troops in Iraq rely heavily on Iraqi-born translators in their interactions
with people in the streets of Baghdad, Basra and other cities. That will be
less the case for the next Army brigade to deploy from Fort Lewis, Washington.
It will have dozens of ordinary soldiers who can speak and read Arabic. The unit of the Second Infantry Division is
perhaps the most dramatic example of how the entire Defense Department is
striving to shrink the language gap.
Tom Banse observed infantrymen trying out their new Arabic training in a
simulated Iraqi village at Fort Lewis.
are stressful, regardless. Now imagine being graded while gunfire crackles
outside, your boss is counting on you to look good as well, and the questions
are in a language few Americans can master: Arabic.
That's what infantryman Yefim Kelmanskiy is facing as native speakers portray
an Iraqi mayor, police chief and tribal elder. He translates their question
into English for his commander, "How would you help us with this?"
Then, he has to translate the reply, "First I would like to know, are the
Iraqi police and the Iraqi army working together?"
has had 10 months of intensive Arabic lessons at Fort Lewis. His platoon is on
a simulated mission to find al-Qaida infiltrators in this mock village.
one of more than a hundred soldiers from his brigade to volunteer to be
reassigned from regular training to learn Arabic. It means this brigade will
have the highest number of Arabic speakers of any Fort Lewis unit to deploy. In
the Army at large, only military intelligence and special operations would be
good bets to stack up as favorably.
second set of ears
Colonel Jonathan Neumann says the Army will still employ Arab-Americans and
local Iraqis as translators. But working with them during his tour of Iraq in
2004, he noticed, "whether it's patriotism or whether it's go get even
with the old regime, everybody kind of had a prejudice of some sort." He
says it would be nice to have a second set of ears of unquestionable
The decision to send more ordinary soldiers to language school came from
brigade commanders, Neumann says, not from the Pentagon. "Unless you had
an interpreter, you were absolutely helpless breaking down the barrier with the
population. Now, young soldiers will figure out a way. They'll learn local
stuff and just a way to talk to people, but you've got to have that
to be that interpreter is hard work.
Fort Lewis language school crams two years of Arabic coursework into ten
months. Recent graduate Raul Montano says it was challenging. "I knew it
was going to be hard. And it is as hard as it looks!"
On an earlier deployment to Iraq, Sgt. Montano recalls
learning no more than 20 words of Arabic... words like hello, stop, and put
your hands up. Now, he's not completely fluent. But he is conversant and says
he's learned the additional skill of how to improvise in Arabic to get his