Linguists are major part of 97th mission

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. James M. Hodgman
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
Whether they're flying thousands of feet above Earth or with their feet firmly on the ground, the linguists of the 97th Intelligence Squadron are focused on protecting their fellow warriors.

A linguist is defined as someone who is skilled in several languages and the linguists of the 97th IS speak multiple languages including Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Dari, Korean and Pashtu.

The expertise linguists provide, especially to servicemembers engaged in contingency operations, can have a significant impact, said Staff Sgt. Autumn D. Walker, an airborne cryptologic linguist with the 97th IS.

"We collect intelligence and disseminate that intelligence to the proper authorities," Sergeant Walker said. "We have the ability to talk to people on the ground who don't have the ability to talk to other aircraft, so if there's forces on the ground they can radio us and provide us with information that we then relay to the appropriate people so our forces are protected."

Sergeant Walker is an Air Force reservist who's been serving with the 97th IS for almost three years. She speaks Mandarin Chinese and said that linguists not only ensure the protection of their fellow servicemembers, but they can also help improve relations between nations.

"If an American walks in to a village in Afghanistan with some random local translating for him or her, it looks like we as a country didn't take the effort to learn their language or it may send the message that we don't respect them that much," Sergeant Walker said.

"Plus that situation can be more dangerous because many translators have turned on friendly forces, whereas, if we have our own translators, not only will we show respect (for) their language, customs and courtesies, we will also keep our people safer and improve relations," she added.

One 97th linguist has deployed in support of contingency operations more than 20 times. She was part of one of the first missions after the 9/11 terror attacks, as well as operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom.

Today, Master Sgt. Paula L. Malott is the 97th IS stan-eval flight chief and spends most of her days ensuring air crew members are prepared to accomplish their mission. She oversees an office of approximately 20 Airmen, who are responsible for scheduling evaluations, filing paperwork and identifying training needs.

Sergeant Malott, a Russian and Arabic linguist, is also an airborne mission supervisor and regularly trains Airmen as basic operators, teaching them specifics of the mission they'll perform, as well as how to use the equipment that's on the aircraft.

The linguist mission, she said, is an important one.

"We use intelligence (to) tip war fighters (so) their able to use that information for their force protection and avoid ambushes or other attacks," Sergeant Malott said. "I've actually talked to (forces) on the radio while they were getting fired at."

Being able to provide such critical information in a hostile environment brings tremendous job satisfaction, Sergeant Malott said.

"It makes our job the greatest there is," Sergeant Malott added. "At the end of the day, when we think about what we did, we know we helped them."

Master Sgt. John T. Dauteuil, the non-commissioned officer in charge of current operations for the 97th IS, has deployed numerous times, most recently in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

An Arabic linguist, Sergeant Dauteuil echoed the importance of the linguist mission.

"While deployed in support of OIF one of my common requests was to translate markings on buildings or interpret for U. S. security forces," Sergeant Dauteuil said.

"I (also) had the opportunity to fly on a gunship the night of the first Iraqi elections, helping to discourage insurgents and get a feel for the environment on the ground, it was a very rewarding feeling to know we helped make that event a success," Sergeant Dauteuil added.

Every linguist must complete language training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., as well as survival training and mission qualification training. Once linguists have completed their training they're able to support a variety of missions, not always of the hostile variety.

Sergeant Walker put her language skills to use while she was waiting for a flight at Minneapolis International Airport. She overheard an elderly Chinese woman having difficulty with airport officials.

The woman was struggling with the ticket agent because she couldn't figure out where she had to go or if she had to pay additional fees, Sergeant Walker said.

"The ticket agent was flustered, so I translated for him and he was amazed with the results," Sergeant Walker said, so amazed she added, that he upgraded her coach ticket to first class.

Sergeant Malott utilized her skills while she waited for her passport at the U.S. embassy in London.

While she waited, she recalled a man asking for someone who spoke Arabic to translate for an Iraqi family applying for political asylum.

"The family left Iraq on a tourist visa and didn't speak English, so I helped them fill out their paperwork," Sergeant Malott said. "The family was thrilled that someone understood them and their situation and it felt great to help."

Col. Shane A. Smith, 97th IS commander, said he's very proud of all his Airmen do.

"The 97th IS is a fantastic team. No matter (what) the focus of operations or the global environment changes around them, all of these Airmen come together on a daily basis to ensure we can accomplish the mission.

"Over my career, I've witnessed that they always answer the call - whether it's in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan," he said. "What commander wouldn't be proud of that?"