Chris Taylor rushes into his corner office, blue dress shirt untucked from his jeans. He throws himself into his chair, leans way back and props his leather loafers up on his desk. "If you don't mind, I'm just gonna get comfortable," he says.
Of course, Taylor wants to relax. He is CEO of Mission Essential Personnel, a Columbus-based military contractor that has grown nearly 20-fold in the last four years. Now, he finds himself at the center of controversy over alleged no-bid contracts and mistreatment of translators.
Taylor riffs for a while about the easy stuff, the details he's covered so many times: How the business was founded in 2002 by two former Special Forces linguists, each of whom chipped in $700; how it grew by more than 1700 percent in the last three years, from $20.5 million in 2006 to $375 million last year, and was ranked 162 on Inc. magazine's 2010 list of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S.
But Taylor can't sit still for long. As the conversation moves to the hard work of translating-to linguists even getting killed for helping the U.S. military-Taylor starts talking faster. His face turns pink. Finally, he removes his feet from the desk and bounces them on the floor.
"This is incredibly hard work," he says, leaning forward in his chair. "Every day, these people put themselves in harm's way."
Located just a few steps from Easton Town Center, Mission Essential Personnel (M.E.P.) plays a pivotal role in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. In a battle against insurgents who wear no uniforms, and who are deeply entrenched in the local culture, the U.S. military is entirely dependent on translators. From captains in the field trying to communicate with village elders up to intelligence unit commanders attempting to understand Taliban text messages, military leaders need translators for the most fundamental work of war: distinguishing allies from enemies.
The military has not trained significant numbers of soldiers to speak Pashto or Dari, Afghanistan's primary languages, not to mention the hundreds of less prominent languages and dialects spoken there. That means it must rely on private contractors such as M.E.P. to recruit and train people who already speak them.
"Up until last year, there were only 32 Pashto language training slots for the entire Army," says Joshua Foust, a military analyst who has traveled with M.E.P. translators in Afghanistan. "We are eight years into a war with a country where most of the country speaks Pashto, and the Army is refusing or incapable of changing its training to account for that."
Mission Essential Personnel was born out of frustration with the Army's translation system. The company's founders, Chad Monnin and Greg Miller, left Special Forces and went to work as Arabic linguists for a private military contractor. But they quickly became disillusioned with the process, which seemed to treat them as nameless widgets instead of human beings with valuable skills. "They thought it was a horrible way to treat people," Taylor says. (Monnin and Miller declined to be interviewed for this story.)
As a Special Forces reservist, Monnin injured his back in a parachute jump. Being a small company started by an injured veteran gave M.E.P. an advantage in competing for contracts. The company started small, supplying six translators to the military in Iraq.
Its big break came in 2007, when M.E.P. won a $703 million contract to recruit most of the military's linguists in Afghanistan. Today, the company employs two types of translators. Almost 5,000 are local Afghan citizens who speak English, but are unable to obtain security clearances. M.E.P. finds them using a network of recruiting offices in cities across Afghanistan, Taylor says. Seven hundred Afghans are on the waiting list to become translators, he adds.
The other 1,700 or so translators are U.S. citizens or residents, who are eligible for varying levels of clearance. M.E.P. recruits them primarily through advertising in Afghan community newspapers, Taylor says, and via recruiters working in northern Virginia and Fremont, California, home to the largest concentrations of Afghans in the country.
Hardly any Afghans have settled in Ohio, so M.E.P. has few recruiters here. The company's 350 Columbus-based employees work primarily to manage the government contracts and to coordinate translators in the field.
According to the U.S. Census, about 7,700 people in the United States speak Pashto. Excluding those who are too old or too young to serve in the military, plus people whose personal histories prevent them from obtaining security clearance, that leaves a pool of about 3,300 people.
Mission Essential Personnel employs more than half of them, Taylor says. "In 2010, most people who can get security clearances and can speak Pashto are already employed by the Army," Foust says.
Other language needs are even harder to meet. The Army is fighting Taliban insurgents in Balochistan, a dry, mountainous region that spreads across four countries, including southwestern Afghanistan. Between 200,000 and 500,000 Afghans are of Baloch descent.
The number of people in the U.S. who speak Baloch?
Of those, how many work for M.E.P.? Taylor hesitates.
"We employ . . . some of them," he says. "We're dealing with a finite resource."
Rare resources are expensive. American citizens or residents with language skills and top clearance earn more than $200,000 a year. Afghan nationals collect about $1,000 a month, more than generals in the Afghan army, Taylor says.
"Frankly, the danger level is so high, they deserve every penny," says Susan Aumack, a member of the board of directors of Afghan Friends Network, a California-based nonprofit group that uses translators to run schools in Afghanistan.
Last fall, an M.E.P. translator was dragged off a bus by Taliban soldiers and slaughtered. In May, insurgents kidnapped six people from a wedding in Afghanistan. Four were killed. All were translators for M.E.P.
Each time a translator is killed, Taylor makes arrangements to call the family and thank them for their loved one's service. "And, unfortunately, I have a call tomorrow," he says.
Meanwhile, almost from the moment it won the contract, M.E.P. has been accused of various misdeeds in recruiting, hiring and taking care of translators. Some in the military have charged that M.E.P. hires unqualified linguists.
"I've met guys off the planes and have immediately sent them back because they weren't in the proper physical shape," Gunnery Sgt. James Spangler, an Army linguist supervisor, told the Associated Press last summer. "They were too old. They couldn't breathe. They complained about heart problems."
The Army, not M.E.P., decides where to station translators, says Taylor. It can be difficult for one translator to handle all of a unit's translation needs, since the unit may encounter an entirely different language every time it enters a new valley.
In addition, Taylor says, there's more to a translator's job than physical fitness or the ability to read and write. A 22-year-old Dari speaker may keep pace with young Marines, but can't translate documents or gain the respect of a tribal elder. M.E.P. has created programs to improve translators' physical fitness and language skills before they start work and while on duty, Taylor says.
"Some people think it would be great if every translator was 25 . . . was fluent in 80 different dialects, had a top-secret clearance and we only pay a dollar a year for them," Taylor says. "That's not going to happen."
Translators who were injured in battle have accused M.E.P. of failing to take care of their medical needs and making required disability payments. Pratap Chatterjee, a reporter who studied the allegations as managing editor of the news website CorpWatch.org, found that the problem often lies with the military's inability to force insurance companies to pay victims' claims.
"I personally believe that M.E.P. cares about the translators and tries to do a good job for them," Chatterjee says. "The reality is beyond Chris Taylor's control."
In September, ABC News aired a report focused on John Funk, a former M.E.P. employee, who alleged in a lawsuit that M.E.P. forged documents to make it appear as though applicants had passed language tests when, in fact, they had failed them. The fraud allegedly resulted in 180 unqualified workers-80 percent of the company's U.S. hires between November 2007 and August 2008-being sent to serve as military translators in Afghanistan.
In its response, M.E.P. said that Funk resigned in 2008 due to financial improprieties in his office. "He filed a self-serving lawsuit against M.E.P. based on false allegations," the company said in a press release. In late September, the lawsuit was dismissed.
There also has been confusion over M.E.P.'s contract. In 2009, as the military shifted focus and troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, demand for translators in Af-ghanistan soared, and M.E.P. began burning through its original contract faster than expected. The Army approved an emergency $78.5 million, six-week extension. In July, it approved another extension worth $679 million, which is expected to last through March 2011.
Noah Shachtman, a writer at Wired, called the second extension a no-bid contract that should have been competitively bid. Taylor disputes this, saying it was merely a stop-gap extension of the same old agreement. "It couldn't have gone out to bid," Taylor says. "They didn't have enough time."
This fall, the entire contract will be re-bid. Taylor believes M.E.P. has a good chance of winning. Every quarter, the Army measures the company's performance in the areas of linguist quality, program management and the number of vacant translator positions it fills. Each quarter for the last two years M.E.P. was ranked "outstanding," the highest rating possible, Taylor says.
"The founders of this company believed they could do a better job," says Taylor, leaning back again in his chair. "It turns out they were right."
Christopher Maag, who frequently contributes to the New York Times, is a freelance writer.