By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist
Army Sgt. Amy O’Keefe, a signal intelligence specialist, was frustrated while in Iraq in 2003 trying to tell local women they needed to be searched for weapons before they could enter Army health care clinics.
“There would be people here or there who could speak enough English where we would maybe get a point across,” O’Keefe recalled. “But for most, I’d be like a mime having to gesture and hoping the intent was clear.”
Army Sgt. William J. Golden knew the feeling. He arrived in Iraq three years later with no Arabic language skill. Because he and other soldiers couldn’t communicate with locals, troop patrols, whether to make an arrest or to keep the peace, seemed to deepen Iraqi fears, Golden said.
“I could pantomime, mostly. But other than that, to get a clear point across, was almost impossible,” Golden said.
Next spring, O’Keefe, 27, and Golden, 28, will return to Iraq with the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Wash. This time they will be conversant in Arabic, the result of 10 months’ training under the Language Enabled Soldier (LES) program. A total of 126 soldiers out of 4,000 to deploy with the 5-2 Brigade will be able to speak directly with Iraqis though, by specialty, they are not Army linguists.
The LES program being run at Fort Lewis’ Foreign Language Training Center is cited as one of many recent initiatives that reflect a rising appreciation for foreign language skills in the U.S. military.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have underscored the importance of language skills for unit readiness and operational effectiveness. Language skills have climbed as a national security priority among Defense civilian leaders and military commanders down through individual service members.
“The fact that a combat arms commander would give up this many soldiers for 10 months is an unbelievable commitment.