Airman Helps Iraqis Access U.S. Training


By Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Larry Schneck

Passport with a visa — check. Plane ticket with an aisle seat — check. Luggage with extra socks — check.

For most foreigners traveling to the United States, this is all they would need, but for Iraqis seeking a seat inside an American schoolhouse, an airman and an English language proficiency exam are part of their checklists.

“This test is the first step in getting them there,” Air Force Tech. Sgt. Fatema Tahan said.

Tahan is deployed to the Iraq Security Assistance Mission as the English Language Program test administrator at Forward Operating Base Union III in the International Zone here.

“English language testing is a critical component of the out-of-country training program for Iraq,” said Army Lt. Col. Dawn Rodeschin, the security assistance mission’s training and travel chief. “The English Comprehension Level exam must be administered to prospective training candidates within 105 days of their training start dates in the U.S.”

Tahan’s office is a trailer with individual work stations. She can test up to 20 Iraqis at a time. In a year, more than 2,400 people pass through her program over 238 sessions. The American Language Course Placement Test and the English Comprehension Level exam are the two she regularly administers, with the former having 31 different versions.

“Sergeant Tahan is professional in her demeanor with the Iraqi examinees,” Rodeschin said. “She puts them at ease during testing.”

Armed with test results showing English proficiency, an Iraqi service member or civilian government employee can attend a course outside the country and receive training.

Most of the time, a prospective student has to reach a minimum score on the tests Tahan administers. Once that hurdle is passed, the person is ready to obtain more intensive English-language training at the Defense Language Institute’s English Language Center in San Antonio. Upon graduation with a score of at least 80, students then can attend schools such as the U.S. Army’s Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga.

Iraqi service members and government employees who attend international military education and training courses experience the American way of life, Tahan said, and get to see first-hand the commitment to democratic ideas in American society.

“I’m honored to be part of such a great mission,” she added. “I know what I’m doing will have a tremendous impact on the future of this country’s government.”

This isn’t Tahan’s first time in Iraq. In 2008, she worked at Joint Base Balad, where she was surrounded solely by other airmen. This time, she’s a member of an integrated, joint-services staff that’s made up of airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines.

“I had no idea what I was going to be doing until I was in combat airman skills training,” she said. “I felt it would be a new experience, and it has been. I’m experiencing Iraq differently than when I came here last time.”

Rodeschin said Tahan is making an important contribution.

“She does a superb job managing the overall English language testing program for the entire country,” Rodeschin said. “She supports the efforts in the International Zone and in various locations throughout Iraq.”

The English testing program contributes to Iraq’s ability to partner with the U.S. military and defend the Iraqi people, Rodeschin and Tahan noted.

“I make sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to do,” Tahan said. “I give the Iraqis what they need.”

Her family in New York may worry about what she’s doing, Tahan added, but she said they are reassured her mission is making a difference in the future of Iraq’s young democracy.


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