Translate This

It’s time to do more than talk about the problem. 

The Marine Corps desperately needs additional translators who can speak critical languages including Arabic and Dari. The translators are needed to support our warriors who are currently engaged with the enemy as well as supporting the indigenous populations of countries around the world. To identify, train, and deliver these translators out to the fleet as soon as possible, we need to do a much better job of identifying, recruiting, and placing those who demonstrate an aptitude to learn a foreign language.

Case in point, Corporal Howell, a Marine with Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron Three (VMAQ-3). He is an outstanding young leader that is responsible for a great deal more than most 20-year olds. A native of Montgomery, Alabama, he scored a 285 on his last Physical Fitness Test, has completed 20 Marine Corps Institute courses, and is a Collateral Duty Inspector (CDI) within his Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) shop.

In December 2004, Corporal Howell blew the top off the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB), the test the military services use to measure the unique aptitude to learn a foreign language. He scored nearly 20% above what the Marine Corps requires for a Marine to learn a Category IV language.

So, why isn’t Corporal Howell on his way to Monterey, California, to learn a language to support our brothers on the pointy end of the spear? For one thing, Corporal Howell spent roughly seven months in training for his current highly technical Military Occupational Specialty. It makes sense that the Marine Corps wants to maximize the return on its investment by having him utilize that training as long as possible. Another is that the Marine Corps requires a 36-month minimum time-on-station. Of which he has only served 22 months.

But, desperate times call for desperate measures. Although Corporal Howell is extremely proficient at his job, there are many other Marines that can be trained to fill his position. There may not be as many Marines uniquely qualified with such a strong aptitude to learn a foreign language. Since the 36-month rule is a Marine Corps constraint and combined with the extenuating circumstances, it could, and probably should, be waived in order to make him a Marine Translator. Corporal Howell’s situation is certainly not unique.

Pulling some of the Marines who demonstrate an exceptional aptitude to learn foreign languages from positions they are currently filling is part of the short-term solution to satisfy the immediate need for translators. To that end, all commands should identify Marines who have language proficiency or aptitude by providing the time and opportunity for their Marines to be tested. Without question, the Marine Corps cannot make everyone who is qualified a translator, but perhaps we can pull the top 10% to fill this critical need.

In the long term, however, we must avoid the unnecessary cost of training a Marine for one MOS and then pulling them to be trained as a translator. We must do a much more thorough job of screening our recruits and should immediately start administering the DLAB to all Mental Group “A” Recruits. A long term solution involves a more elaborate overhaul of our job placement process, but this much is clear: it is much more cost effective to proficiently screen our recruits rather than attempt to retrain Marines later. The ultimate loss that we can never recoup is the loss of a Marine in a hostile environment because of a misallocation of mission essential skills.

Both Corporal Howell and our Corps would have been better served had the Corporal been administered the DLAB in addition to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) when he enlisted. The Marine Corps would have recognized his unique aptitude and vectored him directly into a Marine translator slot.

The publication of the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap (DLTR) in January of 2005 underscores the importance that the Department of Defense places on language skills. The document contains four main goals and over 40 specific recommendations. Many of these recommendations are in the author’s opinion well founded; however, they may represent too little, too late. For example, Recommendation 2.H., which has a fully operational date of September 2007, is as follows: Establish “crash” or “survival” courses for deploying forces. Forces are currently deployed and they need to survive now. Unfortunately, the DLTR is yet another document in a long line of documents that is saying the same thing: we need translators now; we’ll address the problem later. Instead of writing these documents about translator production, it is time to produce some translators.

Given that we are at war, it is absolutely essential that we place Marines where they are needed and able to make the greatest impact. If the Marine Corps does not act now, there will be a lot more Corporal Howell’s doing the job assigned by the recruiter based on limited information, instead of doing the job the Marine Corps really needs to help fight and win the Global War on Terrorism.

This article orginally appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette, December 2005:

.@USMC Veteran. @UnivWestGa and @HarvardHBS alum. Worked at @Twilio, founded Zillabyte. Democratic Candidate for Congress in VA-05.