BARWANAH, Iraq -- When Pfc. Kenneth Dickerson goes to sleep at night, he keeps a bible by his side, pictures of his family and a notebook filled with hand-written Arabic words and phrases he has learned since he arrived in Iraq.
The 19-year-old U.S. Marine has used many of those words and phrases daily while patrolling the dusty streets of Barwanah with his fellow Marines in the Hawaii-based 3rd battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
“He came here not knowing one word of Arabic, and now we take him out on patrol and we do not need an interpreter,” said Cpl. Daniel Robert, a 22-year-old from Philadelphia who says Dickerson “is an outstanding Marine.”
When the battalion arrived in Iraq four months ago, there was a shortage of interpreters. On many patrols, the Marines were not able to communicate with the local populace.
Dickerson soon found out he had a knack for learning the language – he was able to remember almost every phrase Iraqi soldiers taught him.
“I just carried a waterproof notebook with me and I would write down every word I was taught,” said Dickerson, a native of Clive, Iowa – a suburb of Des Moines. “The soldiers have always been willing to help me learn their language and they have become good friends now that I can understand them.”
Recently, Dickerson and the Marines in his squad were involved in a gunfight with several insurgents. Eight of the insurgents were captured, but the Marines did not have an interpreter with them, they only had Dickerson.
He translated all the questions his noncommissioned officers asked the detainees, and was able to establish an identity on all of the insurgents.
Dickerson says he feels good when he is able to use his language skills in a combat situation but he gets more joy when he is able to talk to locals, especially young children.
“I enjoy working with the Iraqi people and learning about their culture and way of life,” said Dickerson, who says he was an avid motocross racer when he grew up in his “small town.”
He joined the Marines at age 17 after graduating from Waukee High School in 2005.
Although Dickerson believes he is just doing what he can to help the Marines accomplish missions on a daily basis, several of his peers and seniors believe Dickerson has the potential to become a great leader of Marines.
“Dickerson is one of the youngest Marines in the company but he far exceeds my expectations of a Marine his age and rank,” said Capt. Michael Hudson, 33, Dickerson’s commanding officer. “He goes above and beyond to accomplish missions on a daily basis and he will be placed in a leadership billet on our next deployment to Iraq.”
In addition to his linguist skills, Dickerson is a radio operator by trade. When he is not speaking Arabic, he’s the one who maintains contact with higher headquarters during patrols, which sometimes last more than six hours.
But Dickerson’s talents don’t stop there.
Recently, he learned how to use a metal detector in his precious-little spare time, and located a small-weapons cache that was buried.
“Dickerson does so much more than I expect of him and I can always count on him to do the right thing no matter what,” said Robert. “We really do not need an interpreter with us anymore because 90 percent of the time he is able to translate. He just rattles it off – it’s amazing.”
Dickerson, whose father also served in the Marine Corps, said he plans to continue to learn Arabic and will enroll in formal classes when he returns to Hawaii later this year.
He said he will be a more proficient translator when he returns to Iraq next year.
“I have wanted to serve my country since the terrorist attacks on 9/11,” said Dickerson. “My Marines and I have been shot at and have been in some really intense situations, but that does not change my mind about being here. I look forward to coming back next year.”
Dickerson and the rest of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, also known as “America’s Battalion,” is scheduled to depart Iraq later this year and will be replaced by another Hawaii-based unit.
Email Sgt. Roe F. Seigle at email@example.com