By Jasmine Bourgeois, AFCLC Outreach Team
/ Published April 17, 2018
"LEAP has enabled me to be a small puzzle piece fitting into the large mosaic of the global Air Force mission".
Capt Dustin Tanen constantly relives his time in Niger. He remembers the sights and sounds of downtown Niamey, the sandstorms of the 11-month dry season, and the intersection of Francophone, Muslim, and west-African cultures. As a special operations pilot, he traveled to Niamey, Niger in May 2017 for a Language Intensive Training Event. An immersion that would change his life.
"I believe in this mission and sought additional opportunities to build partner capacity” Capt Tanen said.
Capt Tanen is a member of the Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Language Enabled Airman Program. LEAP was developed to help Airmen enhance and sustain their language and culture skills by using a two-part training method: eMentor courses which are online, synchronous language classes; and LITEs which are language immersions that serve as the in-country compliment to eMentor. Using his language skills in French, Capt Tanen went on a LITE where he worked with a newly formed Nigerien UN Peacekeeping Battalion in support of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
“It was a unique opportunity to blend my expertise as a special operations pilot with my speaking skills. Being an International Airman means building relationships with partners and partner-nations,” Capt Tanen said.
Assigned to an Army EOD training team from Fort Campbell, KY, Capt Tanen was asked to use his skills to enhance the combat capability of the new battalion's combat engineer platoon. IED's used by insurgents in Mali are the largest cause of casualties for UN Peacekeeping forces in Mali.
"I never thought that being able to speak French would literally have life or death consequences," Capt Tanen remarked on the importance this training had to prepare the host nation forces before their deployment to Mali.
Along with his language skills, he also leveraged his own AC-130 experience and helped mentor the battalion's air-liaison team.
"I was the only U.S. Air Force member on the training team and so I naturally gravitated to the two Nigerien Air Force guys assigned to the battalion. I saw there was an opportunity for the Nigerien Lieutenant and I to learn a lot from each other. I passed on best practices from lessons I learned from combat deployments flying the Spectre gunship," he said.
After days with the combat engineers, Capt Tanen would sit down with the lieutenant and his team. Capt Tanen was able to take the liason-team to meet some US Special Forces on another training mission in the area.
"Passing on lessons from my perspective was fine, but having a chance for these folks to learn from SOF members on the ground was fantastic," Tanen said.
That same SOF team that Capt Tanen crossed paths with would be the same unit that was ambushed by Islamic extremists months later. In October 2017, four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger when their unit was attacked by Islamic fighters. The troops were in country working to train and assist the Niger military. U.S. Army soldiers, U.S. Air Force airmen and other forces had been working with the country’s military for months.
"I was shocked when I heard about the US and partner forces killed in Niger. I realized how small the special operations community really is."
When asked if he would ever go back to the region, Capt Tanen quickly responded.
"In an instant…the mission we are doing in the region, by advising and assisting host-nation forces is vital for stability and how we can build lasting partnerships. I know the ‘advise’ and ‘assist’ buzz words get thrown around by strategic leaders, but my experience in Niger showed me that it’s about making friends and sharing stories. With the loss of American life, the world turned its attention to a region that had been a hot bed for extremists for years. I was incredibly impressed with how hard folks in that part of the world need to work for everything they have. I believe LEAP is directly helping me and other Airmen contribute to the future of our nation’s special operations enterprise and our larger Air Force mission. LEAP has enabled me to be a small puzzle piece fitting into the large mosaic of the global Air Force mission. I hope we can continue our commitment to partnering with countries such as Niger to help counter common threats and promote common values. If that commitment means sending me back to Niger tomorrow, give me 15 minutes so I can start packing a bag and brushing up on my French for the region,” Capt Tanen said.
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