By Petty Officer 2nd Class Steven Shepard
When Lt. Yonnette Thomas heard about the devastating 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, she knew that she could help. As a former enlisted Navy Linguist who spoke French, Haitian Creole, Spanish, and Portuguese, she was certain that her skills would be needed in any relief effort the U.S. military would provide.
Thomas contacted the U.S. Navy 2nd Fleet, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and her own chain of command to offer her service. As it turns out it wasn’t necessary. Thomas’ name was quickly pulled from a Navy language database and on Jan. 19 she was told that she would be leaving for Haiti. She arrived two days later.
Thomas works as the division officer to a group of 64 Navy personnel, almost all native Haitian speakers, who translate aboard the USNS Comfort. The Comfort is anchored one mile offshore of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and is providing medical services and humanitarian relief to Haitians as part of Operation Unified-Response Haiti.
At one time Thomas was in charge of as many 154 personnel, which included 88 Red Cross volunteers.
“We are working with everybody and anybody,” Thomas explained in a telephone interview, about the translators’ role on board the Comfort. “Doctors, nurses, patients, chain of command. There are Argentineans, Brazilians, French, Colombians… you name it and they are here.”
Thomas was born in the South American country of Guyana to parents of mixed heritage. She was raised in the neighboring country of French Guyana where she learned to speak the multiple languages that reflect the diverse culture of the people who live there. She immigrated with her family to the United States in 1988 and enlisted in the Navy in 1990.
Originally working as a Machinist’s Mate for the Navy, she cross-rated to a Cryptologic Technician Interpretive (CTI) while attending the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif. She completed the Spanish Language program in October 1995.
“I worked very hard to leave with top scores and I have always tried to make sure I remained a top linguist.”
Thomas spent six years as a CTI before receiving her commission as a Naval Officer in 2001. During that time, she was personally selected by the Chief of Naval Operations to deploy to Haiti in 1997 in support of the State Department.
“I grew up with a lot of Haitians and the impression I had was that they are always very positive people,” said Thomas, “but when I came in 1997 and I saw Haiti, I understood the people more because of the economic and social conditions,” Thomas explained.
“After the earthquake, while spending time on the ground, I have seen the devastation and the people who still live in poverty. Sometimes it is difficult to tell what damages were inflicted by the earthquake and what preexisted. There are signs of progress, but the country still has a long way to go.”
When asked if she had to learn a whole new vocabulary to translate within a medical setting, Thomas stated that there wasn’t much time and she went down there just hoping for the best.
“You just plunge right into it,” she explained, “and I don’t know if it’s the impact of the mission or the environment but the words just come to you. And if there is a type of medicine or something you don’t know the word for, you explain it through context.”
But Thomas pointed out that translating is not solely about knowing all the correct words. Translating is about culture as much as it is about language.
“You have to know the culture and be sensitive about it, which is very important as a linguist. It is one thing to speak the language, but if the people you are speaking to can’t relate to what you are saying then they won’t understand. You have to be able to marry the language and culture together.”
And there are some experiences that words simply cannot describe.
“Death, children, amputations, destruction. I have seen it all since I’ve been here,” said Thomas. “I have tried not to get attached. It is very hard to dwell on the personal stories. You try to separate yourself somewhat so that when you walk away from here you still maintain some semblance of sanity.”
Thomas has served in the U.S. Navy for 19 years. She has spent time in both the Gulf and Afghanistan. Soon shewill return to her position as the Officer in Charge at the Center for Information Dominance Learning Site Norfolk, but she says nothing can compare to her time in Haiti translating onboard the USNS Comfort.
“It is indescribable,” she said. “This is about saving lives and changing people’s lives. It is about your ability to communicate, to be loving, and to give that one person a smile of encouragement. To be there for that person and listen so that they feel that someone cares. I can’t tell you how much the local population appreciates us for what we are doing here.”
Lt. Yonnette Thomas, Officer in Charge of the Center for Information Dominance Learning Site in Norfolk tranlates between Haitian Patients and a delegation of visiting physicians from Colombia aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort.
Photo/Navy photo by Staff Sft. Loobens Alphonse.