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Soldiers Have Double-Duty as Interpreters

By Pfc. Joe Lewczyk, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

COMALAPA AIR BASE, El Salvador, Feb. 3, 1999 – Most U.S. soldiers in the Hurricane Mitch relief effort here use their primary job skills to help Central American nations rebuild. A few, however, find themselves doing double duty with a second skill that comes natural: speaking Spanish.

"Spanish is the language of these countries. There would be a lot of problems with these missions if there were no interpreters along," said Spc. Regis Rivera, an administration specialist with the 46th Corps Support Group from Fort Bragg, N.C. She volunteered to deploy here to support the Joint Operations Area because she could speak Spanish and wanted to help in any way she could.

"If I had the money, I would give them everything they need," said Rivera, a native of the Dominican Republic.

Interpreters are key in many everyday missions here because working with Salvadoran military forces is a big part of the effort to help the disaster-stricken populace. Unlike Rivera, other soldiers didn't have to volunteer -- sent here do their primary jobs, they simply wound up with an extra duty.

Spc. Diores A. Lora of the 155th Transportation Company, Fort Eustis, Va., said he found himself interpreting on some missions because he was often the only one who could.

"I found myself doing two jobs at once. Everyone was looking to me to translate while I was performing my duties," he said. Lora's unit is attached to the 46th CSG for the relief effort and supports all of Joint Task Force- Aguila [Eagle] in El Salvador by transporting equipment.

Pvt. Robert Conde, a corps support group automation specialist and native Puerto Rican, said the main advantage was no language barrier. "I can communicate with people, and they understand what we are here to do," he said. I can help out the Army as well as the people -- I can talk and have a normal conversation with them."

These conversations have their pitfalls, the main one being the difference in dialects. Some words have meanings in El Salvador that are different from elsewhere, Rivera said.

"I might say something and, if it is different from what they use, they'll stop me and tell me how they say it," he said. "This is the only real problem that comes with the job of interpreting."

The interpreters have also turned their important role into an opportunity to see and learn things about El Salvador and Central America -- Hispanic cultures different from their own.

Conde said he has seen the hurricane damage firsthand and gets a real-world view whenever he visits some towns. He also learned about the El Salvadoran military. "I talked to some of them and found out a few things about it," he said. "They do things pretty much the same as we do."

"I have never been anywhere, especially a country that needs help," Rivera said. "I learned a lot from these people because I was able to share conversations with them. I am just glad I can be here to help out. It makes you feel good that someone needs your help."

[Pfc. Joe Lewczyk is assigned to the Joint Task Force- Aguila Public Affairs Office at Comalapa Air Base, El Salvador.]

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