(SEOUL, KOREA, January 4,1995)--Answering a call to the missionary, he's crossed some of L.A.'s most notorious battle lines. Now, in response to his nation's call, Capt. Robert Shirley will soon be entering yet another battle zone -- Bosnia.
A thoroughly qualified linguist and intelligence officer, the Mississippi native is an Army reservist assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division's Rear Tactical Operations Center (RTOC) -- an organization touted as being the most forward deployed Army Reserve unit in the world.
While he boasts of being a proud member of one of the military's most unique organizations, the soldier is equally proud his Serb-Croatian language skills have landed him a chance to represent the Division in the ethnically divided former Yugoslavia.
Besides English, the reserve officer is fluent in eight other languages (Spanish, Polish, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, Serb-Croatian, French and Romanian). He says he attributes a twist of fate to the road he's taken during his 14 year affair with the military.
"As a Mormon missionary in California, I was selected to work with Spanish people. So, at the age of 19 and in a period of about five weeks, I learned the Spanish language. I recall however, that while in high school I hated studying language so much I threw my Spanish book into a ditch -- once I'd completed the course.
"The irony of it all is I was called to the Mormon missionary three years later, whereupon I discovered Spanish came easy to me. I soon realized that the language was something that I was not only good at, but found easy to grasp and retain," explained Shirley.
With a personal goal of qualifying in 25 languages, Shirley has indeed taken great strides toward that end. A former student at Mississippi State, and graduate of Brigham Young University, and the Defense Language Institute (DLI), the captain holds masters degrees in Spanish, and Latin American history. In addition, he is two semesters away from a doctorate in Latin American studies.
So, just how did this Tupelo native wind up being Bosnia-bound? Simple. He contacted a NATO counter-intelligence agency in Brussels and volunteered his services.
During his communications with the agency, the intelligence officer conveyed that he'd conducted some successful efforts in Yugoslavia a few years ago and was very qualified for an assignment in Bosnia. The result? NATO's 650th Military Intelligence agency awaits his arrival in Bosnia.
While there, Shirley will serve as a liaison officer. He said serving in such a capacity will allow him close interaction with the local population --further ensuring U.S. soldiers are not injured or become casualties.
"As Americans, we could encounter profound problems if we don't make every effort to understand the mentality of the Bosnian people. We must understand their culture. If we don't, learning their language will not only become a more difficult challenge, but further complicate successfully establishing the necessary connection or interface," he explained.
Thinking himself to be somewhat of an ambassador, Shirley said he believes his linguistic skills are equally important as those of U.S. combat soldiers being alrtunity already. So, I don't think being in a uniform in Bosnia will mean being anymore of a target than I already was. At least in Bosnia I can sort of blend into the b Upon completion of his Bosnian tour, Shirley will return to the 2nd Inf. Div. where as RTOC's counter-intelligence officer he provides terrain management and security assistance for the Division. Referring to his unit, Shirley stated, "RTOC is exciting and unique -- particularly since it's a reserve component assigned to the Division. That in itself is a big challenge," he said.
The Fullbright Scholarship selectee and graduate of a number of DLI (Defense Language Institute) courses added, "My command is proud to have one of their own represent them in supporequest to go to Bosnia had been approved, I had feelings that ran the gamut -- everything from exciting to exhilarating to just plain old scared. Even so, I'd been preparing for a tour like this for a couple of years.
"I suspected the tain a language relatively easily, he's able to maintain his skills by frequently reviewing books and tapes he's acquired over the years. He said he attributes his luck with languages to having a good memory.
He then added, "With the exception of Korean, it doesn't take me long to learn a language. I think the reason I've not done well with Korean is because I've been focusing much of my attention on my Croatian skills.
"The last time I tested in Serb-Croatian, of the 60 questions on the test, I got 57 correct. Nth two children back home, Hannah and Parker, the linguist's mixed feelings aren't that difficult to understand. Still, the the reservist remains solid in his determination and eagerness to represent his country.
Without hesitation the former missionary expressed, "I'm one of less than 50 Serb-Croatian linguists the U.S. Army has. Since it's a skill possessed by so few, I felt I had to offer my services. Going to Bosnia isn't a sacrifice on my part. It's a soldier answering his nation's call. It's also an opportunity and an honor for a Warrior to proudly serve his country."
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Color slides are available of Capt. Shirley, however, our office has no capability to send via PA LINK. If anyone would like a photo, please request via e-mail)