Some translators not fit for duty

Officers say they endanger troops

Josh Habib (far left), a 53-year-old translator, along with two Marines, spoke to Afghan villagers. He has hiked in extreme heat, and said this is not the job he signed up for. Josh Habib (far left), a 53-year-old translator, along with two Marines, spoke to Afghan villagers. He has hiked in extreme heat, and said this is not the job he signed up for. (David Guttenfelder/ Associated Press)
By Jason Straziuso
Associated Press / July 26, 2009

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NAWA, Afghanistan - Josh Habib lay in a dirt field, gasping for air. Two days of hiking with Marines through southern Afghanistan’s 115-degree heat had exhausted him. This was not what he signed up for.

Habib is not a Marine. He is a 53-year-old engineer from California hired by a contracting company as a military translator. When he applied for the lucrative linguist job, Habib said, his recruiter gave no hint he would join a ground assault in Taliban land. He carried 40 pounds of food, water, and gear on his back, and kept pace - barely - with Marines half his age.

US troops say companies that recruit military translators are sending linguists to southern Afghanistan who are unprepared to serve in combat, even as hundreds more are needed to support the growing number of troops.

Some translators are in their 60s and 70s and in poor physical condition - and some don’t even speak the right language.

“I’ve met guys off the planes and have immediately sent them back because they weren’t in the proper physical shape,’’ said Gunnery Sergeant James Spangler, who is in charge of linguists at Camp Leatherneck, the largest US base in Helmand Province.

“They were too old. They couldn’t breathe. They complained about heart problems,’’ he said.

And that’s not the worst of it.

Troops say low-skilled and disgruntled translators are putting US forces at risk.

“Intelligence can save Marines’ lives and give us the advantage on the battlefield,’’ said Corporal William Woodall, 26, of Dallas, who works closely with translators. “Instead of looking for quality, the companies are just pushing bodies out here.’’

Spangler, 36, of Lecanto, Fla., emphasized that translators need to be physically fit.

“When we have convoys that are out days or weeks at a time and you have someone that’s 60 or 70 years old, I have to put the directive in: I need someone younger, can get out of a vehicle quickly, can run for short periods if needed,’’ Spangler said.

The company that recruits the most US citizen translators, Columbus, Ohio-based Mission Essential Personnel, says it’s difficult to meet the increased demand for linguists to aid the 15,000 US forces being sent to southern Pashto-speaking provinces this year as part of President Obama’s increased focus on Afghanistan. Only 7,700 Pashto speakers live in the United States, according to the 2000 Census.

Mission Essential’s senior vice president, Marc Peltier, said the linguists the company deploys to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries meet government standards. The military sets no age or weight requirements, he said.

“I really wish everyone we send over was a 21-year-old who can pass the Marine Corps physical fitness exam. They’re not,’’ said Peltier.

“It’s been a shock to some of them. You can’t really acclimate them. We don’t have centers to run scenarios out in the heat. It is a surprise to many of them and it’s very, very hard work, especially with a lot of the new Marines that are going into Helmand Province,’’ he said.

How translators come to believe they won’t face danger could originate with recruiters.

“They’re going to tell you whatever it is to get you hired,’’ Spangler said.

Khalid Nazary, an Afghan-American citizen living in Kabul, called Mission Essential about a job and let an AP reporter listen.

He asked whether he would go to “dangerous places.’’

“Oh, no, no, no. You’re not a soldier. You’re not a soldier. Not at all,’’ the recruiter, Tekelia Barnett, said. “You’re not on the battlefield.’’

The Afghan-American asked repeatedly whether he would be sent on battlefield missions. Barnett said he would translate for soldiers at schools, mosques, or hospitals. After being pressed on the point, Barnett said the linguist would be subject to “any’’ assignment, and if he didn’t want the task, he could quit.