PATROL BASE DETROIT, Afghanistan – The Marines are down but not out. The late afternoon sun beats on them, and one Marine wipes sweat from his eyes. Across from them, their opponents smile, seemingly sensing the outcome. With the Olympics fresh in their minds, this is not simply a volleyball game, this is a matter of national pride.
Then it happens, a questionable call. Is it a point for the Afghan National Army soldiers on one side of the net, or is it the Marines’ serve? Hand gestures and facial expressions are not enough to explain the concerns of both teams.
Then a Marine steps in, turns to the Afghan soldier and begins pleading the Marines’ case. The only catch is he is not speaking English and using over dramatic hand gestures like the others. He is speaking Pashtu, the ANA soldiers’ native language.
Lance Cpl. Nathan Pontious’, rifleman, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, Regimental Combat Team 6, ability to speak Pashtu helps build relationships with ANA soldiers and local Afghans.
“It really helps when we are patrolling and we run into a family,” Pontious said. “When they see I can speak their language it usually puts them at ease. We have that common ground, and we can build off it.”
Pontious’ platoon has two interpreters, but has three squads. This means when the entire platoon patrols, one squad is usually left without an interpreter.
“It’s huge having someone like Pontious who’s a Marine but can also speak Pashtu,” said Sgt. Jason Lomeli, Pontious’ squad leader. “The other day we had to roll out, and the (platoon commander) asked if I was good without an (interpreter). I responded, ‘Of course I’m good, I have Pontious.’”
Pontious’ skills are often used to help mitigate potentially damaging relations with local Afghans. He often explains to the head of the household what the Marines are doing, why they are there and reassures the family.
He is a valued asset to his squad, but what Pontious really enjoys is the non-work related part of speaking Pashtu.
“I love talking to the children,” said Pontious, from Effingham, Ill. “They are really funny, and I love giving them water or candy and watching their smiles.”
Even when his squad returns from patrols, Pontious’ ability to bridge the language barrier is still put to good use. His platoon works closely with ANA soldiers with 1st Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps.
Pontious often talks to the Afghan soldiers, trading with them and planning Marine and ANA volleyball games.
“We work together like brothers,” said ANA Capt. Aziz Mohammad, tolai commander, 3rd Tolai, 1st Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps.
Pontious attended a three-month language school before deploying to Afghanistan to learn Pashtu. He attended grammar classes in the morning and cultural classes in the afternoon. At the end, Pontious graduated third in a class of more than 200 students and the highest of any Marine in his battalion.
Before going to the school, Pontious had developed a reputation as a trouble-maker. He had gotten into a little trouble in the past, and he couldn’t seem to shake the misconceptions about him.
“When I first arrived, some of the other leaders warned me about Pontious, saying he might cause issues,” explained Lomeli, from Riverdale, Ill. “I think Pontious was misunderstood. He does everything I ask of him and more, and he’s a great asset to the squad.”
Pontious used his poor reputation as motivation during the language schools. He volunteered to attend the class because he learned French easily in high school.
“Honestly, I had some doubters when I left for the course,” Pontious said. “I wanted to prove them wrong, and I ended up getting an A in the course.”
He also keeps his language skills sharp, practicing with his school textbook he brought to Afghanistan and asking the interpreters questions.
“One ANA soldier gave me a Pashtu to English dictionary,” Pontious said. “That helped a lot. I take it with me every time we go out.”
Back on the volleyball court, Pontious finishes pleading his case. His explanation seems to satisfy his Afghan counterparts, at least for this point, and in moments the Marines and Afghans are playing again.
“I really think I’m helping to change the perception of Marines to the people of Afghanistan,” Pontious said. “I think they see the effort I’ve put in to learn their language and their culture, and I think they appreciate it.”