In Other Words

A U. S. Army physician's assistant in Kandahar providing humanitarian medical treatment to local Afghani women no longer finds her work inhibited by the language barrier; American military police guarding non-English speaking detainees are now confident that their orders are clearly understood without the use of an interpreter. None of these Americans has completed a crash course in the languages of Arabic, Urdu, Pashto or Dari. Rather, they have discovered the Phraselator, a hand-held, voice-actuated computer which contains more than 1,000 pre-recorded phrases. When an English phrase is spoken into the device, the translation is played back.

The development of this amazing tool is due largely to the foresight and engineering expertise of Ace Sarich, former Navy SEAL and Naval Academy faculty member. Since 1986, Sarich has been principal engineer and owner of two companies, Ace Sarich Associates and Marine Acoustics, Inc., providing engineering and operational consulting services to Naval Special Warfare, SEAL and Explosive Ordnance Disposal operations and numerous other clients. The scope of his projects includes small combat submersibles and submarines; surface craft; power, propulsion and energy systems; explosives; and remote-controlled marine surveillance systems. From time to time, Sarich will lend his expertise to investigations where diving is required, such as an explosive or diving-related accident. "I do that much less, lately," he explains, "because the Phraselator has consumed every waking moment and more."

Sarich describes himself as the guy who pulls it all together. The engineers in the lab have one idea of what the men in the field need. The men in the field, however, often have a different idea which may defy the laws of physics and be impossible to accomplish or may just be especially simplistic. Either way, the idea must be communicated back to the engineers. In the case of the Phraselator, Sarich says, "Fortunately, I didn't know enough to know it couldn't be done. I guess I classify myself as a 'Ready! Fire! Aim!' kind of guy. That approach sometimes gets you in trouble but also, if it works, it really works."

While Sarich tends to downplay his own role in the development of the Phraselator, his long-time friend and colleague retired Navy Capt. Bruce Dyer, puts it in perspective. "He is a very humble individual, in the best sense of the word," says Dyer. "He is also somebody who believes in teamwork and understands its importance. He is not a man burdened by the need for recognition. He is responsible for pulling together a number of qualified people to work on various aspects of the Phraselator program. However, I think that he has, through his own efforts, discovered what is good about the design, what needs to be improved and how to pull that all together, picking the right people to do the right jobs and making a unit out of the pieces. That's no small task."

Production of the first generation Phraselator was speeded up after 9/11/2001. "A lot of people were required to go above and beyond to pull this off," Sarich recalls. "It was essentially done 'on the fly,' too." Sarich's involvement in the project became even more "hands-on" in the training phase, "because it wasn't just training," he explains, "it was training in the field. We jumped from the first prototype to production in a very short period of time. The typical problems you'd find in the laboratory, we ended up finding out in the field." Many enhancements were added in the field as well. Sarich recalls working with linguists in remote locations to add phrases in another language or another "domain" (e.g., security, law enforcement, medical).

Traveling was not new for Sarich, having grown up in a Navy family. His dad, a chief petty officer, was stationed in Norfolk, Va., during Sarich's teen years. In high school, he was on the swim team and the coach was a Navy frogman. "He took me out to Suffolk and I watched them jump out of airplanes," Sarich recalls. "He told me what the underwater demolition teams do and I said, 'You mean you jump out of airplanes and you scuba dive and you blow up things and they pay you for this?' I knew right there in high school that I wanted to be a frogman."

Sarich's Naval career began at the Academy in 1962 and went on to span 24 years and myriad duty stations, including two Mediterranean tours and two tours in Vietnam. "Both [Vietnam] tours were special for different reasons," he says. On his first tour, Sarich was with a direct action platoon. "Direct action was very much of that," he recalls, "lots of field combat experiences, 40-plus missions, good success. On my second tour, I was senior advisor to the Vietnamese SEALS. It was really very special because I got to know the Vietnamese a lot better. I lived with them and spent time with them. I have Vietnamese friends who managed to get out that I am still close to today."

Some months earlier, Sarich met his wife Lynne while attending Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL school and living in Forest Heights, Md. She was a United Airlines flight attendant living in Alexandria. "I met her at a party," he recalls. "We got married in October '69 and in December, I went to Vietnam for the first time." After his second Vietnam tour, Sarich attended graduate school in Monterey, Calif., for his master's degree in mechanical engineering. In 1971, the couple's first of four daughters was born. "I slowed down enough to start a family," he says.

In 1977, Sarich contemplated leaving the Navy but learned that he still had a four-year obligation to repay for his graduate work. He inquired about the possibility of teaching at the Academy and, within minutes, had his orders. "Be careful what you ask for," he says. "I taught mechanical engineering initially and then moved to the naval engineering department. I thought I'd be there for two years and then get out of the Navy because my obligation would be paid. But I was having so much fun teaching. I was learning all this stuff I was supposed to learn in school. You were actually only allowed to be there two or three years teaching and then they were supposed to transfer you. For some reason, only God knows, I ended up teaching there for nine years---about every engineering course I could get my hands on." Recently, Sarich developed and taught a course in life-support engineering and authored a textbook which is currently in use by the midshipmen.

Sarich is an avid runner and participates in at least one marathon a year. He also enjoys skiing and sailing. "When I have the opportunity, I sail OPBs---other people's boats," he says. For the most part, Sarich has fun just doing his job. "It's kind of like a hobby," he says. "There is a part of me that enjoys being out in the field and getting dirty, and I enjoy the technology. I've always been a 'techno geek,' always making something. I like that aspect of it."

Capt. Dyer adds that Sarich is a "practical engineer. He understands the principles of engineering in a pragmatic way, which means developing something that seems to fit a practical need, and he does that very well. He is somebody who doesn't seem to be encumbered by a lot of the 'stuff' that the rest of us seem to get wrapped around the axle with, the day to day stuff that bugs people. He seems to be free from that. He always was that way, and it has been profoundly incorporated into his personality by his religious beliefs. He has his priorities in order---a pure heart and a clear conscience."

An active member of the missions committee at Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Annapolis, Sarich is looking for opportunities to apply the Phraselator to missions work. "When I first started working on this, it was clear to me," he says. "This is why I am doing this---to use the gifts God has given me for His kingdom." Sarich has approached Bible translators and a number of other Christian organizations about the device and is anxiously waiting to see where else in the world this project will go.


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