Ten years ago, I watched soldiers who had spent a year at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) learning Arabic end up getting sent to Hawaii, Korea, and to units that did not permit them to use their Arabic language skills.
I watched skilled, trained linguists who loved their target languages get flushed through a system that didn't care about their language identifier but did care about their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). The broken system that mishandled and assigned them to units where they could not maintain or enhance their critical language skills simply shrugged.
The Army may begin paying a retention bonus of as much as $150,000 to Arabic speaking soldiers in reflection of how critical it has become for the US military to retain native language and cultural know-how in its ranks.
That, my friends, is insane. Had the Army retained just one out of every four of those linguists, there wouldn't be such a dire need right now. I would estimate that 9 out of every 10 Arabic linguists that I met got out after their first tour.
Only one other job in the Army, Special Forces, rates such a super-sized retention bonus. Now, as the military makes a fundamental shift toward rewarding the linguistic expertise it needs the most, it is expanding a program to train and retain native Arabic and other speakers from the same regions in which it is fighting.
"This is a war not only against the US, but against our way of freedom," says Sergeant Madi, a native interpreter and US citizen who asked to be identified only by his surname due to security concerns for him and his family. "We have been fighting for over 16 years against Islamic extremism. It is also my war."
This part is what angers me the most--we knew after the first Gulf War that we needed people in the military who could speak Arabic. Not the flat, formal version--the kind spoken in different countries all throughout the Middle East. We knew in 1998 that we were going to need linguists if we were going to keep Saddam Hussein contained.
After the invasion of Iraq and the insurgency that followed, the US military recognized its dearth of linguistic competence in the country it had just toppled, and it scrambled to identify Arabic and other linguists.
Yes, it is true--a good number have been persecuted out of the ranks for being gay. Many more were simply assigned in ways that cost them their language skills.
The US Army simply isn't serious about training and retaining them. It knew there was a problem a decade ago. In ten years, they could have several thousand linguists in all ranks and with various specialties and dialect experience.
Instead, we have a crisis that they are going to try and throw $150,000 a head at. That's not the answer, either. All you're going to do are keep a handful of people who need the money. The rest know they can get out--and avoid a third or fourth tour in Iraq.