the bullet that so profoundly shook the course of his life.
Mbule pushed these thoughts from his mind. Instead, he said he thought of the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, the one that says there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time for war and a time for peace. “What do workers gain from their toil?” the next verse asks.
Mbule and his family now live in a house with a single room, divided by a curtain partition. He spends most of his days on his couch, as if trapped within his body, with his phone in his hand, his crutches on his lap. The day I visited, the open doorway was draped with a green sheet, threadbare in areas but otherwise keeping the light out and the air flowing.
Next to the door was an old clock, its hands frozen at 3:37. Mbule watched soap operas and music videos on the television as his wife cleaned dry beans for another meatless dinner. His children ran in circles outside. The TV quietly cycled through Uganda’s top 20 music videos. Mbule just stared. The screen buzzed with movement, dancing, and youth.
Not much has changed in the four years since the trial, except the name of EOD Technology, now known as Sterling Global Operations Inc. The insurance company is not fully abiding by the court order. Coughlin provided me invoices she sent to the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania; it has refused to pay for Mbule to see the neurosurgeon in South Africa. Coughlin is working to file an enforcement order with the U.S. District Court in New York. (Representatives from AIG and Sterling Global Operations stated they do not comment on individual claimants or cases still in litigation. A representative from Sterling Global said each claim is handled by its insurance company and that it has nothing to do with the way a claim is worked or its outcome.)
Until the case is resolved and payment is granted, Mbule will remain in stasis, the bullet still in his side; the pain will probably last until he dies. The reason contracting and insurance companies treated him the way they did, he suspects, was because they thought he would give up. Yet he soldiers on, steadfast in his faith that one day, he can find a future for his family. “I cannot change what happened,” he said. “But what pains me, I want at least to do something for my family. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I could die today. Since they have treated me this way, what would they do to my children?”
Mbule remembers December 2014, when he was hoping that his monthly disability payment would come before Christmas. In his mind, Christmas is a time to help the needy, eat together, and give gifts to friends. But on that Christmas, Mbule, his wife, Nanapovu, and his children ate only on the generosity of others. His December compensation, payment for his wounds in America’s war, did not come in time. Financial records show the money arrived on January 15, almost six weeks late.
It all infuriates Coughlin.
“They’re just thinking how to make it difficult for me,” she said of the insurance companies. “If they give their claimants’ lawyers enough grief, they’ll give up.”
She said she and Green have taken on more than 100 cases and have settled or won approximately 60, with 45 ongoing. Some of these fights have been bruising. These are transnational negotiations, in which it’s hard for lawyers like Coughlin to get what they feel their clients deserve. Sometimes her relationships with her clients break down. Mutuba fired her. She said she had a falling out with her first client after his settlement and is no longer on speaking terms with him.
Still, she works through her days believing that lives are in her hands. She can often sound bitter as well as combative when she talks about insurance companies. Why not just pay these injured workers, according to their contracts and the law?
“I’m not going anywhere,” Coughlin said. “It’s just going to cost them to fight me.”