January 28, 2002
Another Kind of Ground Zero
Utah's National Guard headquarters has become
central to the "Language War" in Afghanistan
By Joshua Kors
St. George, UT — Ask Sergeant First Class Steven Roberts what his National Guard unit is doing these days, and Roberts kids. "Paperwork," he says. "In triplicate."
The truth, however, is a bit more complex.
Far beyond simply shuffling papers, Roberts's 141st Military Intelligence Battalion, Detachment 1, Company B, has been vigorously involved in the campaign in Afghanistan. Company B, based out of the National Guard Armory in St. George, deployed three soldiers to the region in recent months.
Their mission there has been one of words: Company B is part of an elite brigade of military linguists based in Draper whose work has been central to the interrogation of al-Qaeda terrorists and the translation of intercepted documents. Their effort has been so critical to the success of Operation Enduring Freedom, the New York Times called Utah's National Guard headquarters "another kind of ground zero" in an Oct. 2 article.
Captain Russ Warr, who serves in the St. George detachment, says Utah's central role in Enduring Freedom's language effort is little wonder to those familiar with Utah's culture.
"Because of the LDS return missionaries, we have probably one of the better concentrations of linguists in the country," Warr said. "We have a lot of soldiers who come in knowing foreign languages."
Roberts estimates that 95 percent of the linguists in his company gained their skills through work with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Roberts and Warr both acquired languages through missionary service themselves. Roberts is fluent in Swedish, Warr in Norwegian.
"Every branch of the Army has their own reserve units, each with their own specialty," Warr said. "We have artillery units, medical units, infantry. We have so many people who know languages here in Utah, the linguist unit just kind of fell into place."
Service with the LDS Church, however, has not provided the Guard with all the language preparation its soldiers need. The Church does not proselytize in Islamic nations, says Dale Bills of the Latter-day Saints public affairs office. The Guard, consequently, has depended on the Defense Language Institute of Monterey, Calif. The Institute, a language facility run by the Department of Defense, has drilled recruits in Pashto, Farsi and other languages needed in the Afghan campaign.
It is where Phillip Cooper of St. George is preparing to go, though the new recruit won't be studying Farsi or Pashto. Japanese is Cooper's language of choice. The 29-year-old Skywest employee selected the Asian language, he says, because learning its characters struck him as a challenge. Cooper will spend between 12 and 14 months studying those characters at the Monterey-based Institute.
"After Sept. 11 I felt like I needed to get involved somehow," Cooper said. "I called the nationwide National Guard number. I had no idea about the linguist unit, but they put me in contact with Sergeant (Kole) Staheli, who is the recruiter here. He mentioned the linguists. I didn't know a language. He said, well, we can send you for some training for that."
"I thought this way I could be involved and do some personal growth," Cooper said.
The defeat of the Taliban may signal the winding down of Operation Enduring Freedom, but it certainly won't mean lax times for St. George's soldiers. The detachment that has aided in the Afghan campaign this year and sent translators to Honduras for a medical mission last year is now preparing for security detail at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
The Utah Guard has been practicing skirmish lines and riot control in preparation for the event. The St. George detachment, in fact, recently returned from training in Orem, preparation held in coordination with the Salt Lake Sheriff's Department.
"We're there to give a show of force, basically, to handle out-of-control crowds," Warr said. "Groups have every right to go up there and protest. But if they start doing illegal things — breaking things, vandalizing, getting out of control — then we would come in and try to stop that."
Is the St. George detachment ready for that mission? Absolutely, says Roberts.
"We've had about a year of training for our mission," the sergeant said. "We're pretty confident in what we're able to do."