By KEVIN HOWE
Monterey Herald Staff Writer
They've gone about as far as they can go.
On Wednesday, diplomas "with distinction" were awarded to seven graduates of the Defense Language Institute's top course, the Russian Arms Control Speaking Course.
Graduates will serve in the former Soviet Union to monitor compliance with nuclear arms reduction and nonproliferation efforts, serving as translators and interpreters at the highest levels in talks between governments.
To get there, the graduates — Army Sgt. Olga Yefremenkova, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Paul Shoop, Senior Airman Martin Thorson, Staff Sgts. Vladimir Tchekan, Dmitriy Dneprov and Maria Sergeeva, and Marine Corps Sgt. Kyle Coker — attended DLI's basic and intermediate Russian courses and served as linguists in the field.
They are expected to function at a professional and scientific level, translating and interpreting for arms inspection teams of the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, in its 10th year of operation.
The interpreter is "the most important person in the room" where these talks take place, said J. Mark Whitney, executive director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Moscow office.
Whitney, a DLI-taught Russian linguist and veteran of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, told the graduates they can expect to work with secretaries of defense and state, generals, admirals, senators and congressmen as part of their duties.
"Important people are drawn to important work," he said. "It's no exaggeration to say that your contribution to national security will be vital."
Threat-reduction efforts have successfully shepherded the shutdown of Russian nuclear reactors that produced a metric ton each year of weapons-grade plutonium, he said, and provided jobs for Russian scientists and technicians who once worked on nuclear weapons programs, preventing them from seeking employment elsewhere.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency and its predecessor, the Onsite Inspection Agency, have fielded 954 graduates of DLI's Russian Arms Control Speaking Course, said retired Army Col. Ronnie Faircloth, director of the agency's onsite inspection effort.
"We employ the highest number of Russian linguists and the highest caliber linguists," he said.
His agency and the language school have enjoyed a long-standing partnership, Faircloth said, and will continue to do so.
DLI's arms control course is "a bar set very high," said the school commandant, Army Col. Sue Ann Sandusky, who noted that all seven graduates exceeded the course requirements and are at a level of professional and technical fluency needed to do the job.
"You are going to contribute directly to our national defense," she told the graduates. "The ability to develop and deliver a course at this high level is a stimulus to excellence at DLI.
"You are now strategic assets," she said. "People who thought that the strategic importance of knowing the Russian language is diminishing were wrong. It's going to be important for a long time to come."
Kevin Howe can be reached at 646-4416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.