U.S. troops get quick help with Somali phrase book OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 13, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MONTEREY, Calif. -- A week ago, only nine people in the U.S armed services could say "hello" -- or anything else -- in Somali.

Today, thanks to the military's language center in Monterey, thousands of U.S. soldiers carry hip-sized survival guides to such key phrases as "Don't shoot [me]," and "Where are the minefields?"

It's all the result of an extraordinary effort from the Defense Language Institute, the military's premier language school. Its directors have been working day and night since the first hint of U.S. involvement in Somalia to get language materials to soldiers on the ground.

Up at the Presidio of Monterey, commanders remember too well their mistakes in last year's war with Iraq. It took the school five months to produce one Iraqi phrase book and videotape.

This time around, even though not a single student or staff member there speaks Somali, the school produced the first version of its "Surviving in Somali" guides in one day.

"In Saudi Arabia, we hemmed and hawed and produced an absolutely beautiful product five months after our involvement there started," said Chief Warrant Officer Robert Higgins, who manages the Somali language project. "Our approach now is to get something into people's hands as quickly as possible. Is it pretty? Is it perfect? No, but it's a help."

The phrase books are just the beginning. Since Nov. 30, the institute has spent more than $130,000 to put Somali language ** courses on audio and video tapes, hire three native Somali language teachers and translators from a private firm in Washington, D.C., and design an intensive, 40-hour Somali language class.

It hasn't been easy.

Employees placed hundreds of calls to organizations as diverse as Stanford University, CBS News, National Geographic and a half dozen relief organizations, searching out materials on Somalian language, history and culture.

The school's directors managed to find an infantryman at nearby Fort Ord who is one of the nine people in the U.S. military who speak the language.

With two of his last hours before being deployed there, the soldier -- born in Somalia and raised in the United States -- copied out a list of Somali phrases phonetically. Then he produced audio and video tapes, school commanders said.

On Thursday, the three Somali language instructors flown in this week were studying the half-completed language courses and making suggestions.

"This is fun, it's real and this is why we're in this business," Chief Warrant Officer Higgins said. "I'm telling you, we're pumped. Customer service, this is what it's all about."

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