Eighty members of a Utah Army National Guard linguist battalion began preparing Tuesday for an active- duty assignment in Saudi Arabia.
And while it may seem unusual that none of the linguists speaks a language native to the Middle East, the Guard members are being called to participate in Operation Desert Shield primarily for their interrogation skills, not their language skills.The Utah Guard does have linguists who speak Arabic languages, but all 18 of those members have already been called to active duty and have been in Saudi Arabia since September, explained Maj. Dee Snowball, commander of Company A, 142nd Military Battalion.
The makeup of Company A has been specifically tailored to meet the Army's needs in the call-up, Snowball said, with existing counter-intelligence experts transferred out and interrogators transferred in before the company was given notice of a 180-day activation.
Seventy of the group's 80 members are trained interpreters and have language skills that include Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Russian, German and Spanish. But the interrogation specialists are also trained to work through interpreters, Snowball said, which is how they would work in Saudi Arabia.
Interrogation sources may be civilian internees, insurgents, enemy prisoners of war, defectors, refugees or enemy agents. If the interrogators end up doing the work in Saudi Arabia they are trained for, interpreters may come from contract sources or the civilian population, Snowball said.
The Guard members come primarily from the Provo, Salt Lake and Ogden areas, but several members live as far away as St. George and Elko, Nev. They reported to the Draper headquarters Wednesday to begin getting necessary immunizations, check weapons, uniforms and chemical weapons protection gear and take care of legal and clerical work the Army requires before Guard members can leave the state for their mobilization station at Fort Carson, Colo.
As with all of the call-ups from the National Guard and Reserves so far, individual members tell of the adjustments they are having to make to leave their families and jobs or school. One member of the linguist company was in the process of getting out of the Guard and had moved his family out of state so he could go to law school when the call-up came.
A sergeant named Jim from St. George (the National Guard has prohibited the use of most members' last names) said the usual chain of command for the unit led him to believe the group would be sent to Hawaii to replace active-duty Army personnel there. The orders for Saudi Arabia took him by surprise.
The call-up shortly before President Bush's Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to abandon Kuwait or face aggressions from the United States is also a concern for the linguists. "I'm glad there's an ultimatum there. Finally something is going to happen," Jim said. But there are also feelings that it would be better for the Guard members to be bored waiting in the desert for a resolution rather than see the deadline force a confrontation, Snowball said.
Company A is part of the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade, which is a unit unique to the Army. Its location in Utah correlates with the fact that about 90 percent of its members got their language skills while on missions in various parts of the world for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Many of the unit members are also leaving college course work because of the call-up. While officials did not know exactly how many of the 80 company members are students, at least 30 filled out forms to defer student loan payments, said personnel officer Mark Burn.
Processing for the unit members will continue through the weekend with the group scheduled to leave by bus for Fort Carson Sunday evening. Their departure date for Saudi Arabia has not yet been scheduled, but the Army's mobilization schedule so far would make it likely the group would not leave the country until after Bush's Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
Members have also taken advantage of advice from others already in Saudi Arabia when deciding what to pack for the journey. Jim said the hot items to take along are Nintendo Gameboys and flea collars. He's also taking a number of novels and the materials his group needs to continue practicing their language skills.