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Language company first in Army

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Oct. 22, 2008) -- The recently formed 51st Translator Interpreter Company at Fort Irwin, Calif., is the first unit of its kind in the Army.

The company, which officially unfurls its flag Oct. 23, provides uniform-wearing interpreters and translators to units deploying to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. While not yet fully manned, the unit will eventually include more than 140 native speakers of languages like Arabic, Farsi, Pashtu, Kurdish and Dari.

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Stateside, the Soldiers of the 51st TICO provide cultural and language training to the brigade combat teams that rotate to the National Training Center. Overseas, those same Soldiers work as translators and interpreters. Right now, the 51st has about 120 Soldiers assigned, with about 90 of those working in theater.

"The mission over there will be to finally permanently have a 09L capability in foreign languages, so we are looking at a very high proficiency in foreign languages," said Errol Smith, the assistant deputy for foreign language programs at the Pentagon. "Given they are native in those languages they provide a lot of cultural awareness skills to the Army."

The 51st TICO is manned by Soldiers from the relatively new military occupational specialty, 09 Lima. The 09L MOS is filled with native or "heritage" speakers of the languages the Army deems important for current missions. Heritage speakers have been speaking a particular language their entire lives, in the home or in school. Soldiers in the unit are often recruited from communities in the United States where many of the residents speak the same foreign language and share a common ethnic background.

"They've grown up in the U.S., and grew up speaking their mother's tongue, though many have never been to their mother's nation of birth," said Col. John Bird, director of training development and support, U.S. Army Intelligence Center, Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

What heritage speakers bring to the Army is real-life familiarity with the nuances of a language and the cultures that speak it -- something school-trained linguists often cannot do.

"An 09L can walk into a room and identify by body language and gestures whether it is a safe environment for his commander," Smith said.

Having knowledge of the culture of those that speak a language doesn't just help with formalities and how to shake hands -- it also serves to save the lives of Soldiers and civilians. Smith noted one situation in Iraq where the knowledge of a trusted 09L kept the Army from making a mistake that might have cost lives.

"Intelligence (was) monitoring a section of the city and noticed a lot of action in a cemetery," he said. "An operation to raid the cemetery was about to kick off when an 09L noticed what was about to happen and told everybody to stand down. It was a holy day, and on that holy day the Iraqis go visit the relatives that passed on -- that bit of cultural knowledge played a huge role in preventing embarrassment."

Smith also said having native Arabic speakers in the ranks helps the Army endear itself to the civilian populations it works within. The positive aspects of those relationships are borne out in lives saved.

"A teenage boy in Iraq approached a patrolling 09L and asked 'how is it that you look like one of us and speak like one of us but are one of them?' The Soldier explained he was born and raised there, emigrated to America, and is back to help build schools, provide water, and provide security," Smith said. "The next time the Soldier was patrolling in the street the teenage boy came up to him again, had warmed up to him, and gave him information, a warning, to not go into a section of the city. A task force went in there later and apprehended about 80 insurgents."

That 09Ls wear the Army uniform is a plus to commanders as well. Contracted translators and interpreters are not actually in the Army. But an 09L who wears the Army uniform is subject to the same operating schedules as other Soldiers and is also subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, something commanders appreciate, said Brig. Gen. Richard C. Longo, director of training in the Army's Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, G-3/5/7.

"(Commanders) are much more comfortable with an interpreter that is also a Soldier standing next to them, rather than somebody that may have been contracted," he said.

Soldiers recruited to work as 09Ls come from places where there are large Arab-American populations: Dearborn, Mich., Washington, D.C., Southern California, Miami, New York, New Jersey, Texas and the Chicago area, for instance.

And about 75 percent of the 09L Soldiers are green card holders, not American citizens. But they still must pass rigorous security and background checks to be accepted into the program.

"First thing is a counter-intelligence screening," Smith said. "That's a requirement for the MOS -- they have to pass that."

The Soldiers accepted into the program can also volunteer for additional investigation, including a polygraph and some biometrics work -- volunteering for that allows them limited access authorization. With that, Smith said, they are authorized access to some classified material while in theater.

Smith said the Army is not having trouble finding Soldiers to fill the billets at the 51st TICO or within the ranks of the 09L MOS. Last year, he said, the Army met its 09L recruiting goal by 117 percent, the year before by 100 percent, and the year before that with 130 percent.

"There is a nationwide recruiting effort, and we have certainly built a very strong relationship with the Arab-American community as far as reaching out to them," Smith said. "Overall we have done well in this program.

Sometime in 2009, the Army will stand up a second TICO. The 52nd TICO will be at Fort Polk, La., home of the Joint Readiness Training Center. Smith said the new company will likely help with the increasing demand from theater for 09Ls.

"This is one of the most significant pieces to having language capability in theater, because they offer critical skills to our commanders in theater and their skills have saved lives on the ground," Smith said. "And commanders have screamed for more."

The standup of the 51st TICO is only part of the Army's emphasis on language integration into the force. The Army is now working to have every Soldier contribute in some way to the its language capability.

"We can't afford to train every Soldier in the Army to be a certified linguist, but we can't afford not to have everybody in the Army understand cultural awareness, and maybe some rudimentary language capability," said Longo. "We as an Army are committed to cultural and language programs. What we are looking for is the right blend of culture and language in our units. And that right blend is defined as: some people have to be experts, and everybody has to know something."

The general said some 178,000 Soldiers have signed up to use the Rosetta Stone language learning software available online through Army Knowledge Online.

And the Army has also developed programs for Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets who are interested in taking language courses. Cadets who contracted after Aug. 8 of this year can participate in the Army's Critical Language Incentive Pay program. Those cadets can earn between $100 and $250 dollars a month, based on the level of the language course they take in college.

For Soldiers already in the force, they may now use the tuition assistance program to take language courses, even if they are not pursuing a degree.

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