Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based Marine learns Arabic working in detention facility

25 Jan 2007 | Lance Cpl. Nathaniel Sapp

After working the constantly-changing shifts in the detainee handling facility here, Lance Cpl. Michael Otero finds himself in a different place than most Marines – the interpreters tent, asking questions.

“I write down things I want to know how to say, and head up there to learn how,” said the 20-year-old, Chubbuck, Idaho, native. “I’d ask the detainees questions, and remember what they’d say back. Then I would ask the interpreters what it meant.”

In the past several months, Otero has shown a “natural ability” for the language, Marines here say, helping the Marines he works with take communication between Iraqis and Marines beyond the basic level.

“It’s a huge asset” said Staff Sgt. John Fischer, a 33-year-old from Walnut Creek, Calif., and the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the detainee handling facility here. “There aren’t always interpreters around, so having someone who can communicate allows us to understand and control whatever situation might come up.”

Until he was moved to the facility, Otero worked as a Light Armored Vehicle crewman for the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, who’ve been operating in this part of the Al Anbar Province, 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, for the past four months.

Whenever Marines working in the local area catch Iraqis believed to be insurgents, they are taken to the detainee handling facility here for about 72 hours, said Fischer.

The detainee’s are questioned, processed and, if Marines find something incriminating, sent to a different area for more questioning and potentially trial, he added.

After being chosen to work with the detainees, where his duties include ensuring they don’t talk amongst themselves, are fed three times a day and are ready for processing, Otero began picking up the Iraqi dialect in this part of the country, known as Lehejah, almost right away, said Fischer.

He started learning the language from the previous group of Marine guards who taught him basic commands.

However, Otero soon found he wanted to know more, and Lehejah was a little different than the basic Arabic he was taught back in the U.S.

“The hardest part of the job is communicating,” said Cpl. Jared Groves, a 22-year-old LAV mechanic from Hillsboro, Ohio, who recently began working at the DetFac here. “(Otero) understands a lot of what the detainee’s are saying, and even if he doesn’t he can figure out what the problem is pretty quickly.”

Otero’s language skills have even come in handy as he was able to help identify some medical problems with some of the Iraqis, allowing them to get the treatment they need, said Fischer.

The detainees live under regulations set forth by the Geneva Convention, articles governing the laws of war that Marines here strictly follow, said Fischer. Marines working in the facility have received specialized training and always deal with the Iraqis in a professional manner, he added.

In order to maintain professionalism, Otero says he tries to just look at the detainees as people, without thinking about what they could have done. It’s necessary to be civil, he said, but it’s especially hard after a friend was hit by the blast of an improvised explosive device.

With the recent detainment of more than 20 suspected insurgents from Anah, a city of roughly 20,000 about 10 miles south of here, Otero can see the price local insurgents will pay for attacking his fellow Marines as they are taken away from their homes and moved through the justice system.