U.S. Army hopes to keep native Arabic speakers
Incentives likely to include large payments to soldiers now working as translators.
The Army may begin paying a retention bonus of as much as $150,000 to Arabic speaking soldiers in reflection of how critical it has become for the US military to retain native language and cultural know-how in its ranks.Skip to next paragraph
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Only one other job in the Army, Special Forces, rates such a super-sized retention bonus. Now, as the military makes a fundamental shift toward rewarding the linguistic expertise it needs the most, it is expanding a program to train and retain native Arabic and other speakers from the same regions in which it is fighting.
"This is a war not only against the US, but against our way of freedom," says Sergeant Madi, a native interpreter and US citizen who asked to be identified only by his surname due to security concerns for him and his family. "We have been fighting for over 16 years against Islamic extremism. It is also my war."
After the invasion of Iraq and the insurgency that followed, the US military recognized its dearth of linguistic competence in the country it had just toppled, and it scrambled to identify Arabic and other linguists.
The military's conventional language training program, the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., could not churn out enough American soldiers proficient in Arabic, Kurdish, Dari, Pashtu, and Farsi, and the military quickly turned to private contractors to fill the gap. Numerous programs have sprouted up, including one at Fort Lewis, Wash., where soldiers are given a 10-month immersion program in language and culture.
But the Army has also been quietly growing its own capability to recruit and train Arab-Americans and others as American soldiers to do high-level work overseas. The Army now has more than 600 such linguists, known by their military job designation as "09 Limas."
They come from places like Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan, but are recruited by the Army wherever there are large Arab-American populations, including Dearborn, Mich.; Miami; Dallas; Los Angeles; and Washington, D.C.
The Defense Department is now authorized to put green-card holders on a fast track to US citizenship. The 09 Lima linguists are in so much demand that the Army is raising the number it will recruit next year, from 250 to 275.
But as the US government recognizes the long-term commitment it is making to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the competition for these native speakers is fierce among other government agencies such as the FBI and CIA, as well as other military services and private contractors.