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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Last modified: Wednesday, March 9, 2011

IU-National Guard partnership teaches officers Afghan languages, demonstrates winning approach

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March 9, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Last year a call went out to the brightest ROTC students across the nation -- and they answered. Recent graduates from Harvard, Indiana University, Virginia Tech and other universities traveled to a gritty urban-stylized National Guard facility in southeastern Indiana to immerse themselves in Afghan culture and language.

The inaugural Second Lieutenant Afghan Language Program, offered through a burgeoning collaboration between the Indiana National Guard and Indiana University, was intense, effective and an encouraging sign of the potential for highly specialized training to prepare military service personnel from across the country for international deployments.

"This innovative language program capitalizes on the unique immersive environment of the Muscatatuck Complex," said Col. Barry Richmond, deputy commander of Camp Atterbury-Muscatatuck Center for Complex Operations (CAMCCO), located southeast of Indianapolis. "The demand for language proficiency, synchronized with a solid understanding of culture, is great and growing. This is reflected not only by increasing international requirements in the diplomacy and development missions but is also reflected in similar needs here in the United States. We need to be able to communicate effectively from a foundation of cultural understanding, during crisis as well as everyday opportunities."

In 2009 IU and the Indiana National Guard signed a memorandum of agreement that strengthened their relationship and created the Indiana Complex Operations Partnership (InCOP). In part the agreement focused on a joint vision of establishing a "Whole of Government/Whole of Nation" training and support package, addressing the needs of a range of military, civilian and governmental institutions that send personnel overseas for military and/or nation-building assignments.

Several joint projects are ongoing. Officials are particularly pleased with the success of the Afghan language program, which tapped the expertise of IU's highly regarded Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region. Future iterations of the program are being planned, because the pilot program has shown that soldiers can receive quality, opportune language and cultural training at a fraction of the cost of other training programs.

"This program establishes the foundation of an affordable, focused, efficient and effective training model to build upon in meeting a variety of training requirements," Richmond said.

Those involved with the language program expect it to have an immediate and significant impact. The training is unique, because the officers took it during a window before their next assignment or deployment -- not years in advance like other language programs.

The program also emphasizes cultural awareness and everyday use of the language.

"If they are deployed to Afghanistan, they should know the cultural aspects at the same time as the language," said Shirshah Said, a Pashto instructor for the program. Said is Afghan and also a certified linguist at IU. "If they know the culture and the language, the people in Afghanistan will respect them."

Three instructors from IU taught 25 students Pashto and Dari, the official languages of Afghanistan, during a three-month period. The Muscatatuck Urban Training Complex (MUTC), designed to simulate a city in crisis, provided numerous opportunities for practicing the languages in a more realistic setting. For student Josh Guerra, a second lieutenant and class leader, learning the cultural meaning behind the words was the biggest challenge.

"Like any language, not only when you talk about idiomatic expressions or verbiage that has a lot of cultural context to it, not only do you have to learn what the word means on the face of it, but in what situations it would be used," he said. "Wrapping one's mind around that is something quite difficult."

Difficulty aside, the students' scores on the Defense Language Proficiency Test exceeded authorities' expectations in most instances and officials plan to offer the course again this year.

"Officers in the Army will be better prepared for serving in Afghanistan, because they know the language and culture," said Kirk White, IU's assistant vice president for strategic partnerships. Last summer White completed a year of active duty in Afghanistan, serving in a leadership position with the Indiana Army National Guard. "Knowing the language and culture is just as important, if not more important, than knowing how to use the weapons," he said.

Nicholas Behnken, project manager for InCOP, said the depth and breadth of critical language sources at IU allow for a wide range of specialized instruction. He said officials are exploring the possibility of offering similar courses involving other languages and cultural activities considered critical to international efforts. Potential partners could include such federal agencies as the State Department and Homeland Security, ROTC programs from other branches of service and nongovernmental organizations.

Guerra, who like the other students spent 30 hours a week on coursework for the Afghan language program, said he feels more confident about getting deployed to Afghanistan because of the program.

"I think it's very important for lieutenants to be able to do many different things," he said. "In the situation we have now, it's important to be able to converse with the Afghan Army and police personnel as well as village elders. This was the perfect program to get me used to, or at least familiarized with, the language I would be able to use with them."

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