NAWA, Afghanistan — Josh Habib lay in a dirt field, gasping for air. Two days of hiking with Marines through southern Afghanistan’s 115-degree Fahrenheit heat had exhausted him. This was not what he signed up for.
Habib is not a Marine. He is a 53-year-old engineer from California hired by a contracting company as a military translator. When he applied for the lucrative linguist job, Habib said his recruiter gave no hint he would join a ground assault in Taliban land. He carried 40 pounds of food, water and gear on his back, and kept pace — barely — with Marines half his age.
U.S. troops say companies that recruit military translators are sending linguists to southern Afghanistan who are unprepared to serve in combat, even as hundreds more are needed to support the growing number of troops.
Some translators are in their 60s and 70s and in poor physical condition — and some don’t even speak the right language.
“I’ve met guys off the planes and have immediately sent them back because they weren’t in the proper physical shape,” said Gunnery Sgt. James Spangler, 36, who is in charge of linguists at Camp Leatherneck, the largest U.S. base in Helmand province.
“They were too old. They couldn’t breathe. They complained about heart problems,” he said.
Troops also say low-skilled and disgruntled translators are putting U.S. forces at risk.
“Intelligence can save Marines’ lives and give us the advantage on the battlefield,” said Cpl. William Woodall, 26, of Dallas, who works closely with translators. “Instead of looking for quality, the companies are just pushing bodies out here, and once they’re out the door, it’s not their problem anymore.”
The company that recruits most U.S. citizen translators, Columbus, Ohio-based Mission Essential Personnel, says it’s difficult to meet the increased demand for linguists to aid the 15,000 U.S. forces being sent to southern, Pashto-speaking provinces this year as part of President Barack Obama’s increased focus on Afghanistan. Only 7,700 Pashto speakers live in the United States, according to the 2000 census.
Mission Essential’s senior vice president, Marc Peltier, said the linguists the company deploys to Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries meet government standards. The military sets no age or weight requirements, he said.
“I really wish everyone we send over was a 21-year-old who can pass the Marine Corps physical fitness exam. They’re not,” said Peltier.
“It’s been a shock to some of them. You can’t really acclimate them. We don’t have centers to run scenarios out in the heat,” he said.
How translators come to believe they won’t face danger could originate with recruiters.
Khalid Nazary, an Afghan-American citizen living in Kabul, called Mission Essential about a job and let an Associated Press reporter listen.
He asked if he would go to “dangerous places.”
“Oh, no, no, no. You’re not a soldier. You’re not a soldier. Not at all,” the recruiter, Tekelia Barnett, said. “You’re not on the battlefield.”
After being pressed on the point, Barnett said the linguist would be subject to “any” assignment, and if he didn’t want the task he could quit.
Peltier later said it was indeed possible that translators would be on the battlefield. He said he would talk to Barnett to make sure she made that more clear. Peltier also said the first phone call was “introductory” and that recruits go through two weeks of training “and get a very clear picture of what they’re going to do.”
“They say you’ll get a shower once a day, have access to Internet and TV, call home six times a week,” Woodall said. “And when the guys get out, they’re completely shell-shocked.”
Habib, the translator, said a Mission Essential recruiter originally told him that if he passed his language test, he would work out of the main U.S. base at Bagram about 30 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Once in Afghanistan, he says he was told he would lose his job if he didn’t go with the Marines to Helmand.
Troops and translators say they suspect recruiting companies try to send as many interpreters as possible to Afghanistan to collect fees.
Millions of dollars are involved. Known as Category II translators — U.S. citizens who obtain a security clearance — such linguists earn a salary that starts at $210,000 a year.
Mission Essential Personnel recruits and hires most Category II linguists in Afghanistan. Peltier said the company was founded by two former Army Special Forces reservists who sought to improve the quality of translators after seeing them “pushed out the door and being mistreated.”
The military gave Mission Essential performance bonuses in each quarter last year, Peltier said. When the company took over the Afghanistan language contract in late 2007, only 41 percent of linguists’ jobs were filled. Today 97 percent of the jobs are taken, he said.
At Camp Leatherneck, four U.S.-citizen interpreters spoke with AP but none gave his name for fear of losing his job.
The translators said dozens of linguists quit soon after arriving in Afghanistan in recent weeks. Spangler declined to provide numbers but said “quite a bit” resigned or were fired because they were too old, unfit or couldn’t speak Pashto.
One translator alleged that most of his colleagues cannot speak Pashto, and that some recruits in the U.S. were bypassing the language test administered for Mission Essential by having a skilled Pashto speaker take it over the phone. The company does not require the initial test be taken in person but later gives in-person tests.
Spangler said the military is working its way through dozens of newly arrived interpreters and that the system will weed out the weaker ones by September.
But Army Sgt. Will Gamez, 26, of Los Angeles, said soldiers need translators now, and that some feign sickness to avoid work.
“If he doesn’t go out, I can’t do my job,” Gamez said. “If locals come up to us, we can’t tell what they’re saying. They might be warning us about a minefield. They might be warning us about an ambush.”