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Ill-prepared translators struggle in Afghanistan

Image: Afghan translators
Josh Habib, bottom left, a 53-year-old translator, speaks with Afghan villagers and two Marines in the Nawa district of Afghanistan's Helmand province. U.S. troops in Helmand say companies that recruit and hire military translators are sending linguists to southern Afghanistan who are too old to serve in a theater of combat or who do not have the right language skills. David Guttenfelder / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Josh Habib lay in a dirt field, gasping for air. Two days of hiking with Marines through southern Afghanistan's 115-degree (46-Celsius) 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 (18 kilograms) of food, water and gear on his back, and kept pace — barely — with Marines half his age.

U.S. 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 Sgt. James Spangler, who is in charge of linguists at Camp Leatherneck, the largest U.S. base in Helmand province.

"They were too old. They couldn't breathe. They complained about heart problems," he said. "We almost made a joke of it. We're almost receiving people on oxygen tanks and colostomy bags; it's almost getting to that point."

U.S. forces being put at risk
And that's not the worst of it.

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

"Intelligence can save Marines' lives and give us the advantage on the battlefield," said Cpl. William Woodall, 26, of Dallas, who works closely with translators. "Instead of looking for quality, the companies are just pushing bodies out here, and once they're out the door, it's not their problem anymore."

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, anything that's required for combat operations with Marines," Spangler said.

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

Mission Essential's senior vice president, Marc Peltier, told The Associated Press that 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.

Some problems start with recruiters
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.

An Afghan-American citizen who called Mission Essential about a job, and who let an AP reporter listen, asked if he would go to "dangerous places."

This July 3, 2009 photo shows Josh Habib, left, a 53-year-old translator for the U.S. Marines, standing next to a U.S. Marine from the 2nd MEB, 1st Battalion 5th Marines as they patrol inside a village in the Nawa district of Afghanistan's Helmand province. U.S. troops in Helmand say companies that recruit and hire military translators are sending linguists to southern Afghanistan who are too old to serve in a theater of combat or who do not have the right language skills, which puts them and the U.S. forces they work for at risk. David Guttenfelder / AP

"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 if 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.

Peltier later told AP it was indeed possible that translators would be on the battlefield. He said he would talk to Barnett to make sure she made that more clear. Pelter also said the first phone call was "introductory" and that recruits go through two weeks of training "and get a very clear picture of what they're going to do."

Others disagreed.

"They say you'll get a shower once a day, have access to Internet and TV, call home six times a week," Woodall said. "And when the guys get out, they're completely shell-shocked. They've been lied to."

'That's what she promised me'
Habib, the translator who spoke to the AP while carrying a heavy pack in the stifling heat, said a Mission Essential recruiter originally told him that if he passed his language test, he would work out of the main U.S. base at Bagram about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

"That's what she promised me over the phone. That was attractive to me, and it was safe," Habib said.

Once in Afghanistan, he says he was told he would lose his job if he didn't go with the Marines to Helmand.

"It's been very hard, very hard, physically," said Habib, a Pashto-speaking U.S. citizen born in Pakistan who says he signed up because he wanted to serve his country.

Troops and translators say they suspect recruiting companies try to send as many interpreters as possible to Afghanistan to collect fees.

Millions of dollars are involved. Known as Category II translators — U.S. citizens who obtain a security clearance — such linguists earn a salary that starts at $210,000 a year.

Mission Essential Personnel recruits and hires most Category II linguists in Afghanistan. Peltier said the company was founded by two former Army Special Forces reservists who sought to improve the quality of translators after seeing them "pushed out the door and being mistreated."

The military gave Mission Essential performance bonuses in each quarter last year, Peltier said. When the company took over the Afghanistan language contract in late 2007, only 41 percent of linguists' jobs were filled. Today 97 percent of the jobs are taken, he said.

Fear of losing his job
At Camp Leatherneck, four U.S.-citizen interpreters spoke with AP but none gave his name for fear of losing his job.

The translators said dozens of linguists quit soon after arriving in Afghanistan in recent weeks. Spangler declined to provide numbers but said "quite a bit" resigned or were fired because they were too old, unfit or couldn't speak Pashto.

Army Sgt. Will Gamez, 26, of Los Angeles, said he recently worked with a linguist who spoke only the Afghan language of Dari, instead of Pashto.

One translator alleged that most of his colleagues cannot speak Pashto, and that some recruits in the U.S. were bypassing the language test administered for Mission Essential by having a skilled Pashto speaker take it over the phone. The company does not require the initial test be taken in person but later gives in-person tests.

Spangler said the military is working its way through dozens of newly arrived interpreters and that the system will weed out the weaker ones by September.

But Gamez said soldiers need translators now, and that some feign sickness to avoid work.

"If he doesn't go out, I can't do my job," Gamez said. "If locals come up to us, we can't tell what they're saying. They might be warning us about a minefield. They might be warning us about an ambush."