Army Linguists Net $150,000 Bonus

The Army is looking at paying incredibly large bonuses to people fluent in Arabic and other strategically important languages.

Speaking the same language: An Iraqi-American translator asks census questions in Khandari, Iraq, just west of Baghdad in 2006. Jacob Silberberg/AP/FileThe Army may begin paying a retention bonus of as much as $150,000 to Arabic speaking soldiers in reflection of how critical it has become for the US military to retain native language and cultural know-how in its ranks.

Only one other job in the Army, Special Forces, rates such a super-sized retention bonus. Now, as the military makes a fundamental shift toward rewarding the linguistic expertise it needs the most, it is expanding a program to train and retain native Arabic and other speakers from the same regions in which it is fighting.


After the invasion of Iraq and the insurgency that followed, the US military recognized its dearth of linguistic competence in the country it had just toppled, and it scrambled to identify Arabic and other linguists. The military’s conventional language training program, the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., could not churn out enough American soldiers proficient in Arabic, Kurdish, Dari, Pashtu, and Farsi, and the military quickly turned to private contractors to fill the gap. Numerous programs have sprouted up, including one at Fort Lewis, Wash., where soldiers are given a 10-month immersion program in language and culture.

But the Army has also been quietly growing its own capability to recruit and train Arab-Americans and others as American soldiers to do high-level work overseas. The Army now has more than 600 such linguists, known by their military job designation as “09 Limas.” They come from places like Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan, but are recruited by the Army wherever there are large Arab-American populations, including Dearborn, Mich.; Miami; Dallas; Los Angeles; and Washington, D.C. The Defense Department is now authorized to put green-card holders on a fast track to US citizenship. The 09 Lima linguists are in so much demand that the Army is raising the number it will recruit next year, from 250 to 275.

But as the US government recognizes the long-term commitment it is making to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the competition for these native speakers is fierce among other government agencies such as the FBI and CIA, as well as other military services and private contractors.

This was inevitable if largely a problem of the Defense Department’s own making. Many of us recognized this need in the early 1990s, when it was obvious that we had far too few linguists and that Southwest and Central Asian languages would be in high demand. The fact that DoD will hire private contractors at princely wages, thereby essentially bidding against itself on this front, isn’t helping.

The obvious downside of the bonus approach, aside from it being expensive, is that it could radically skew the pay structure of the force. Depending on how many years the bonus is spread out over, you could have private E-1s making more money than bird colonels.

Story via YahooNews. Photo: Jacob Silberberg/AP (FILE).

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that this program is largely to the good but note that it emphasizes a point I’ve made before: they’re paying the bonuses to native speakers. You can’t study to learn to be a native speaker; you either are or you aren’t.

    American employers, generally, not just the military prefer native speakers of their target languages even if their command of English is less over native speakers of English who’ve studied the target language.

  2. James Joyner says:

    That’s right, I think, although a change from previous policy. It used to be thought, not totally irrationally, that having non-citizens handling these sensitive matters brought with it certain security concerns. It appears, though, that operational necessity has trumped that issue.

  3. John Burgess says:

    James: I think you’re unintentionally excluding some people in your calculation.

    An instance is my nephew-by-marriage (i.e., the son of my brother’s wife, through her first marriage). The young man, now in the US Army in Iraq, holds both American and Moroccan citizenship. He was raised in Morocco and is very much a native speaker of Arabic.

    I’m sure both he and his parents and step-father are delighted that this little windfall is heading in his direction. I suspect his sister may be rethinking her career choices about now, too!

  4. Bithead says:


    (Hey…. Someone hadda say it)

  5. test says:

    John: Good point. We have more “native” speakers of foreign languages than any other country on the planet. It does sound, though, as if the Army is recruiting foreign nationals with expedited citizenship as a perk.

  6. The obvious downside of the bonus approach, aside from it being expensive, is that it could radically skew the pay structure of the force. Depending on how many years the bonus is spread out over, you could have private E-1s making more money than bird colonels.

    In private industry and as a mid-level manager for one of those contractors receiving an, ahem, princely wage (even though it never did allow me to be able to afford to buy a house in NOVA), albeit not as a linguist, I would just note that I always had people working for me that made more than I did, as did the folks I reported to. You pay for talent, and not all talent has an interest in moving up the ladder, being responsible for other people, or doing the business development tasks necessary to be a manager in that industry. If this is a problem with the force pay structure, maybe it is the apparent requirements of a strictly hierarchical force pay structure that is the problem.