- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

NEAR THE SYRIAN BORDER, Iraq. — Specialist Aaron Molina is getting out of the Army to learn to be a chef. This represents a considerable loss for the Army, since it has invested about a million bucks in the 26-year-old Cleveland native.

Spec. Molina is a Russian linguist and a signals intelligence expert for the 66th Military Intelligence Company, which is part of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He has a degree in computer science from Ohio State University.

Few in the military have received more, or more expensive, training than Spec. Molina and other linguists. After basic training, there is a year or more of language instruction at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.

The instruction is all by native speakers. The method is total immersion. At no university in the United States is there better instruction.

Then there is training in their particular black art, conducted chiefly at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas.

And before the training begins, candidates must pass a thorough background check for the high-security clearances Army linguists must have. This takes months and costs tens of thousands of dollars.

Spec. Molina likes his job and is very good at it. But he is getting out because, as a junior enlisted man, he spends more time sweeping the motor pool than he does doing his job.

If Spec. Molina’s case were isolated, there would be no point to this column. But his case is more or less typical. The first-term retention rate among linguists is distressingly low. And it is low because these valuable assets are not being treated with the dignity they deserve.

It’s understandable why Spec. Molina and the German and Spanish linguists in his unit are driving trucks and standing guard here, since their skills are not relevant in Iraq. The treatment of Sgt. Paul Olsen’s wife, Kelly, is less so.

Kelly is an Arab linguist, formerly part of the 66th MI Company. Paul and Kelly had a baby, Vivian, 11 months ago. Their families live far from the 3rd ACR’s base of Fort Carson, Colo., so there was no relative close enough to care for Vivian if both were deployed. Kelly requested permission to remain at Fort Carson when the 3rd ACR deployed, so she could take care of Vivian. Permission was denied. So Kelly applied for, and received, a humanitarian discharge. So instead of having Kelly at Fort Carson, where she could still perform valuable work, the Army is now another million bucks short.

The linguist retention problem could easily and inexpensively be ameliorated if a little common sense were applied. The Army, properly, offers large bonuses to young people who have the aptitude to become linguists. But it doesn’t pay enough attention to the people it already has attracted, and is now turning off.

The Army can’t offer Spec. Molina a bonus large enough to get him to re-enlist, so long as he thinks he’ll still be treated like dirt. But no bonus would be required if he were treated with the respect he thinks he deserves.

Linguists need to enter the military as privates. They are, after all, soldiers, and there are certain skills to be acquired. The Army is not a suitable profession for lateral entry. But if linguists re-enlist, they should be made warrant officers. This would provide them with greater status, and exempt them from scut details.

Moreover, when the Army has new language needs to fill, it ought to look more toward teaching linguists it already has additional languages than to recruiting new people off the street. If a language like Russian has become less important, send someone like Spec. Molina back to Monterey to learn Arabic or Dari or Pashtu. He’s already been through basic, got his security clearance and learned the intricacies of his secret craft.

I’ve never met a former DLI student who didn’t love the place. The prospect of going back there would in itself be a powerful incentive to re-enlist. And a linguist who speaks two additional languages can be twice as valuable as the linguist who speaks only one.

Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration and is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette. He is embedded with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in western Iraq.

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