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U.S. Soldiers Learn Arabic to Help Communicate in Iraq

  • Tom Banse

American 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.

Exams 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?"

Kelmanskiy 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.

He is 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.

A second set of ears

Lieutenant 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 trustworthiness.

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 interpreter."

Learning to be that interpreter is hard work.

The 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 point across.

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