Sweat rolls down Sgt. Chason Parker's face as he speaks in French to an attentive audience of Cameroon Army paratroopers. There's barely any air movement in the steamy basement classroom at the Regiment du Genie Headquarters outside of Douala, Cameroon. Parker, a Soldier with the Utah Army National Guard's 300th Military Intelligence Brigade, isn't the teacher, but the eager students perceive him as such.
"Being a linguist isn't just being an interpreter or a translator, but learning the material -- the trick being to learn it, and being a teacher, too," Parker says. Staff Sgt. Ray Novak, with the 560th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, Georgia Army National Guard, teaches in English, Parker listens, translates the message into French, and mimics the instructor's motions while varying his tone to maintain the audience's interest.
It's part of an eight-hour block of instruction for Central Accord 2013, which is enhancing Central African militaries' abilities to conduct aerial resupply and provide patient treatment and evacuation. Simply repeating the message in French for the class would have the warm students nodding off quickly.
"You have to learn to control the crowd, not just translate," Parker says. Parker and his fellow Utah Guardsmen -- six French linguists and one Portuguese linguist -- find themselves almost constantly at work in this environment. The 10-day U.S. Army Africa exercise brings together 160 U.S. servicemembers with about 600 Central African soldiers and airmen, primarily from Cameroon.
Even the Cameroonians who speak English find occasional challenges in communicating with the Americans. "The pronunciation is a bit different," said Cameroon Army Staff Sgt. Julius Mkong, a paratrooper. Beyond the actual words, the linguists need to understand the concepts since military terms and training concepts can vary broadly. When the discussion concerns dropping supplies from airplanes and loading patients onto helicopters, there's little room for errors in communication.
"Not knowing what they're asking, and how the interpreter is interpreting what they're asking, is confusing. But, at the end of the day, everyone goes away with the concept," said Staff Sgt. Michael Quinn, 560th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade. It's an especially challenging mission for Spc. Ashley Lytle, who joined the 300th three years ago and, despite regularly translating documents and phrases, found himself learning new content on aerial delivery while having his linguist services in constant demand.
"This is the first real time that I've been an interpreter," he says during a break from class. "I research a lot, but this is my first real-time mission." It's also his first time out of the United States, which adds another level to the challenges he faced upon arrival. He soon felt comfortable with his Central African counterparts, though. "What I'm really enjoying is hanging out with the Cameroonian soldiers, asking what they do at night and what they do for fun," he says. There's little time for entertainment in the evenings for the linguists. When the training day ends, their mission often continues -- whether it's helping connect a couple of senior leaders with different language backgrounds or coordinating an issue with hotel staff members.
On a recent evening, Spc. Tysic Cummings, also with the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade, found himself standing in front of a crowded room filled with officers as Col. Giselle Wilz, Task Force Central commander from the North Dakota Army National Guard, received updates from officers in units throughout the task force. Partner nations had representatives in the meeting and Cummings, who has served nearly five years in the Army National Guard, found himself the focus of the senior leaders' attention as he interpreted all of their comments for the African partner leaders.
It can be an incredibly intimidating situation for any young Soldier, but Cummings says his first military job -- serving as a paralegal -- prepared him. "Your job as a paralegal is not to be intimidated by rank," he says. "… In front of that room, I was just thinking it was such a long day."
After all, he adds, he often works one-on-one with colonels who need translation assistance.
Parker says the varying requirements the linguists face can adapt their personalities. One day, they might be working one-on-one with a senior leader and the next they could be in front of dozens of people helping to teach a class.
While exciting to visit new places -- this is the fifth overseas mission for both Parker and Cummings in the past two years -- the days leave them "mentally tired," Parker says. It gets easier with each mission, he adds. Lytle has noticed that even each day gets easier.
"I feel like a better linguist now that I've actually done the job," he says. "… I've already gotten way better in my communication skills. I definitely want to do this again." His first overseas mission will end this week, with the Central Accord 2013 closing ceremony on March 1. The event concludes 10 days of classes, practical exercises and field training designed to enhance aerial resupply, patient treatment and medical readiness for Central African militaries.