Walsh presses Internet language lessons for military

As the Pentagon hustles to improve the military’s foreign-language training, a small business from Syracuse, N.Y., with a mighty congressional supporter is advocating an unconventional method of teaching Arabic, Pashtun or Tagalog.

Unconventional warriors at the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) have caught on to what they call the Special Operations Forces Tele-training System (SOFTS).

Both special ops and the technology provider, Progressive Expert Consulting, are pegging their hopes on Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), the veteran appropriator from Syracuse who got it started.

Walsh, chairman of the Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, is asking Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the defense appropriations panel, to add $2 million to SOCOM’s 2007 budget for the Army’s Special Forces. The money would help expand SOFTS from a pilot program started a couple of years ago to a full-fledged program, beginning in 2008.

SOCOM is planning to include the technology as part of its 2008-2013 project objective memorandum, according to an industry source. Without money in 2007, the company and some of the military users fear that the technology can’t prove itself enough to become a staple of the Special Operations Foreign Language Office.

PEC, the company behind the program, has a contract with the Special Operations Command until the end of 2006, said Michael Feng, PEC’s director of systems’ integration.

SOFTS allows students and language instructors to see each other and interact over the Internet. It requires broadband Internet access and computers outfitted with a camera, a headset and a microphone.

Normally, members of the military are sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., for months of study. But the Pentagon has been relying more and more on members of the National Guard and Reserve to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Apart from being deployed for a long time, some Guard members and reservists also have to spend months away from home learning a new language.

PEC’s selling point to special ops reservists was that they would not have to leave their families and home bases before being deployed. The system saves an average of $11,000 per student on travel and lodging, according to the company.

“Monterey is not cheap. It is a tourism destination,” said Feng. “Plus they have such high need they can’t fit” everybody.

But Feng admitted that being in the classroom is best. “You do want to teach the students live,” he said.

SOFTS students sit at their computers at a certain time and are taught by instructors as far away as South Korea. The students can see and hear each other and have a shared view of newspapers or other documents.

“I am a telecom guy, and I see the promise of it [because] with broadband communications over the Internet you can do almost anything,” Walsh said. “It’s a remarkable technology.”

Walsh, a former member of the Peace Corps, learned Nepali at the Defense Language Institute.

“Now we do not have enough Arabic speakers,” he said.

The Pentagon is planning to allocate more than $750 million over the next five years to boost the number of personnel with critical language skills.

Students who do not know the language at all plug into the system five days a week for seven hours a day. The course usually lasts about eight months, and at the end the students are scored at level two out of five on the Pentagon’s language proficiency scale.

Level two is the “cutoff for them to receive their additional pay based on language proficiency,” Feng said.

SOFTS originated from a NASA program in 2000 when the agency’s administrator, Dan Golden, wanted to create an “intelligent synthesis environment.” Walsh, with support from New York Gov. George Pataki, appropriated $1 million to start the program at Syracuse University.

PEC integrated the technology into a system that then was adopted by the intelligence community in Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

After that, it moved to the Defense Language Institute. In 2005, at Walsh’s behest, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee added $1 million for what was to become SOFTS.

But there was no funding in 2006 and no request for 2007 from SOCOM headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

“When the folks from PEC told me about the technology, I thought of 1 million applications,” said Walsh, who capitalized on the opportunity to help a small business and add more jobs to a dormant downtown Syracuse.

As the chairman of veterans affairs appropriations, Walsh is pushing the same broadband concept to help wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital stay in touch with their families who may be too far to come and visit often. Injured soldiers can use TVs to communicate and see their families.

Called the American Spirit program, it would support a Web portal where the patients and their families can share pictures, messages and have face-to-face, real-time conversations.

Last year, Walsh appropriated $2 million to the Army as part of the Defense Health program to get the initiative started.

The Army is expected to have a competition to award a contract for the Spirit program, Walsh said. He is also thinking of jump-starting a similar program at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in the 2007 appropriations.