Teaching troops to speak Arabic is paying off

Army Sgt. Amy O’Keefe, a signal intelligence specialist, was frustrated while in Iraq in 2003 trying to tell local women they needed to be searched for weapons before they could enter Army health care clinics.

“There would be people here or there who could speak enough English where we would maybe get a point across,” O’Keefe recalled. “But for most, I’d be like a mime having to gesture and hoping the intent was clear.”

Army Sgt. William Golden knew the feeling. He arrived in Iraq three years later with no Arabic language skill. Because he and other soldiers couldn’t communicate with locals, troop patrols, whether to make an arrest or to keep the peace, seemed to deepen Iraqi fears, Golden said.

“I could pantomime, mostly. But other than that, to get a clear point across, was almost impossible,” Golden said.

Next spring, O’Keefe, 27, and Golden, 28, will return to Iraq with the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis. This time they will be conversant in Arabic, the result of 10 months’ training under the Language Enabled Soldier (LES) program. A total of 126 soldiers out of 4,000 deployed with the 5-2 Brigade will be able to speak directly with Iraqis, though, by specialty, they are not Army linguists.

The program being run at Fort Lewis’ Foreign Language Training Center is unique. But it is cited as one of many recent initiatives that reflect a rising appreciation for foreign language skills in the U.S. military.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have underscored the importance of language skills for unit readiness and operational effectiveness. Language skills have climbed as a national security priority among Defense civilian leaders and military commanders down through individual service members.

“The fact that a combat arms commander would give up this many soldiers for 10 months is an unbelievable commitment. This is unheard of,” said Yvonne Pawelek, director of the Fort Lewis language center.

The officer she cited is Col. Harry Tunnell, commander of the 5-2 Brigade who saw the importance of the program after it was begun in 2005 by Col. Jon Lehr, commander of 4-2 Stryker Brigade. Lehr, in turn, credited his intelligence chief, Lt. Col. Patrick Mackin, for suggesting that brigade operations in Iraq would be more effective if some 4-2 soldiers learned elementary Arabic and the nuances of Iraqi culture.

Gail McGinn, deputy undersecretary of defense for plans, cited the program in congressional testimony last month as an example of progress being made to strengthen military language skills. McGinn is responsible for foreign language issues in the department, including execution of a 2005 roadmap for a department-wide “language transformation.”

“I’ve worked for the Department of Defense for over 30 years and I have never seen a program that has as much ‘buy in’ from people throughout the department, civilian and military leaders. And I have never seen a program advance as quickly as this one,” McGinn said.

Reports from combatant commands, the services and defense agencies identify a need for more than 141,000 foreign language speakers of over 60 languages and dialects. Not all of requirements are being met, certainly not by relying solely on skills found in the ranks. More than 10,000 contract linguists have been used by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But military language capabilities are rising.

“We’ve been engaged the last couple of years, on a global scale, in developing as much capability as we can and dramatically increasing the number of people we can reach who have the language capability we need,” McGinn said. The department now has a “surge capability” in every critical language the military might need, she said. Other progress she noted:

Training enhancements at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., have improved critical language proficiency and support global training teams for deploying forces.

The Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus has been raised from a maximum of $300 a month to $1,000, encouraging more members to study and become proficient in difficult languages including Farsi and Chinese.

A first-ever survey of language skills in the U.S. military has found more than 217,000 members saying they speak a foreign language. A surprising number, McGinn said, speak languages of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Expansion of “heritage” recruiting by the services has filled gaps in key language skills and regional expertise. The Army in 2003 began recruiting more heavily from U.S. communities where Arabic and the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashtu are spoken.

The Air Force and Navy have launched Foreign Area Officer programs, joining the Army and Marine Corps. The number of FAOs, each proficient in a language and culture, rose from less than 1,200 in 2001 to more than 1,600 today.

The Defense Department also has partnered with the departments of state and education and the Director of National Intelligence on nationwide initiatives to improve critical language skills using grants and scholarships. One will encourage children, from kindergarten forward, to learn Arabic or Chinese as a second language with the most successful students through high school offered college scholarships to continue their study and serve their country.

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