Soldiers learn Arabic to better prepare for war

The police chief complained he had no men, no weapons and no cars. The mayor wanted to talk about problems with the water-treatment plant and the town’s spotty electricity.

Army Spc. Yefim Kelmanskiy, translating from Arabic to English, relayed their concerns to his commanding officer. And he also shared some vital intelligence: A terrorist cell had set up shop in the next village over, and locals had seen them carting boxes out of the woods.

The conversation with the village elders took place over Styrofoam cups of tea in Leschi Town, a fake city that is used to test Fort Lewis soldiers on real-life situations they’ll encounter in Iraq. While his comrades either guarded the town hall or searched for a rooftop sniper, Kelmanskiy was undergoing a final exam of sorts — to test his language skills.

Kelmanskiy and 125 other soldiers assigned to Fort Lewis’ newest Stryker Brigade Combat Team are part of a new program to teach soldiers rudimentary Arabic. The idea is that once deployed to Iraq, they’ll be able to communicate with local Iraqis to help their units better distinguish between allies and enemies.

“It’s a tough language,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Neumann, the battalion commander for the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. “I can introduce myself in Arabic and give a couple greetings, but after that, I’m pretty much out of steam.”

Three groups of soldiers have graduated from the class that teaches Modern Standard Arabic. Graduates typically have the verbal and written skills of a fourth- or fifth-grade Arab child.

The Arabic-language program, which crams two years of study into a 10-month course, was pioneered by the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which returned to Fort Lewis in June after serving more than a year in Iraq. The 4th Stryker Brigade has about 80 soldiers who can speak basic Arabic.

But Col. Harry Tunnell, commander of the 1-year-old 5th Stryker Brigade, took the idea to the next level. Though the Stryker team has yet to deploy, it was Tunnell’s goal to make sure each company within the brigade had at least one soldier — and as many as four — who could help American forces bridge the language and culture gap with Iraqi citizens.

“I think it’s going to make a huge difference,” said Neumann, who did a seven-month tour in Iraq in 2004.

American soldiers regularly encounter “counter-guerrillas,” foreign al-Qaida fighters who blend in with civilians to avoid detection, Neumann said. But there aren’t enough interpreters — usually American contractors or local hires — to go around. Military leaders also have to worry whether the interpreters will stick around through heavy combat or betray the Americans to al-Qaida.

By training soldiers in language basics, “it gives us access to the local people,” Neumann said. “Without breaking down that language and culture barrier, we don’t have access to the people — and to get to the enemy, we have to go through the people who know the situation on the ground.”

In the simulated exercise, the locals were played by four native Arabic speakers — two Iraqis, a Lebanese and a Tunisian — who are employed by an Ohio company that provides translators and interpreters to the military and private companies.

One man wore the dark-green fatigues of an Iraqi military commander, while the others wore long robes and kaffiyehs, men’s traditional black-and-white head coverings.

A man playing a village elder spoke in rapid-fire Arabic, and Kelmanskiy translated: “I see him at night, after midnight. They all gather in the house. Sometimes they go to the cafe.”

The police chief circled two locations on a map. Kelmanskiy said: “That’s the mosque, and that’s the meeting house.”

The information was to be used when members of Kelmanskiy’s Bravo Company launch a training raid on the make-believe terrorist cell, part of a six-day battery of tests to make sure each company in the battalion is properly putting its training into practice. A couple of miles away at the Fort Lewis Language School, recent grad Sgt. Raul Montano said: “The chance to learn Arabic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Montano, 26, was an artillery soldier before volunteering for the language program. Once he deploys, Montano and soldiers like him will work as platoon radio operators or in other communications positions.

Though he’s already graduated from the language program and passed his simulation, Montano is working to keep his language skills up and will eventually be taught the basics of the Iraqi dialect.

“I knew it was going to be hard, and it is as hard as it looks,” he said. “A soldier’s job is to be a soldier first. To add on to that — trying to translate and switching languages — is a challenge. It’s not easy.”