SOUTHWEST ASIA --
Though they may not be Air Force linguists or official interpreters, four 386th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron Defenders bring invaluable language skills to Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait.
Amongst the group, Staff Sgt. Emmanuel Roxas, Staff Sgt. Kaleb Shah, Senior Airman Kareem Wehba, and Airman 1st Class Shahrukh Shuvo, speak a combined total of nine languages.
According to their leadership, the four Airmen are a real force multiplier throughout the base and community.
“It’s remarkable to have all of them in the same rotation,” said Capt. Christopher Keranen, 386th ESFS operations officer. “During their time here, they have already reduced communication barriers between Air Force members and coalition forces on a daily basis.”
While each of the Defenders have different stories and reasons as to why they joined the Air Force, they all share a tremendous and valuable role in bridging language barriers through their skillsets.
Roxas, who is originally from the Philippines, is fluent is Tagalog. When he was ten years old his family moved to Porterville, California to join his grandfather who was already living there.
“I didn’t know a word of English when I moved to the U.S.,” Roxas said. “I watched a lot of television and learned English from my grandfather and from going to school. It took me some time before I picked it up slowly, but surely.”
According to Roxas, his family has always been a big military supporter. One of his aunts retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, which encouraged him to follow in her footsteps. However, he was the first in his family to join the U.S. Air Force. He is currently stationed in Little Rock, Arkansas, with this deployment being the second under his belt.
“It has been a good experience so far, especially being able to meet with other Filipinos who work around the base,” he said. “There have not been many miscommunications, however, I am glad I can step in if need be to ease communication barriers.”
Shah, stationed at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, spent his adolescent years in Utah and Canada.
“When I was about three years old, we moved from Utah to Canada. Canada has a huge population of Pakistanis, so I was surrounded by my culture,” he said. “My dad’s side of the family lived there, which is how I learned to speak Urdu fluently.”
When Shah was in the 10th grade, he and his family returned to Utah where he completed high school, and attended Utah State University for two years.
“I felt stuck in Utah and wanted to take a different direction. Before me, nobody in my family joined the military, but I still decided to talk to an Air Force recruiter and ended up leaving for basic training 12 days later. It was the best decision I ever made.”
While in Kuwait for his deployment, Shah has used his Urdu speaking abilities to communicate with Other Country Nationals, in addition to learning Arabic.
“So far, I’ve been able to understand and pick up on concepts, especially job related. Wehba has been helping me learn Arabic and it’s helped tremendously so far.”
Wehba, a U.S. Air Force reservist from March AFB, California has been fluent in Arabic his entire life.
“Growing up, I learned how to read the Quran, read, write and speak in Arabic during Saturday school,” he said. “In my household, my parents only spoke Arabic to us to make sure we understood the language and school was where I got all my English from. As a child, I also had opportunity to visit Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan.”
While Wehba may have been the first in his family to join the USAF, he discovered an interesting fact about one of his family members.
“One of my mom’s uncles was a Kuwaiti Air Force general,” he said. “He’s been retired for about forty years now. Growing up, I heard stories about him so when I got to Kuwait, I had the chance to meet him face-to-face. Seeing him and my cousins was an incredible experience, especially to know I have strong ties here.”
While deployed, Wehba tested in foreign language proficiency for Arabic, which has sharpened his skillsets exponentially.
Shuvo was born and raised in Bangladesh until the age of five years old. He and his family moved to the U.S., and settled in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.
“I grew up speaking Bengali, but my mom would watch a lot of Bollywood movies that I would end up watching with her,” Shuvo said. “As a child, I picked up Hindi over time to the point where I became fluent.”
Shuvo said his biggest motivation for joining the military was due to one of his best friends, who joined as well, and to gain other experiences.
“I did college for two years before enlisting, but I knew I wanted a change of pace, and decided to enlist in the Air Force,” Shuvo said. “For me the driving motivation to join was to get out of my hometown and travel to different places.”
During his time at ASAB, Shuvo has said how much he enjoys speaking his native languages with the OCN’s on base. He also had the opportunity to fill the shoes of translators when none were available in numerous circumstances.
“I never thought I would have the opportunity to interact with other Bengalis during my Air Force career,” he said. “It is such a great feeling to experience that.”
Since their deployments kicked off in January, all four Airmen have made significant impacts by stepping in to strengthen bonds with the base populous, and ensure effective communication throughout the installation.
“Our relationship with the Kuwaitis and OCN’s have skyrocketed; they have mountains of respect for those in American uniform who can speak their language,” Keranen said. “Building those relationships is extremely important, especially when it comes to security.”
While the operational benefits are enhanced by these Defenders’ language abilities, efforts have also reach into the community.
“Not only do we interact to discuss work related matters, but we have also bonded with them and have even been treated like family,” Shuvo said. “They have shown us such kindness, and I can tell how much they appreciate that we can speak their language, which boosts morale on both sides.”
The Defenders agree that while what they do may be small in their eyes, fortifying these relationships with the Kuwaiti Air Force, and other coalition partners, contributes to a larger picture of mission effectiveness in a deployed environment.
“Our leadership has said that they don’t think they have ever had so many bilingual and multilingual speakers in the squadron before,” Wehba said. “Being able to speak Arabic has opened up many opportunities for me since being here. It is a good feeling to know we are building a climate of trust and cooperation.”