U.S. Army hopes to keep native Arabic speakers
Incentives likely to include large payments to soldiers now working as translators.
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Army personnel officials want to put the 09 Lima retention program on par with Army Special Forces, which would mean paying those linguists as much as $150,000 each to stay in the service. The Army implemented the bonus program for Special Forces in 2005 after it watched the highly trained soldiers being lured by lucrative deals offered by such firms as Blackwater USA. That bonus, which is tax-free if paid in a war zone, helped to stabilize that community.Skip to next paragraph
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The Army has yet to decide if the 09 Limas will rate the same pay, but defense officials say it's important to put linguists on par with the "high-demand, low-density" nature of Special Forces.
"We've received numerous reports from combatant commanders on the effectiveness of the 09 Limas versus the private contract linguists, and demand is extremely high," says Errol Smith, assistant deputy secretary for foreign language programs at the Pentagon.
The program represents the shift within the US government toward recognizing the value of native linguists while determining how best to assess any Trojan horse-like security threat they might pose. Mike McConnell, director of national security, is pushing to streamline the screening process.
"We have to make some breakthroughs on how we assign, trust, assess, and utilize those who have direct contact with foreign entities," says one source familiar with Mr. McConnell's plan. "That unfolding story carries a lot of implications with it, and it's a huge cultural shift for the entire nation."
Yet when it comes to linguistic and cultural expertise, few can compare to a native speaker, defense officials say. "They hear things that are said around them, they are able to see things that others can't see," says Mr. Smith.
Smith tells the story of a commander in Iraq who was using a civilian interpreter, or "terp" in the vernacular of the military, employed by a private contractor, as the American commander spoke to a local Iraqi. During the meeting, the civilian interpreted literally the words of the local Iraqi, who had told other Iraqis to feed the American commander parsley. But an 09 Lima standing nearby heard something different: feeding parsley to someone was a reference to an old expression in which parsley was fed to a bird to choke it to death.
"He was pretty much giving an order to have the commander killed," says Smith. "Right there, a life was saved .... You can see just by knowing a bit of slang, being a native speaker, it can make a difference."
The 09 Limas have become so much in demand that US Central Command, Tampa, Fla., which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has asked to extend their deployments. Current mobility regulations prevent it, Smith says, but the Army is working on a package of incentives that would allow the linguists to stay on in the war zone longer than 12 months if they chose to, he says.
Sergeant Madi, the 09 Lima, says he may be just a junior enlisted soldier, but the Army recognizes that it must know its enemy and the populations in which it operates. "There is a thirst to get this knowledge in any way," he says.