‘Combat Linguists’ Battle on Two Fronts

Times Staff Writers

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 interpreters recently.

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 American.”


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 drill sergeants.

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 talk.’ ”

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.