Rep. Walsh presses Internet language lessons for military

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 10 13:57:19 UTC 2006

Walsh presses Internet language lessons for military
By Roxana Tiron

As the Pentagon hustles to improve the militarys foreign-language
training, a small business from Syracuse, N.Y., with a mighty
congressional supporter is advocating an unconventional method of teaching
Arabic, Pashtun or Tagalog. Unconventional warriors at the U.S. Special
Operations Command (SOCOM)  have caught on to what they call the Special
Operations Forces Tele-training System (SOFTS). Both special ops and the
technology provider, Progressive Expert Consulting, are pegging their
hopes on Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), the veteran appropriator from Syracuse
who got it started.

Walsh, chairman of the Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs
Subcommittee, is asking Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the defense
appropriations panel, to add $2 million to SOCOMs 2007 budget for the
Armys Special Forces. The money would help expand SOFTS from a pilot
program started a couple of years ago to a full-fledged program, beginning
in 2008. SOCOM is planning to include the technology as part of its
2008-2013 project objective memorandum, according to an industry source.
Without money in 2007, the company and some of the military users fear
that the technology cant prove itself enough to become a staple of the
Special Operations Foreign Language Office. PEC, the company behind the
program, has a contract with the Special Operations Command until the end
of 2006, said Michael Fang, PECs director of systems integration.

SOFTS allows students and language instructors to see each other and
interact over the Internet. It requires broadband Internet access and
computers outfitted with a camera, a headset and a microphone. Normally,
members of the military are sent to the Defense Language Institute in
Monterey, Calif., for months of study. But the Pentagon has been relying
more and more on members of the National Guard and Reserve to fight the
wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Apart from being deployed for a long time,
some Guard members and reservists also have to spend months away from home
learning a new language. PECs selling point to special ops reservists was
that they would not have to leave their families and home bases before
being deployed. The system saves an average of $11,000 per student on
travel and lodging, according to the company.

Monterey is not cheap. It is a tourism destination, said Fang. Plus they
have such high need they cant fit everybody. But Fang admitted that being
in the classroom is best. You do want to teach the students live, he said.
SOFTS students sit at their computers at a certain time and are taught by
instructors as far away as South Korea. The students can see and hear each
other and have a shared view of newspapers or other documents. I am a
telecom guy, and I see the promise of it [because] with broadband
communications over the Internet you can do almost anything, Walsh said.
Its a remarkable technology. Walsh, a former member of the Peace Corps,
learned Nepali at the Defense Language Institute.

Now we do not have enough Arabic speakers, he said. The Pentagon is
planning to allocate more than $750 million over the next five years to
boost the number of personnel with critical language skills. Students who
do not know the language at all plug into the system five days a week for
seven hours a day. The course usually lasts about eight months, and at the
end the students are scored at level two out of five on the Pentagons
language proficiency scale. Level two is the cutoff for them to receive
their additional pay based on language proficiency, Fang said. SOFTS
originated from a NASA program in 2000 when the agencys administrator, Dan
Golden, wanted to create an intelligent synthesis environment. Walsh, with
support from New York Gov. George Pataki, appropriated $1 million to start
the program at Syracuse University.

PEC integrated the technology into a system that then was adopted by the
intelligence community in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. After that, it moved to the
Defense Language Institute. In 2005, at Walshs behest, the Defense
Appropriations Subcommittee added $1 million for what was to become SOFTS.
But there was no funding in 2006 and no request for 2007 from SOCOM
headquarters in Tampa, Fla. When the folks from PEC told me about the
technology, I thought of 1 million applications, said Walsh, who
capitalized on the opportunity to help a small business and add more jobs
to a dormant downtown Syracuse. As the chairman of veterans affairs
appropriations, Walsh is pushing the same broadband concept to help
wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital stay in touch with their families
who may be too far to come and visit often. Injured soldiers can use TVs
to communicate and see their families.

Called the American Spirit program, it would support a Web portal where
the patients and their families can share pictures, messages and have
face-to-face, real-time conversations. Last year, Walsh appropriated $2
million to the Army as part of the Defense Health program to get the
initiative started. The Army is expected to have a competition to award a
contract for the Spirit program, Walsh said. He is also thinking of
jump-starting a similar program at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in the 2007

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