'Combat Linguists' Battle on Two Fronts
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Jun 7 13:27:10 UTC 2005
THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ
'Combat Linguists' Battle on Two Fronts Interpreters, some U.S. citizens,
face not just Iraqi insurgents but suspicious GIs as well.
By John M. Glionna and Ashraf Khalil
Times Staff Writers
June 5, 2005
BAGHDAD Tarik, a newly minted U.S. Army private first class, recalls his
first challenge in Iraq: convincing fellow GIs he wasn't a terrorist. The
24-year-old Morocco native was among the first graduates of a U.S.
military program to provide Arabic-speaking "combat linguists" for
American ground troops, one of the most precarious roles in the Iraq
conflict. During basic training at Ft. Jackson, S.C., scores of
foreign-born recruits are warned that their backgrounds make them targets
for Iraqi extremists who view them as traitors. But nobody warns them
about the soldiers they're sent to assist.
In Iraq, some interpreters said, soldiers mocked their Arabic surnames and
accused them of being "on the wrong side" of the conflict. Suspicious of
his accent and dark features, some soldiers disdainfully labeled Tarik a
hajji, a term of respect among Muslims that many American soldiers use
with scorn. The Boston resident felt like he was fighting two wars. "I
don't care what you think of me," he recalled telling fellow soldiers
after arriving in Baghdad in April 2004. "I'm wearing this uniform. I'm
just as much of an American soldier as you are."
The Army calls them 09 Limas military-speak for the linguist program.
Answering recruitment ads, they volunteered to help fill the U.S.
military's desperate need for speakers of Arabic, Persian, Pashto, Kurdish
and other languages, often returning to the homes of their ancestors to do
the job. When the first 09 Limas landed in Iraq last year, they
immediately bridged a cultural gap between U.S. soldiers and Iraqis. On
routine patrols in Baghdad or exploring possibly hostile desert towns, the
09 Limas try to fathom the wordless communication of hand and body
gestures. On sweeps of suspected terrorists, they look for the
often-subtle Arabic accents and dialects that can suggest a detainee's
nationality and possible intent.
They also help defuse misunderstandings. One interpreter determined that
documents found during a recent search of a Baghdad home were not
weapons-smuggling blueprints, as U.S. soldiers suspected, but sewing
patterns. Although the need for native Arabic-speaking soldiers appears
limitless in Iraq, let alone the rest of the Middle East, only 65 recruits
have graduated from the 17-week program. Officials plan to send 100 more
in the next year. "Without them," an Army commander in Baghdad wrote in an
e-mail, "my men and I could not do two-thirds of our mission."
The 09 Limas are no strangers to the Middle East's political turmoil.
Their ranks include a former member of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard
who lost his taste for the regime; a Kurd whose brother was gassed by the
dictator; a onetime Lebanese freedom fighter who began waging war at age
12; and a Sudanese recruit whose brother was among 17 coalition workers
kidnapped and killed by Iraqi insurgents in December. The need for their
skills is dire. U.S. troops often must rely on hand signals in
communicating with Iraqis as entire combat brigades struggle to make do
with only one native Arabic-speaking U.S. soldier.
The military has hired countless contract interpreters or local civilians
with doubtful English skills and often-veiled political agendas. As a
result, many U.S. soldiers feel more comfortable with Arabic-speakers from
the United States with a knowledge of slang and Army acronyms. It is a
dangerous assignment. In 2004, at least 26 civilian interpreters were
killed in Iraq, according to the American Translators Assn. Lt. Col. Tom
Plunkett, Army commander in Baghdad, described how insurgents recently
targeted one of his unit's local interpreters. The woman was shot 65 times
as she left home for work. The commander said he had lost two other
For security reasons, the Army has asked that 09 Limas training to go to
Iraq remain anonymous, and only the first names be used of those who have
been deployed or have returned from the war. U.S. officials say that,
unlike locally hired interpreters, 09 Limas are trained soldiers armed
with automatic weapons and Kevlar vests who live and work full time with
their units. Still, many recruits don't tell their parents they've gone to
Iraq or even that they've enlisted. Most would worry too much.
"These translators are targets," said American Translators Assn. spokesman
Kevin Hendzel. "They're the military's lifeline in communicating with
regular Iraqis. The insurgents are smart. They know this; they're going
after them." The recruits' reasons for volunteering vary. Some 09 Limas
received expedited citizenship in exchange for a commitment of two years
of active duty. Former cab drivers and car rental clerks hope their
experience will lead to higher-paying jobs. Still others, already U.S.
citizens, have volunteered to help an adopted homeland they say has
provided them a better life. Not all Americans support the 09 Limas.
"There were lots of turncoats in the American Revolution. These people are
no better," said Hasan Newash, director of the Palestine Office, a
U.S.-based Palestinian rights group.
Even some 09 Limas have their doubts. "I'm a Muslim, and going to fight
this war doesn't go with Islam," one 32-year-old Morocco native said as he
took part in basic training drills at Ft. Jackson. "But I'm also an
Their faces painted an inky camouflage, the soldiers whisper in accented
English as they crawl across the clay-colored Carolina soil toward a
would-be enemy post. "Wait! Wait! Go back!" Tommy Woolen shouts in a
drawl. The fiery young drill sergeant is unhappy with his trainees.
"Daggone! We've practiced this drill 800 daggone times and y'all are still
jackin' it up. Y'all are in such a hurry to go in there and get killed."
Shouldering heavy rucksacks, their M-16s handled gingerly, the dozen
soldiers shrug silently and trudge away. Nobody has a response. Nobody
tries to explain.
It hasn't always been like that with the 09 Limas. Soon after the first 20
recruits arrived at Ft. Jackson on a bleak winter morning 18 months ago,
disputes erupted with their military handlers.
Rather than simply follow orders, many tried to explain mistakes to fuming
Many clung to Arabic customs. One recruit said Muslim culture forbade him
from fighting an older U.S. soldier. When Woolen barked at a recruit in
his 30s, the man told the drill sergeant to respect his elders.
"He said, 'You will not talk to me in this fashion,' " recalled Woolen,
who is 27 but looks younger.
Woolen told the recruit: "I'm not your elder. I'm your superior."
Many 09 Limas say they weren't told they were going to Iraq. Tarik says
his recruiter promised him a cushy desk job translating news from Al
Jazeera, an Arabic channel: "No way would I have joined to go to Iraq."
Others complained that the military did not deliver promised signing
bonuses or foreign language-proficiency pay. At night, hushed complaints
were uttered in the darkened barracks. Some soldiers went on a hunger
strike. Others wanted to talk to lawyers.
Lt. Carol Stahl, a trained Arabic-speaker, built the 09 Lima pilot program
from the ground up. The former social studies teacher immediately became
fiercely protective of her recruits.
For months, she and supporters within the Pentagon battled Army
bureaucracy to get the interpreters better pay and benefits. She worked to
reduce the required time they spend in a war zone from two years to one,
just like other soldiers.
Still, Stahl faced a mutiny.
"Suddenly, all these people wanted to quit,'" she recalled. Nine recruits
either quit or were dropped during the program's first year.
Those who remained struggled with military protocol and insensitive
comments and jibes.
Saeed, a 35-year-old Morocco native, recalls a motivational speech for the
recruits in which a sergeant pledged, "We're going to go to Iraq and kill
those guys who worship Allah."
Officials enforce a "zero tolerance" rule for taunts about religion, and
after Saeed sent a letter of complaint to his superiors, the sergeant was
brought forward to apologize to the 09 Limas. "There was an immediate
response," Saeed said. "That made me feel good."
One day, as 09 Limas entered the mess hall, a civilian cook shouted, "Here
comes the Taliban!"
Tarik and others went to Stahl. "You lied to us," he recalled telling his
commander. "We want out of here."
The civilian cook was fired, even though the recruits later tried to save
the man's job. "We were risking so much to go to Iraq," Tarik said. "Such
insults made us wonder why we bothered."
Slowly, however, the 09 Lima recruits bonded as a unit. Stahl has attended
five 09 Lima graduation ceremonies, where the new interpreters recite
their military oaths in both English and their native language. Many call
her from Iraq to check on pay issues or just say hello.
But for those still at Ft. Jackson, anxiety builds as the dates for
shipping off to Iraq loom closer.
"Everyone's afraid to die," one Morocco native says. "What terrifies me
more is being tortured before they kill me."Sief, a 09 Lima from Sudan,
has felt the enemy's hatred like a hand gripping his throat. During a
recent Baghdad stint, he assisted in interrogations of suspected
insurgents. The detainees were always handcuffed, and Sief was glad.
"You're asking precise questions and this man is talking at you and
spitting at your face," said the 42-year-old, who lives in Lincoln, Neb.
"You can read the anger in his eyes. You can see the hatred."
Jihad, a Jordan native who grew up in San Francisco, came to terms with
being targeted by terrorists. "I told a buddy that if we ever got ambushed
and he saw me getting kidnapped, I wanted him to shoot me," the 09 Lima
said. "I didn't want to go through the torture."
No way, his friend said. He'd try to save him, not kill him.
"But if you can't save me," Jihad persisted. "Please shoot me."
Tarik recalls being approached by a stranger one day at Baghdad's city
hall. "How many Iraqis have you killed today?" the man asked in Arabic.
"I told him: 'I don't need your oil. I'm here to help. Sit down. Let's
The man shouted to others that Tarik was a traitor. "They wanted to kill
me," he said. Fellow soldiers hustled him to a waiting Humvee, Tarik says,
and he stayed away from the city hall for months after a contract on his
life was reportedly issued.
Security precautions have often placed 09 Limas in awkward roles. Although
they wear aliases on their uniform name tags, military IDs bear their
correct names. And because the program is so new, not every soldier has
heard of it.
Tarik recalled being detained by a military policeman who insisted that he
was a terrorist.
"Who are you?" the policeman asked, seeing his conflicting credentials.
"Don't you trust me?" Tarik responded.
"You're a spy, I know it. And I'm going to prove it."
Stahl said many of the ID problems faced by the first graduates have been
solved. Interpreters now carry documents explaining why their name tags
don't match their identification.
Many 09 Limas believe they have left a positive impression on Iraq. Eyad,
20, had assisted U.S. Marines in Iraq's Kurdish north during the 1991
Persian Gulf War. He remembers them giving him candy. "When I went back,"
he said, "I did the same thing."
The 09 Limas recently suffered their first casualty. Saeed said a young
Jordan native, who was "like everybody's little brother" in his class, was
seriously injured by a roadside bomb in Baqubah. He was flown home to the
U.S., where doctors are trying to save his arm and leg.
Saeed was pensive when he discussed his comrade: "His mother doesn't even
know he's in the Army."
Glionna reported from California and South Carolina, Khalil from Baghdad.
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