U.S. Army hopes to keep native Arabic speakers

Incentives likely to include large payments to soldiers now working as translators.

Jacob Silberberg/AP/File
Speaking the same language: An Iraqi-American translator asks census questions in Khandari, Iraq, just west of Baghdad in 2006.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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