Soldiers switch from Arabic to Pashtu
June 8, 2009
By Don Kramer
FORT LEWIS, Wash. (Army News Service, June 9, 2009) Aca,!" The Department of the Army changed the mission of the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division from Iraq to Afghanistan as it deployed in February for its mission-readiness exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
If most of the brigade was surprised, its language-enabled Soldiers were stunned. Whether they had completed Arabic language training or were still enrolled in the 10-month course, the first impression of many was that they had wasted their time learning a language they wouldn't use.
The brigade, however, had already adjusted for the contingency. Brigade Commander Colonel Harry D. Tunnell IV called Yvonne Pawelek, the director of the Fort Lewis Language Training Center and asked her to quickly develop a program of instruction for Pashtu, the primary dialect in southern Afghanistan. He told her he could spare his Soldiers for only two months away from final preparations for deployment.
"To me that's pretty dramatic," Pawelek said. "First, they change their mission and right after NTC, they were going crazy trying to get all their training in and trying to learn their new area of operation. Even so, he was willing to carve out two months."
After the initial shock sank in, most linguists realized their time wasnAca,!a,,ct wasted.
"The Army threw you a change-up and brigade threw you a curve ball," said Command Sgt. Maj. Robert A. Prosser, 5th Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. command sergeant major, at the graduation ceremony, May 29. "You choked up on the bat, you swung at it and you got at it."
The brigade selected the 50 top Arabic linguists to begin Pashtu. Pawelek and her lead curriculum developer Nazim Balawi, quickly tripled their staff of Pashtu instructors, produced a program of instruction and on March 25, opened their doors to the brigade
Tunnell and Pawelek agreed that the Soldiers already had solid grounding in many areas.
"They already knew a lot of stuff," Pawelek said, including a cultural component the brigade called Complete Warrior. "We had a big pep talk at the beginning. So many of the things are transferable: the customs, the cultural issues like the role of the family, the place of honor and women, the hospitality rules, tribalism. They weren't starting from scratch."
Another huge help was that Pashtu and Arabic share mostly the same script. The class was spared weeks of deciphering right-to-left script. Further, the languages share many root constructions.
The faculty and chain of command, however, remained realistic. No one could expect the same level of proficiency from Soldiers after nine weeks of training that they demonstrated in Arabic after 10 months.
"They've really been kind-of exposed to Pashtu," Pawelek said. "We did a lot of formulaic things, utterances, useful phrases they could use. Obviously, their ability to converse is not as it is in Arabic. But I think they have a solid foundationAca,!A|We focused on questioning things, focused on what they would need the language for. Signs. A lot of group work. A lot of interaction."
Given the time constraints, their instructors said the 5th Bde. students responded well.
"They exceeded our expectations on certain accounts," Nazim said. "Since they had Arabic and shifted into Pashtu they faced other challenges, but they are all smart guys and went over that bar. Overall, we met the intent of the commander. (How they do) on the ground remains to be seen. But we think they have good enough information to carry on with their mission."
The distinguished honor graduate of the class, Spc. Aaron Nightingale of C Company, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, said he thought he benefited from shifting directly to Pashtu after seven months of Arabic training. Nightingale finished the course with a 98-percent grade-point average. The shift, he said, was difficult, but the class buckled down and made the most of the instruction.
"It was very tricky, but the Arabic definitely helped, especially in sounds," Nightingale said. "Sentence structure is different. The action word comes at the end (in Pashtu). With the sounds and reading, if you have materials you can study on your own. That's what really helped."
The linguists will go back to their units to be used at the discretion of their battalion- and company commanders.
"Some of you are going to conduct raids with your platoons and company commanders," Prosser said. "Some of you will be along on those negotiations with the imams and mukhtars. Some of you might have to do some condolence payments, and those are pretty tough. And some of you might have to do all of them. The day you go outside the wire, you're going to make a difference."
The brigade casing ceremony for its deployment to Afghanistan is scheduled for June 19.
(Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Aca,!A"Northwest Guardian.Aca,!A?)