FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Gunfire on a distant range and the roar of cargo planes overhead are the sounds usually associated with paratroopers in training. Now add to those the halting conversation between American soldiers practicing Dari.
"Nice to meet you," reads the English translation of a phrase written in the Perso-Arabic script taped to a wall.
"What is your name?"
"I am from America."
Since January, 64 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team have spent their days learning to read, write and speak basic Dari, the most common language among the people of Afghanistan, and delving into the country's culture and history.
The Army has taught the same 16-week course at Fort Drum in New York, Fort Polk in Louisiana and Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune will graduate its first class this summer from a 52-week course in Dari, Pashtu and Urdu, two other languages of the region.
The proliferation of language courses here reflects the current policy of cultivating relationships among the Afghan people and incorporating them in the fight against the Taliban, military authorities say.
The Obama administration has said it plans to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan this summer, but has not set a timeline for a complete withdrawal.
The combat team returned in September from a 12-month deployment to the country. Its soldiers say they were frequently limited by their inability to communicate with the soldiers and security forces they were trying to train, and the villagers from whom they were seeking information.
Sgt. Bradley Oliff jumped at the chance to take the first course offered at Fort Bragg by the Defense Language Institute of Monterey, Calif. A medic, Oliff said that in Afghanistan he relied on "a lot of hand gestures, a lot of guessing and a lot of calling for the interpreter and hoping he's around."
But there were never enough interpreters, Oliff and other soldiers say. Even when one was available, it often seemed as though the interpreter was afraid to communicate exactly what was said, or didn't completely understand it.
Most of Oliff's patients were Afghan nationals, he said, and he often felt at a loss.
"Unless you could see the injury, sometimes there just wasn't anything you could do without an interpreter," he said. "Now, ... I could actually have a conversation."
The Defense Department has offered foreign language training since 1941, when it began its Army Language School at the Presidio in San Francisco, said Noela Cutter, spokeswoman for the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. The Language Transformation Roadmap of 2005 underscored the military's "to create foundational language and cultural expertise in the officer, civilian and enlisted ranks for both active and reserve components."
Today, the U.S. military has about 30 language-training detachments worldwide.
The Army ordered up the training last year to help prepare troops for future deployments, said Chely McAnich, language program manager for the 18th Airborne Corps, which includes the 82nd Airborne Division and is headquartered at Bragg. Students are in class from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and are relieved of most other duties except those required to keep their jump certification.
Fifteen instructors, all native Dari speakers, work with groups of six to 10 students. Most mornings, they focus on grammar, usage or culture. Afternoons, students are given role-playing scenarios.
Recently, two students portrayed one American and one Afghan soldier looking for a couple of suspects. They came upon a local woman -- Zohal Hakeem, their instructor. The U.S. soldier told the Afghan what to say to the woman, who answered in Dari.
"Ask her if she knows the men," he said, as his classmate searched his memory for the words and tried to put them in order. Only one of them, she answered.
"Ask her if she knows where he lives," the soldier said. Yes, she told them. In another village.
"Ask her where the village is," he said.
Staff Sgt. Stephen Rock, an infantry squad leader who has deployed once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan, said his perception of Afghan people has changed completely since he started the class.
With the language and cultural instruction, he found everything to be easier, from deciphering road signs to gaining people's trust. He expects the same for his unit. When its members go back, Rock said, they won't be fluent speakers but they will be regarded less as "arrogant Americans" for having gone to the trouble of learning basic phrases.
(Contact Martha Quillin at email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)