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The role language and culture played in the dramatic Thai cave rescue

Airmen from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) conduct a combined land survey with Royal Thai Army partners June 29, 2018, at Chiang Rai, Thailand. The search and rescue team consists of pararescuemen and survival specialists trained in rescue techniques and procedures, as well as their support personnel. (Courtesy photo)

Airmen from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) conduct a combined land survey with Royal Thai Army partners June 29, 2018, at Chiang Rai, Thailand. The search and rescue team consists of pararescuemen and survival specialists trained in rescue techniques and procedures, as well as their support personnel. (Courtesy photo)

Airmen from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) examine a map with Royal Thai military officials June 29, 2018, at Chiang Rai, Thailand. The United States, through USINDOPACOM, sent a search and rescue team to Tham Luang cave in Northern Thailand at the request of the Royal Thai government to assist in the rescue of the missing Thai soccer players and their coach. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait)

Airmen from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) examine a map with Royal Thai military officials June 29, 2018, at Chiang Rai, Thailand. The United States, through USINDOPACOM, sent a search and rescue team to Tham Luang cave in Northern Thailand at the request of the Royal Thai government to assist in the rescue of the missing Thai soccer players and their coach. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

When the final child was pulled from the cave in Thailand, the crowd cheered, and the rescuers let out a deep sigh of relief. It was a non-verbal cue that was clear in every language: this terrifying ordeal was over.

“This unfolded over the course of weeks,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant James Brisbin, “and I know for myself personally, that this definitely impacted the team. But, we were all honored to be there”.

Brisbin, a search and rescue pararescueman and cave diving enthusiast, was one of nearly 40 U.S. Airmen who participated in the Thai cave rescue. In June, twelve members of a Thai soccer team and their coach were trapped inside of the Tham Luang cave by monsoon rains for more than two weeks.

The Royal Thai Army Special Forces Regiment and the Royal Thai Navy SEALs began the initial search and rescue operations. But, as days passed and with the threat of more rain, Thai officials knew they needed assistance.  

On June 27th, the U.S. Air Force Indo-Pacific Command received a request from the Thai government to provide support. Air Force Special Tactics Officer Major Charlie Hodges began forming his team and within days, they traveled to Thailand.

 “There was a language barrier and there was a significant cultural barrier that was sometimes more difficult than the language barrier,” Hodges said. “We struggled at first understanding what was offensive and not offensive. We {USAF} were very direct as far as what we felt needed to be done and how we could help the Thai SEALS. The Thai rescuemen, who had already been out there for some time, were very emotional and were working through that. We were able to come in and offer another perspective and a logically driven decision. We were also able to help make some of those hard decisions while working with the Thai SEALS. Overall, I think we benefited from working together”.

While working together, the group realized that the only way to get the boys out safely and quickly was to dive directly in. This would mean that each trip would take at least three hours and they would have to sedate the children to keep them from panicking. Together, the U.S. Airmen joined Danish, Australian, British, and Thai rescuers to form a multinational elite rescue team. A blend of nationalities that required bilingual team members to also serve as translators and interpreters.

“We had access to native Thai Air Force member who was very helpful,” Hodges said. “He’s not a linguist by trade, but, because he had those skills, we brought him with us. We spent a fair amount of time in Thailand, but, language training is something we don’t have time to do, so having him with us was extremely helpful”.

Hodges’ statement about language training serves as a reminder of why having native speakers or Airmen with existing language skills are crucial when it comes to building partnerships worldwide. Along with Hodges and his team, several rescuers, including Master Sergeant Derek Anderson, had some sort of language capabilities. Anderson, an Air Force Special Tactics pararescueman, is also a Language Enabled Airmen meaning he is a member of LEAP or the Language Enabled Airman Program. Managed by the Air Force Culture and Language Center, LEAP was founded on the core belief that the Air Force cannot simply “contract out” language skills. These skills must be invested by willing and able Airmen with some language capabilities. Through LEAP, more than 3,000 Airmen have been able to sustain their existing language skills by taking online language courses and going on cultural immersions on their own time. The purpose: to have an accumulation of Airmen with cultural and language capabilities available and ready to use when needed. LEAP is just one of the many ways the Center aims to build cross-culturally competent Airmen; Airmen who when called upon can serve and communicate with the native population.

“We empower Airmen to operate seamlessly with air forces and populations around the world,” said Mr. Howard Ward, the director of the Air Force Culture and Language Center.

In this instance, in Thailand, having a native Thai Airmen was crucial to Hodges and the U.S. team even if they didn’t always “have time for language training”. During the rescues, as divers raced to clock pulling the children out of the cave, several translators stood on the sidelines assisting every step of the way. For the Airmen, having a member of their team who spoke Thai and understood the inner workings of the Air Force proved was invaluable to the dangerous mission and when the final child was pulled out of the cave, Hodges was thankful and the childrens’ families were thankful too.

“We did have the opportunity to meet with the family of the boys and the coach and we needed a translator,” Hodges said. “Their English was as bad as my Thai. But, there were verbal and non-verbal cues, smiles, and hugs. I still remember when the last child was pulled out, there was a thumbs up after the final rescue, and another cheer from the crowd. It was a very rewarding experience”.

 This mission and the experience is a story that has been told by media outlets all around the world in several different languages and will soon be captured by movie producers for the big screen. In ever rendition of the Thai cave rescue story, there are several key elements: teamwork, survival, and culture.