February 1, 2011  

‘Terps to troops

Foreign interpreters earn the right to be fast-tracked to U.S citizenship

Patrolling the desert plains of Eastern Zabul province, Afghanistan, my gunner spots 10 civilians walking with AKs and PKMs.

I immediately asked my interpreter (‘terp): “Siar, what’s going on?” After a five-second evaluation, he replied, “Sir, I don’t know. But they aren’t Taliban.” And he was right. His two years of combat experience in Zabul had given him a wealth of experience I relied on heavily throughout my deployment. He was 22 years old at the time. He is still a combat ‘terp, now serving in Panjshir. My other “good” ‘terp, Fahim, is now attached to an infantry platoon in Kandahar. Both have been combat ‘terps with front-line units for more than four years. Having been removed from their families for so long, they are relegated to two possible fates: death or emigration. Death is, unfortunately, the more likely outcome for both of them.

Studies estimate that interpreters are 10 times more likely to die in combat than deployed American or international forces. Interpreters are invariably outside the wire and next to the small-unit leaders who are so often themselves casualties. They are irreplaceable as combat multipliers. Simply stated, counterinsurgency operations are impossible without good interpreters. The use of the word “interpreter” as opposed to “translator” is key. The ‘terps’ strengths transcend the mere ability to translate conversations. They are culturally attuned and adept at recognizing nonverbal clues or shifts in the cultural norm that even the best trained linguist would be blind to. Any combat veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan will tell you that his best asset is a great ‘terp.

Locally recruited ‘terps have their deficiencies, however. Being noncitizens, they aren’t cleared for secure communications. This limits their ability to operate with some units. And not all of them are good. Of the five ‘terps assigned to me, I could count on only two in combat. I did endorsement letters for both as my tour closed to try to get them the magic green card. More than the substantial paycheck, most ‘terps are risking their lives for the opportunity to get to the U.S. As with nearly all such requests, the visa requests languished in an unknown office and died.


Back in the U.S., the Defense Department has a problem as well. We simply can’t fill enough of the required “heritage speakers” slots, despite hefty bonuses and a new rank-enhanced career path. The concept behind the “heritage speakers” was a sound one: Recruit from America’s immigrant population to provide interpreters for their families’ country of origin. Rather than send them to the Defense Language Institute’s two-year program, they would be instantly language-qualified and culturally attuned to a degree that DLI graduate could never match. However, supply never caught up with demand. Those same American citizens can earn $200,000 annual salaries doing the same job without the military restrictions and with the ability to quit at any time.

There is, of course, the standard immigration process through the State Department. Unsurprisingly, the farther away from Kabul and Baghdad the interpreters are, the less likely they are to be selected. So the ‘terps who risk the most, know the most, and would be most useful are the ones least likely to come to America and then be eligible to fill our military’s unquestioned need for Middle East cultural experts.

Our system for selecting ‘terps for immigration needs to be simplified, codified and designed around meeting the needs of our nation and its military. The current arbitrary and inequitable system is unacceptable after so many years conducting operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. This system should consist of several simple, quantifiable steps.

1. All interpreter evaluation forms should have a block that asks simply, “Do you recommend that this interpreter be allowed to immigrate to the United States?” These forms are already a periodic requirement for the immediate leader to evaluate the interpreter for further employment.

2. After three years of service as an interpreter to U.S. or allied forces, and assuming a successful string of recommendations, a packet is forwarded through military channels recommending the interpreter for a special, restricted immigration status. The approval and disapproval for this remains in DoD channels at a level low enough to ensure that qualified packets are approved quickly but with oversight for disqualifiers.

3. Upon approval and a physical, the interpreter will be sent to a military entrance processing station and then enlisted into the active duty U.S. military into a skill and branch at DoD’s discretion. This could be basic training only. Advanced training could be waived based on language ability or simply standard enlistment into any job identifier through the standard training pipeline.

4. Upon completion of his initial active-duty tour of three to four years, the restricted immigration status would be lifted and the U.S. serviceman given his green card — or, ideally, citizenship.

The benefits to this are obvious in meeting the short-term needs of a military desperately short of Middle Eastern linguists who are highly skilled in the languages of the region, but also culturally attuned and astute. Additionally, you will have ‘terps who have been tested in years of combat.

This corps of ‘terps to troops could provide the backbone to a “permissive foreign internal force” to work with allied nations throughout the Muslim world in conducting counterterrorism and counterinsurgency training in a discreet and culturally sensitive manner.

This program would solidify our strategic communication theme of, “We keep our promises and reward our friends.” What better way to demonstrate our alliance with the Muslim world in countering the extremist ideology that threatens us all than having Muslim immigrants, in well-earned U.S. uniforms, working with, fighting with and praying with our allies and friends throughout the Muslim world?

The U.S. is a country founded on immigration. No potential immigrant community has earned this right more than the combat ‘terps fighting and dying by our sides today.

LT. COL. PAUL T. DARLING is an infantry officer serving with the Alaska Army National Guard. He recently served as the provincial lead mentor with the Afghan National Police in Zabul, Afghanistan. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.