Academic journal article Military Review

Army Translator and Interpreter Companies: A Wasted Resource

Academic journal article Military Review

Army Translator and Interpreter Companies: A Wasted Resource

Article excerpt

In February of 2003, a shortfall in the U.S. military's ability to communicate in languages other than English caused senior military leaders to reevaluate the command language program. (1) Most U.S. operators in the Middle East could not communicate with the populations they hoped to influence because few spoke any of the languages and dialects native to the region. Moreover, the language deficit hindered operations and the ability of U.S. military personnel to form deep and lasting relationships with friends and allies from countries such as Jordan, Qatar, and the Sultanate of Oman.

Potential solutions for overcoming the military language barrier were to teach soldiers the languages needed or to hire native speakers and train them as soldiers. Neither solution would be quick or easy; both would have their merits and pitfalls. However, because language is intricately tied to culture--both best taught through immersion and experience--and nonnative speakers need many years of study to reach fluency in the languages and cultures they study, the Army's preferred solution was to enlist bilingual (or multilingual) native speakers of other languages to train as soldiers, translators, interpreters, and cultural emissaries. Therefore, in 2003, the Department of the Army directed the creation of the military occupational specialty (MOS) 09L, translator and interpreter. (2)

Recruitment for the program began with program managers scouting out local civilians already providing translation services as contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, Army recruiters across the United States began campaigns in places with dense populations of people with Middle Eastern and North African heritage, such as New York, Michigan, and California. The result was establishment of a robust translation capability with representatives from nearly two dozen countries speaking almost twenty languages and dialects, an asset that could not have been remotely paralleled by training U.S.-born native English speakers. (3)

Despite a promising start and many accomplishments, the program is far from meeting its potential. A flawed design limits its effectiveness. Consequently, the Army should modify the 09L MOS program in three major ways to ensure the maximum benefit to the force:

* Create additional skill identifier codes for different languages.

* Station the 09Ls at installations such as Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Lewis, Washington.

* Establish a centralized staff support element for training, funding, sourcing, recruiting, and deploying.

First, this article gives a short history of the 09L MOS program. Then it explains the flaws that are hindering its effectiveness. Finally, it shows why implementing these three recommendations would help the program achieve its potential.

History of the 09L Program

In the programs early days, 09Ls completed an English language immersion course, Basic Combat Training, and Advanced Individual Training. Then, they were discharged to the Individual Ready Reserve to wait for deployment orders. Within a few years, the programs success warranted expansion; so, in 2008, two translator interpreter companies (TICOs)--the 51st TICO at Fort Irwin, California, and the 52nd TICO at Fort Polk, Louisiana--were activated to train and deploy nearly three hundred active duty 09Ls in support of contingency operations and joint exercises around the world. (4)

By placing the TICOs at Combat Training Centers (CTCs), the Department of the Army hoped to further train the 09Ls in Army doctrine and English by giving them the opportunity to interact with soldiers from across the Army who came to participate in training rotations. In turn, the rotational-training-unit soldiers were expected to benefit from interacting with the 09Ls who would staff mock towns and replicate conditions in overseas operational areas.

Major Flaws in the 09L Program

The placement of the TICOs at the CTCs in 2008 was well intentioned, but by 2013, the program was rife with problems because of the companies' locations. …

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