It’s no secret that the U.S. Army has a language barrier to overcome in Iraq and Afghanistan. A decade of war has led an English-constrained military to seek all kinds of quick fixes, from translator gadgets to private contractors — something Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lamentedthis week. But more galling is the fact that the few soldiers who do speak Arabic, Pashto and Dari are still being wasted, even in the warzones where they’re needed the most. I know — because I was one of them.
The Army spends years and hundreds of thousands of dollars training each of its foreign-language speakers. At the same time, it uses costly contractors to work the same jobs for which its own linguists have trained. In Iraq and Afghanistan, private-sector linguists are largely replacing their military counterparts rather than augmenting their numbers, an expensive redundancy.
In the fall of 2006, I enlisted in the Army as a cryptologic linguist, one of the soldiers who translate foreign communications. A year of college Arabic hadn’t been enough to persuade intelligence-agency recruiters of my James Bond potential. The military, spook agencies assured me during a string of polite job-fair letdowns, was the place to start getting real-world experience. So off I went to boot camp.
Over two years of training followed, both in Arabic and the specific intelligence duties I’d need to perform in-country. In March 2009, I stepped off of a Blackhawk at Forward Operating Base Delta, a large base near al-Kut in southeastern Iraq. I figured I’d be translating captured Arabic communications to alert combat troops of danger.
So imagine my surprise when my new team sergeant picked me up at the airfield and mentioned he was a Korean linguist. It… turned out that our five-man team had as many Korean speakers as Arabic ones — you know, for all the Korean spoken in the Iraqi desert. It was my first sign that the deployment wouldn’t be the one I trained for.