MONTEREY, Calif., Oct. 25, 2011 — Last year, 74 soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., became the first to participate in a new program that provides short-term, intensive language and cultural training to deploying military members.
The general purpose force program wasn’t designed for professional linguists or interpreters, explained Sam Garzaniti, who manages it at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center here. Rather, the program provides basic Dari or Pashto instruction, taught by native Afghan speakers, to help nonlinguists — military police, medics, truck drivers and infantrymen, among them, — operate more effectively on the ground in Afghanistan.
Retired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal came up with the concept when he commanded the International Security Assistance Force to create what deployed forces refer to as “squad-designated linguists” able to communicate with the Afghan people. Graduates of the program proved so beneficial to their deployed units that it’s now growing by leaps and bounds.
Fort Carson, Colo., one of three pilot sites when the program stood up last year, soon sent almost 300 soldiers to a condensed version of the training before they deployed. The vast majority studied Dari, with the other 49 soldiers learning Pashto. Fort Drum, N.Y., also in the pilot program, sent 55 10th Mountain Division soldiers to its initial general purpose force training.
“After that, it has just been a steady flow of classes,” Garzaniti said. Schofield Barracks in Hawaii signed on to the program in September 2010. Fort Bragg, N.C., followed earlier this year.
The Marines jumped on board, too, with Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif., joining the program last fall.
To date, about 1,000 service members have completed the program, Garzaniti said. He expects more enrollment in the program as word about it spreads.
Classes typically run 13 to 16 weeks, with students spending as much as six hours a day in the classroom, in addition to practice sessions and mandatory study halls.
Unlike other Defense Language Institute programs, the general purpose force curriculum focuses on listening and speaking skills, Garzaniti said. Students learn vocabulary and verb tenses and how to construct sentences. Then they practice using them in various scenarios similar to what they might encounter in Afghanistan.
“It’s a very-focused program,” Garzaniti said. “We’re not going for global proficiency. We are going for tactical functionality.”
Graduates aren’t meant to take the place of professional linguists and interpreters, he said. For example, they typically aren’t able to discuss the news with local Afghans. They can, however, ask for directions or share pleasantries over tea or during key leader engagements.
They also have the skills to ask questions and understand responses at roadblocks and read street signs and even graffiti on walls that may provide clues about insurgent activities.
“That makes them a force multiplier,” Garzaniti said. “When they go out and do their operations, whatever they may be, having somebody there in the front able to at least greet [the Afghans] and lay groundwork for something makes a huge difference. They are somebody to help.”
Returning units report that even limited language and cultural skills have helped them in their mission. “We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from people who have been in country saying, ‘Hey, this works absolutely great,’” Garzaniti said. “They tell you that you speak two words and you see a face light up.”
A professional linguist himself who retired from the Army last year, Garzaniti said he has seen firsthand the impact language ability had on the Afghans we encountered.
“They know you took the time to learn at least a few words, a phrase, two phrases,” he said. “It makes all the difference in the world.”
More units are signing up as the message spreads about general purpose force training availability, Garzaniti said.
“I definitely don’t see any slowdown in business,” he said. “As more commanders hear the good stories from our brigades and battalions and companies that have used these people [during deployments], we see them starting to put their hands up and asking, ‘What about me?’”
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