MONTEREY, Calif.– The Defense Department agency tasked with securing and dismantling weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union has added a new crop of cultural and linguistic experts to its team.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, in a decade-long partnership with the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center here, has added more than 950 Russian specialists, including seven who earned their diplomas this week.

“For me, this is the realization that all the training that I’ve received up to this point, I’ll actually be able to use,” Air Force Tech Sgt. Paul Shoop said after a graduation ceremony on the campus of the Defense Language Institute, or DLI, here. “I’ll be able to use my language in such an auspicious way in the reduction of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials, and for me, that is the most important [thing].”

When the Iron Curtain receded, Moscow left behind a lethal legacy in the former Soviet bloc — arsenals filled with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. But in the wake of the Soviet collapse, the U.S. joined a multilateral effort with Eurasian counterparts to reduce the number of these weapons, an achievement made possible in part by America’s cadre of skilled linguists, said James Tegnelia, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

“There’s a lot more to DTRA and to these programs than simply a smart bunch of technical people,” Tegnelia said in an interview at the Pentagon this month. “The treaties were set up around military-to-military contacts – U.S. military with Russian military – and so you needed to have somebody who spoke the language, understood the culture and could communicate with Russian and former Soviet Union countries.”

One of the programs DTRA oversees is the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Established in 1992, the initiative has drastically cut the number of leftover weapons, dismantling more than 2,000 intercontinental missiles, eliminating 1,000 missile launchers and deactivating 7,000 nuclear warheads in former Soviet Union states.

Graduates of the joint DTRA-DLI Russian program often are tasked to work with their foreign counterparts in overseeing weapons facilities inspections, act as interpreters and escorts, and often provide useful insights into the lay of the land, Tegnelia said.

“It takes a very special person, in my mind, who can speak Russian, who’s willing to live in Kazakhstan for two years and who’s willing to build rapport with the community to make the ‘cooperative’ part of ‘cooperative threat reduction’ work,” he said.

Top graduates from intensive Russian instruction at DLI may qualify for employment at DTRA. If accepted, they return to the institute for a more focused, job-specific 47-week training session. The entire curriculum, which is considered one of the most difficult offerings at the institute, comprises nearly three years of rigorous study.

For those who complete that regimen, known as the Russian Arms Control Speaking Proficiency Course, their diploma marks the end of their training. But it also signifies the beginning of their careers as lifelong learners of Russian culture and language, said Army Col. Sue Ann Sandusky, DLI commandant.

“As the great graduates of this class have demonstrated … it’s a bar that’s set very high. But it’s a bar that committed students with inspiring faculty can achieve, and you’re going to contribute directly to our national defense,” she told the graduates.

Before the group received its diplomas, two students delivered remarks to their Russian professors. In one of the ceremony’s highlights, Air Force Senior Airman Martin Thorson spoke to the audience in Russian as Shoop provided a parallel interpretation in English.

Revealing the crowd’s multilingual makeup, about as many members of the audience laughed at the jokes embedded in Thornson’s remarks as did those who had to wait for Shoop’s translation. In response to the poignant, bilingual speech that both showcased the students’ aptitude and recalled their memories of the nearly dozen professors from whom they learned at DLI, their schoolmasters beamed with pride. One even dabbed tears from under her glasses.

Providing the day’s closing remarks was Ronnie Faircloth, the director of DTRA’s on-site inspection component of the operations enterprise. The On-Site Inspection Agency was one of three activities – along with the Defense Special Weapons Agency and the Defense Technology Security Administration – that merged on Oct. 1, 1998, to form DTRA.

Describing the high-intensity work that the graduates face in their new roles as DTRA personnel, Faircloth told the groups they can expect to deploy for about a third of the year in various parts of the world carrying out the agency’s mission.

“You will be doing extremely [high-level] work, often with no or very little preparation. They are going to be challenging topics,” he said. “But the work, we guarantee you, is going to be rewarding.”

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