The language of war: Columbus-based company provides translators for U.S. forces in danger zone
Sunday, November 08, 2009
This is a great article about Mission Essential Personnel, a Founding Member of The ASBC. MEP capture and program officials will guest bartend during the Red Zone Government Mixer on Tuesday, November 10th at Velocity Five in Falls Church. - The ASBC
The language of war
Columbus-based company provides translators for U.S. forces in danger zone
November 8, 2009 3:48 AM
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
FRED SQUILLANTE | DISPATCH
Essential CEO Chris Taylor leads a company that
services for the U.S. military and government in
Afghanistan, Iraq and
DAVID GUTTENFELDER | ASSOCIATED PRESS
soldiers patrol in the mountains above the Pech Valley in Afghanistan's
Kunar province. Columbus-based Mission Essential provides translators
who patrol alongside the troops, helping them to communicate with the
ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTOS
breaks through clouds over Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.
The people of
Afghanistan have known only war since the 1970s,
beginning with the
Soviet invasion, civil war, the Taliban rule and the present conflict.
vehicles pass a man sweeping a Kabul street.
Translator Noorullah says
his work will help make a better future for his people.
Danger is a constant for members of the U.S. military deployed in
Afghanistan -- from sniper attacks, firefights and improvised explosive devices.
Also in harm's way is the smaller -- yet vital -- army of translators,
such as Noorullah, who live and patrol side by side with American troops.
Noorullah signed up for this dangerous work when he was 17. Now 24, he is
a recruiter for Columbus-based Mission Essential Personnel, the primary provider of translators and
linguists in Afghanistan. The company won a $700 million contract in 2007 to provide the service
and currently has about 4,500 employees in Afghanistan, said Chief Operating Officer Marc Peltier.
The majority are local nationals, but some are former citizens who emigrated to the United
It's not a job that Noorullah undertook lightly.
"It obviously takes some courage to do that, being with the (U.S. military) forces who are new
to the region and with a hostile enemy that wants to harm them," said Noorullah, who asked that his
last name not be used to protect the safety of family members still in Afghanistan.
"The belief in the cause and what I was working for undermined that fear."
Noorullah, who came to America two years ago, recruits Dari and Pashto speakers -- the two
primary languages of Afghanistan -- to fulfill the five-year contract managed by the U.S. Army
Intelligence and Security Command.
"Contract linguists are essential to current mission success," said Kimberly Tiscione,
spokeswoman for the command.
Winning the contract established Mission Essential as a big player in the world of translation
and linguistics. It has grown substantially, with a total of about 6,000 employees worldwide,
including 120 at the Columbus headquarters.
The company also has an office in Virginia, near Washington, D.C.
Revenue was $170 million in 2008 and is expected to be about $300 million this year, said
founder Chad Monnin."We're bursting at the seams. We have 20 openings here in Columbus for
recruiters and in human resources," Peltier said.
All this rapid growth -- and the dangerous environment in which its translators work -- has led
to problems, including the death of 30 employees in Afghanistan and allegations that some of its
employees are not qualified or physically capable of handling the rigors of the front lines.
"I've met guys off the planes and have immediately sent them back because they weren't in the
proper physical shape," Gunnery Sgt. James Spangler told the Associated Press.
He is in charge of translators at Camp Leatherneck, the largest U.S. base in Helmand
"They were too old. They couldn't breathe. They complained about heart problems," Spangler
Mission Essential officials admit there have been problems but say they are doing a good job
under difficult circumstances, which includes a limited number of qualified translators.
"Seventy-five percent of our translators are 18 to 54," said CEO Chris Taylor. The rest are
older. "And you have to look at how small the pool is and all the differences in dialects from
region to region that make it that much more difficult."
The company, he said, has filled 97 percent of the job requests from the U.S. Army Intelligence
and Security Command.
"And the previous contractor had a full rate in the 40s, percentage-wise," Taylor said.
Tiscione said the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command oversees Mission Essential's
performance, but said she wasn't able to address some of those issues. "In accordance with
applicable laws" she said she can't reveal "specific details about sensitive contract
Mission Essential also supplies translators to the U.S. military in Iraq under a separate
Translators are vital in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Peter Mansoor, an Ohio State University
military history professor and retired Army colonel.
He served two tours of duty in Iraq, the second as an adviser to Army Gen. David Petraeus,
then-commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and current chief of the U.S. Central Command, and is the
Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander's War in Iraq.
"If you can't communicate with the people there during a counterinsurgency, you're stuck. You
mar the objective," Mansoor said. "They are more important than combat power in many instances, or
another way to look at it is they are combat power in a counterinsurgency environment."
Mansoor said he is familiar with Mission Essential and has met with officials at its
"I think that Mission Essential has a better quality-control mechanism in place to ensure the
people they hired are qualified," he said.
Mission Essential was started by Monnin and Greg Miller, who met while training with the 19th
Special Forces Group (Airborne), based at the Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base.
Monnin, who is from Dayton, was badly injured during a parachute training jump, which eventually
led to his discharge.
An entrepreneur at heart, he said he saw the need for translators in the Middle East and teamed
up with Miller in 2004 to provide the service. Both had studied Arabic languages and cultures as
part of their special-forces training and had connections within the military.
Nevertheless, the early years were difficult.
"Was there a point where I didn't think we'd make it?" Monnin said. "Yeah, every day."
But the contracts started rolling in and continued to get bigger. Mission Essential beat out
industry leader Titan Corp. of California for the $700 million Afghanistan contract in 2007.
The company was recently recognized by
Inc. magazine as the 52nd fastest-growing small, private company in the country
-- No. 2 in Ohio.
To keep that momentum going, Monnin turned over the day-to-day running of the company to Taylor
and Peltier in September. He and Miller retain a majority ownership and are members of the
"Statistically, the companies where the owners and founders stay in charge don't do as well or
adapt as well as the ones who turn it over to the professional managers," Monnin said.
This will free him up to look into new ideas and ventures that will enable Mission Essential to
"Chad has a brilliant business mind. He's a visionary kind of guy," Taylor said. "And this
office may have been too constraining for him."
Taylor was in the Marines for 14 years and is proud of his enlisted status.
"There's this assumption when you rise in the business ranks that you were an officer. ... And
I'm proud of my enlisted brothers and sisters who have done that," he said.
He has a master's degree in public affairs from Harvard University's Kennedy School of
Taylor is leading a company that has expanded the past few years to offer translator services
for the U.S. military and government in other Middle East countries, in the African nation of
Djibouti, and in Colombia, Italy and Germany.
"Our goal is to expand into new markets and offer new services," he said. "Are we a language
company? No. What we do is recruit, vet and train the finest human capital on the planet."
Areas of expansion include national security, intelligence and training worldwide.
Afghanistan has been embroiled in war since the 1970s.
The country was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1988 and the U.S. military arrived
soon after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, targeting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, who were
under the protection of the ruling Taliban regime.
Margaret Mills, an Ohio State University professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures, spent
April and May in Afghanistan. While there, she spoke with a wide range of people.
"Generally speaking, what they said was, 'We don't want to be an occupied country,' "
she said. "But the majority were saying the United States can't leave now and cannot ever leave
precipitously or there will be a civil war and occupation by their neighboring countries, most
This sums up Noorullah's feelings.
"This is better than civil war," he said of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. "This is the
process that will take us to a greater future and better life for the people."
Noorullah is Pashtun, one of the two largest tribal groups in the country along with the Tajik,
who speak Dari.
"They are totally different languages," he said, adding that this makes it even more difficult
for Mission Essential to find qualified translators.
The heaviest concentrations of former Afghanis in this country are in California, New York City
and in and near Washington, D.C., Mills said.
Noorullah was living in Nebraska when he was recruited by Mission Essential and came to
Even Afghan-Americans who speak fluent Pashto or Dari face problems in Afghanistan.
"They are seen as carpetbaggers, which is often not fair," Mills said. "Because of this, they
are being scrutinized and tested to see if they are still Afghani."
Americans who speak the local languages are preferable to citizens of Afghanistan, Mansoor
"They are a highly variable group," he said of the local population there and in Iraq. "Many
don't have English skills. Some have hidden motivations that aren't readily apparent."
But the pool of qualified Americans is too small to meet the need for translators.
"There are about 7,700 people in this country who speak Pashto and about 3,300 or 3,400 are
ineligible due to their age -- you have to be (at least) 18 -- or other reasons," Taylor said.
Mission Essential officials would not say how much they pay translators. An Associated Press
article stated it can be as high as $210,000 a year for Americans.
"It depends on their level of security clearance," said Peltier, who would not divulge specific
Local nationals are paid a lot less -- about $900 a month, according to Inter Press Service.
Assignments for translators can vary, from the relatively safe duty of working for high-ranking
U.S. officers to the more dangerous assignments accompanying patrols.
"When you're on the base in Baghran or Kabul or Kandahar air base, that's about the best you can
get," Peltier said. "When you're out with the forward-operating units, it's 120 degrees, it's hot,
the water is hot, everything is hot and there's nothing nice about it."
Translators dress in a similar fashion to the troops they are traveling with in order to blend
"They're targeted by hostile forces because they're so important, the only way for the troops to
communicate with the local populace or a detainee," Peltier said, adding that translators do not
Many translators become close with the U.S. troops, Peltier said. This was true for Noorullah,
who later served as a cultural adviser to the U.S. military and translator for Lt. Gen. Karl
Eikenberry, the senior American commander at the time.
Although he has a safe job in Columbus, a wife and 1-year-old child, Noorullah is thinking of
going back to Afghanistan to work as a translator.
"This is the process that will take us to a greater future and a better life for my people," he
said. "Going back is an opportunity to help this happen."