By Dr. Anthony Palmer, 120th Adjutant General Battalion (Reception)October 10, 2013
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Fort Jackson is well-known for being the Army's largest Basic Combat Training installation. However, Fort Jackson is also home to another training mission that receives far less attention, but is a critical component of the Army's warfighting capabilities. This mission, located in the 120th Adjutant General Battalion (Reception) Holding Unit, is the 09L English as a Second Language program -- the only program of its kind in the Army.
The primary responsibility of 09L Soldiers is to provide interpretation and translation support, especially for units deployed abroad. The Army has called on 09Ls to serve on foot patrols in Afghanistan, courthouses in Iraq, hospitals in Kuwait and community relations events in tribal areas far removed from the reach of national governments.
Soldiers in the 09L program are heritage speakers of critical languages identified by the Department of Defense. These languages include Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Pashto and other languages spoken in North Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia. All 09L Soldiers are either naturalized U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The Fort Jackson 09L program was established in 2007. Before then, the military had to send its future translators to intensive foreign language training or rely on paid contractors for linguistic support. This presented several risks and other disadvantages for the Army and its ability to perform its missions.
The road from enlisting in the Army to become an 09L Army professional is long. Soldiers in the 09L program at Fort Jackson receive up to 24 weeks of English training. Their courses are taught by civilian instructors, many of whom have experience living or teaching abroad. Coursework primarily consists of grammar and vocabulary, which is tested by regular assessments, but also includes study skills, pronunciation, American culture and debating skills.
Every four weeks, 09L Soldiers take a comprehensive test that assesses their English listening and reading abilities. Students scoring high enough on this test are then eligible to participate in an interview which measures their English speaking and comprehension skills. Students who pass this interview undergo a counterintelligence screening before heading off to Basic Combat Training. Upon graduating from BCT, 09Ls attend Advanced Individual Training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
During the height of the Iraq War, most of the earliest 09L Soldiers at Fort Jackson were native Arabic speakers who came from Iraq, Morocco, Egypt and Sudan. After American troops began pulling out of Iraq, America's military focus shifted to Afghanistan. As a result, most current 09L Soldiers emigrated from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Many of these Soldiers view the United States as the country that gave them and their families the gift of freedom and joined the Army as a way to express their gratitude to the nation that provided security and a better way of life for their families. Because these Soldiers tend to disagree vehemently with the political leadership of the countries of their birth and want to create a better life for any family members they may have who remain in their hometowns, they are highly motivated to support the Army's mission.
Because of their foreign language proficiency and cultural knowledge, 09L Soldiers are valuable assets to the United States military. Because they once lived in countries that may pose threats to the United States and its interests, they can serve as translators, advisers and cultural ambassadors for American military leaders.
They have the cultural knowledge necessary to train American-born Soldiers how to be sensitive to local customs to help win the hearts and minds of local communities. Their ability to communicate with local foreign populations can help improve the likelihood that locals are willing to provide Army personnel with intelligence information about the operations or presence of adversaries. The ability to communicate effectively with local foreign populations can also improve operational safety by minimizing the risks of inadvertent interference on behalf of local villages regarding operational or training missions that may take place nearby.
Because of security concerns unique to 09L Soldiers regarding media exposure, they typically are unable to identify themselves publicly. But rest assured that for every fireteam, forward operating base or foot patrol operating abroad, chances are there is a Fort Jackson-trained 09L Soldier providing critical language support to help ensure mission success.