Importance of Language & Culture in the Military

Audio file
Podcast Transcript


Shabnam:   Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast, a podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees, language lovers and public service enthusiasts. In today's episode will be speaking with Larry Rentz. Larry is a 28-year military police army officer, and a former department chair and professor of military science and leadership Army ROTC at the University of Maryland, where he was responsible for the development and mentorship of over two hundred Cadets. His overseas military experiences include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, Egypt, and Mozambique. He is currently a participant in the DoD Skill Bridge program that exposes service members to careers beyond the military. Thank you for joining us today Larry!

Larry:         Thank you so much for having me.

Shabnam:   Of course! I know as the department chair and the professor for military science and Leadership at UMD you've taught and mentored several students who are intent on pursuing a career in the Army, could you talk a bit more about what types of career paths exist within the Military?

Larry:          Lots. Lots and lots. In the Army, we have Officers that come through the reserve officer training corps, the military academy at West Point, and the officer candidate programs at Fort Benning. When you commission, you commission to what we call a branch, or – it’s like a career field, and there's only twenty-four of them, and it's kind of expanding. Cyber operations are one of the newest career fields or branches that are with the army. My branch was the military police corps, and we were responsible for security, law enforcement, protection and correction type activities. We have Military Intelligence career fields that have - deals with gathering information and also our language, our interpreters go into that field. We have Logisticians, our Transporters that move all the equipment, we have our infantry which is basically what people typically think of when they think of the army, those are our soldiers that are – that’s their main job, conduct combat operations, there are those that we’ll call our ordinance branch that includes out field artillery. Our armor (branch) are folks that drive the tanks, so a wide variety, just about everything civilian – in the civilian world, you can do in the military, it’s a microcosm of society at large. So pretty much everything we need to do in the civilian world we do also do in the military, so the Army has created career fields to kind of match that.

Shabnam:   So for someone who maybe interested in pursuing a military career, what types of channels must they go through?

Larry:          You know, there’s a couple options. So, for those of the folks that are still in high school, you’ve got a couple different options. I’m an Army officer, typically and Army officer is what would be considered the career people, we would come in to do a full twenty years and then retire from the military, whereas in the past, enlisted soldiers where those that go in out of high school or those without college degree, and they would do certain terms, or contract terms for say 8 years or so, and then you know we go back to a civilian life. The two have blended and merged quite a bit, many officers come into the military, and they’ll only do four or five years on active duty, and then they’ll go into the civilian world, whereas folks may come from high school, and they may end up doing 20 years, get a college degree and move on. But there’s a lot of different ways to enter, so if you’re in high school and you want to try the enlisted route, you want to be more of a ‘doer’ or a Hands-On person. You could simply see your military recruiter that, you know, comes and visits your high school, or their offices throughout all communities, often times in strip malls or in actual malls. You can just look them up online, then talk to a recruiter, and they can tell you what their options are.

If you want to be an officer, you know, a leader, you’re more of a person that likes to be in charge or you like to make plans, to do the higher-level activities, then you’ll want to pursue a career military through one of the commission sources, the largest one is ROTC which is what I taught, and there located, specifically with an army program, are found at about 275 universities as host programs, and then almost another, say about 600 of what we call satellite programs. so to 275 host programs, University of Maryland is one of those ROTC - which is Reserve Officer Training Corps, and then you can also go through the military academy at West Point which requires appointment from a Congressional senator, that’s another option, and then also if you enlist and decide you want to become an officer, there’s an officer candidate school at Fort Meade, and so those are pathways into the Army. The majority of my experiences with officers is that ROTC provides about 75% of the commissioned officers on active duty in the army, and the officer school at West Point make up the rest of that.

Shabnam:   What advice do you give your students who are pursuing a military career?

Larry:          It’s a great opportunity to explore what you may think you want to do in life, there’s a lot of skills that are transferable. Many people like to pick a career in the military that they may want to do on the outside, and I say if you’re going to pick, that’s – to pick an idea that you think you’re interested in, but I think it’s been said quate a bit that t here’s no bad career fields I the army. The lessons that you learn in any of our career fields, any of our branches are universal throughout the army, those things like learning to work as a team, learning to lead others, to have grit, and work through problems, become a problem solver, those exist in all of our branches in the Army. If you’re considering it, take a look at it, give it a shot. if you're not sure if you want to do it in your college, try your ROTC program with the Army, Navy or Airforce. Try it for a semester and learn more about it, there's no requirement, no contract that you have to sign saying ‘I'm committing to go in’ it's just a college class that you can actually get credit for, depending on the university, have it count towards graduation, whether or not you decide to continue on to a military career. If you're in high school and not sure that you want to go to college, and you want to try military out, it’s a good opportunity to get some good life skills, as well as vocational training for a potential career that you may want to do.

My advice is if you're considering the military, give it a shot, research it, talk to people that have served, talk to people who are currently and serving and see what they like about it, and see if what they like about it matches up to what you’re interested in, see if it generates any further discussion, or generates ideas for yourself.

Shabnam:   Are there aspects of leadership and ethics that you emphasize in your classes?

Larry:          Absolutely. I really like to focus on the term servant leader. Often times people that want to be leaders want to be in charge of people, they want to give them orders and tell others what to do. But we look at leadership and ethical leadership as a genuine concern for those people that you have been given the responsibility to lead. Ethically what that means is always putting the needs of those that you lead ahead of your own. From basic things like when it's time to eat, okay, you eat last. Those that work for you, they get in line to eat, it builds those small character traits that help you understand that you are the leader, but whenever possible you always put your soldiers, those that you lead, ahead of yourself and you put their needs ahead of yours. Doing things ethically, right by them, avoiding and putting yourselves in compromising situations where you would never borrow money from someone enlisted, or someone that works for you, or are inappropriate social relationships with folks that could impair your judgment when you're making decisions to lead others, or show them that you favor one group or one individual on the team. Those are the main things we talk about.

Shabnam:   What skills would you say would make someone a successful Cadet?

Larry:          I think the successful Cadets are kind of driven, even if they don't know quite sure what they want to do, I’ve had a whole spectrum of  cadets who absolutely knew when they came in, what they want to be, ‘I want to be in the infantry, I want to be a helicopter pilot, I want to go all these places’ and you know they’re absolutely sure what they want to do. I have \other cadets come in not quite sure what they want to do, but I do know that they want to serve, they want to be a part of a team, they want to do something – be a part of something that's bigger than themselves as an individual, and they’re willing to learn whatever it takes to come upon it, through hard work and study and determination, all those types of personalities that come in, that are good, and I think commitment is the main thing. Whether you're sure or not, whether you're sure not what you want to do, the fact that you were willing to commit to something is very important, and that's why I say - encourage students to try ROTC out, see if it's something that you would commit to, and it's something that you can see yourself doing for a length of time. I have had some really good potential cadets come in and decide they like the idea of it, but their level of commitment doesn't dive or bounce to know bigger goals in life, and so while they would have been a good cadet, because they’re smart, they’re intelligent, they have drive, are physically fit, it's just they don't have that level of commitment to want to do the military long-term, and I totally respect that, and I think not everyone needs to be a military officer, not everyone can and not everyone should be, but I think the main thing that I would say, whether someone that makes a good - someone that is committed, someone that's open-minded for sure.

Shabnam:   Thank you Larry. What role does cultural competency play in all of this? And do you have personal experiences from your missions abroad that have highlighted the importance of understanding other background, language, and culture?

Larry:          Yeah, absolutely. I think the curiosity that I was talking about, and being committed to learning, part of that comes from learning new things, learning new languages, learn new cultures, because of the military is a microcosm of our society at large, we have soldiers from all walks of life at the University of Maryland we had a large first-generation of immigrant Cadets, Cadets from Vietnam, Cameroon,  many different countries throughout Africa that came in and were committed, committed to the idea of serving the United States Army. The vast majority of cadets came from different portions of the United States, and all came with a different background, but we needed to learn to work together, and that's how the Army works, so you'll serve with people from different parts of the country, different parts of the world, that you know you have never encountered before, but none the less it's very important to work as a team. Having an open-mindedness and learning to respect other's cultures and learn more about them can go a long way, the initiative to just be a part of a team, that's a big piece of it, to being able to understand that you have respect other's cultures, and that's the first step to putting a team together. Additionally, because what we do is in the army is so expeditionary, we’re overseas a lot, we will find ourselves operating in other people's culture, and the first thing that we need to understand is this is their home, and whenever you visit someone else's home, you are respectful of that. In many cases the countries we go to, you’ll only receive basic phrases in the host country's language, you’ll get some some basic classes in the cultural, how they operate so you can avoid being culturally insensitive, but it goes beyond that. You have to really take a sincere respect for the country that you’re going in to. I remember my first deployment in 97 was to Bosnia half way through a Civil War that was going on there, and so we got basic language training, cultural training, but once I got there, I took the opportunity whenever I interacted with our counterparts there, or with any of the locals, to actually ask for information about, you know, how they were doing, what their lifestyle is like, and not be afraid to share what my background is. I find that people open up when you're willing to be somewhat transparent with them, or getting to know them on a less than official capacity, to get to know them as an individual, and I think that's a big piece of culture, of cultural understanding, working to understand a person is not only just a basic language and phrases, but getting to know them as an individual, and letting them see you and learning what your differences are, and showing respect for those differences.

Shabnam:   What are some lessons that you learned from your time deployed in different countries?

Larry:          So many. I’ll go back to that when I find that whenever I’m in another person's country, when you show respect, respect is given. It's important to go beyond the basic reasons to get around, when you show sincerity to people it is often respected. The language case goes a long way also. Even if you do only know a few of the basic phrases, if you would attempt to communicate in the person's home language, even if it's pretty bad. Most people will try and work with you and they will appreciate that you would take time to learn their language, again that shows respect to them, their culture. Often times as Americans - English is spoken just about everywhere, in most places people will have a certain level English, and will communicate with you, again in most places, and is always important to - even if it's only the greeting of the day, or just a basic greeting to someone and ask them how they’re doing in their language, I’ve found they appreciate it. One of the big lessons that I learned is always trying to communicate in the home language, the hosts language for the location that you are in. Even if it’s not to a full conversational level, but if you do what you can, speak the words that you can, most people will try and work with you, and try to help you along. My last overseas trip was in Mozambique, leading a cultural mission with some Cadets, and in the hotel where we were staying, I got daily lessons, and so the expectation was that because I was there for slightly over a month, the folks there would tell me ‘we’re starting with a daily greeting’, and by the time you leave, you need to have the full greeting and at least be able to, you know, at least be able to order some of your of your meals in the home language. By the time I was leaving I was actually pretty good at it. It was a good feeling; I think I made some long-lasting relationship simply showing by eagerness to learn the language. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, that was one of the big lessons that I learned. Learning their language and showing appreciation goes a long way.

Shabnam:   Do you have any final thought that you would like to share with our listeners?

Larry:          Yeah, I think hopefully if when people listen to this podcast, they already have an interest in learning language and culture, and I want to applaud them for that. If they stumble upon this by some chance, I encourage all of them to continue that. One of the things I kind of regret growing up, I took Spanish in high school and some in college, and then traveled and tried to use it in places that I visited, and I encouraged my children to do that at an early age. But I would encourage you to start to learn a second language now, to absolutely find something you would be remotely interested in, a country that you are interested in visiting, and start to learn the language, there’s so many informal ways to learn language right now because the technology. Learn a language, and once you to have a second language, get a third. That would be my advice.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much for joining us today Larry.

Larry:          You’re very welcome, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.

Shabnam:   You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email [email protected] with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Join me soon for another episode. Thank you for listening!

In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, will discuss experiences joining and being successful in the Military with Mr. Larry Rentz. Larry is a 28-year Military Police Army Officer and Former Department Chair and Professor of Military Science and Leadership (Army ROTC) at the University of Maryland.