Marine Corps Base Hawaii --
Breaking past language barriers is a challenge, but it’s one Sgt. Miguel Iles meets every day.
Iles, an Asia-Pacific cryptologic linguist with 3rd Radio Battalion, prevailed among his armed services colleagues and was recently named the Department of Defense’s Language Professional of the Year. He is a non-native speaker of Mandarin Chinese and became proficient in Korean through DoD training.
“The program at the Defense Language Institute is great,” said Iles, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich. “I went from knowing just kimchi and hello in Korean to being able to understand newspaper articles and television news.”
Iles gained proficiency in Korean after less than two years of training and deployed for eight months during the last fiscal year. He’s served as a translator during joint efforts of the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises and alongside Republic of Korea and U.S. Army service members processing intelligence reports.
“From the time we got there, we hit the ground running,” said Sgt. Kenneth Nienhuser, who is another Asian-Pacific cryptologic linguist with 3rd Radio Bn. who deployed with Iles in 2012. “He completed every bit of training he needed to do and every time he could go up for advancement, he did. Within the short amount of time he was there, he accomplished quite a bit.”
His language skills are vital to processing and analyzing collected intelligence information, said Capt. Devin Phillabaum, Alpha Company commander, 3rd Radio Bn. Phillabaum said it was both Iles’ significant contribution to intelligence and his high proficiency scores in two challenging languages that set him apart from others.
“The fact that he learned Korean in 18 months, and Chinese largely through immersion, is a testament to his work ethic,” he said. “He enjoys and embraces challenge. He went out and actively sought out the hardest languages to learn.”
Although much of his work is classified, Iles said he’s learned a lot of cultural background information from unclassified sources in their native languages.
“I can read not only what the Western media is saying, but read the original press releases from North and South Korea, as well as commentary made by China,” he said. “I find the Western media is very lazy when it comes to reporting from foreign media.”
Since his college days, Iles studied Mandarin Chinese and is intrigued by Chinese literature. As he reads through current political commentary, the Marine linguist said Chinese media condemns North Korea’s recent nuclear test but also blames tensions on the United States for extensive combined exercises with the South Koreans.
Since studying North Korean resources, Iles said he’s noticed the country’s government reacts strongly to any negative criticism.
“North Korea is very sensitive about their security and their place in the world and their reputation,” he said. “The average North Korean believes that the Korean War is the result of American aggression because that’s what they’re taught in school.”
Iles’ win comes at a time when 3rd Radio Bn. and other military units with foreign language components are facing stiff financial budgets, Phillabaum said. The conference honoring Iles and other top linguists may not occur this year due to reductions in their budget.
“Budget cuts have already affected our ability to send Marines to language training,” Phillabaum said.
Indonesian classes have been cancelled due to reduced funding on the DoD level, and Phillabaum said units would need to begin thinking of creative ways to facilitate foreign language training.
To keep up his Korean and Chinese language skills, Iles said he’s looked for resources that hold his interest. In Chinese, he’s studied kung fu novels and for Korean, he’s learned more about the social differences in North Korea. Reading and studying the languages in context has helped Iles, and it’s advice he has passed on to others.
“He’s helped me to remember to keep the language in context,” Nienhuser said. “You can’t just study the words and expect to remember them all. You have to use them within sentences to better retain them.”
His advice will be on the minds of many military linguists, since Iles’ next duty station will be teaching at the institute in Monterey, Calif.
As a teacher he will continue to break down barriers, one word and sentence at a time.