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‘A dream come true’: A trajectory through trial, tragedy shapes Air Force career

Capt. Lesly Toussaint (center), a Language Enabled Airman participant, translates for Brig. Gen. Dieter E. Bareihs (right), the Director of Plans, Programs and Analyses for Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa, during a conversation March 21 with a member of the 7th Groupement Operationel de l’Armee de l’Air during the Africa Partnership Flight in Thiès, Senegal.

Capt. Lesly Toussaint (center), a Language Enabled Airman participant, translates for Brig. Gen. Dieter E. Bareihs (right), the Director of Plans, Programs and Analyses for Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa, during a conversation March 21 with a member of the 7th Groupement Operationel de l’Armee de l’Air during the Africa Partnership Flight in Thiès, Senegal.

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

Capt. Lesly Toussaint isn’t your average Airman. Even if you overlook his advanced degrees (he has two, and they are from universities in France and Canada,) his rise from enlisted Air Reserve technician to commissioned officer, and his fluency in three languages – he would still stand out.

Toussaint came to the Air Force with more life experiences than many people leave with, and he’s using those experiences to provide unique and specialized support in international missions through the Language Enabled Airman Program. LEAP is a career-spanning program operated by the Air Force Culture and Language Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. LEAP sustains, enhances and helps the Air Force use the existing language skills of Airmen.

The trajectory of Toussaint’s career was shaped from a pivotal point in his life, as a young teenager in his homeland of Haiti. In 1994, Toussaint had first-hand contact with a foreign military in his country, during Operation Uphold Democracy and Operation Restore Democracy. These U.S.-led, multinational efforts to create a safe and secure environment and support democratic processes in Haiti brought thousands of U.S. military members to the island.

“My whole perspective was only my town, and nothing else, before this. But when the American forces arrived, I could witness first-hand the changes they brought,” Toussaint said. “The electricity came back on, there was water; where there was looting and curfews, there was no more. I saw how something like this could benefit many people. It left a mark on me.”

Toussaint began to jokingly tell his friends and family, “I’m going to be a U.S. military officer.” His parents, however had different ideas. “My parents were always against it,” he said. “They associated the military with just bombs and weapons, and did not see it how I did.”

His family prioritized his education, and when he was old enough, Toussaint went to Paris, where he earned a degree in international relations. “I came home, and the joke from my father was, ‘Yes, now you’ve earned a degree for your mother. The next one will be for me.’” Toussaint again left home, this time to attend university in Montreal, Canada, where he earned a degree in sociology and human relations.

After completing college for the second time, Toussaint moved to the U.S. and finally realized his ambition of joining the U.S. military, enlisting as an Air Force Reserve air transportation technician in 2009. Very soon after joining, and while he was still completing his air transportation training at Maguire Air Force Base, N.J., tragedy struck. On Jan. 12, 2010, a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit just west of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. An estimated three million people were affected, and the death toll would rise into the hundreds of thousands. Toussaint’s unit was one of the first to be activated to help, and he knew he wanted to be a part of the call.

“I volunteered to go. I had the language and I knew I could help,” he said. As one of the first responders, Toussaint had a clear view of the horror. “When you landed, and the aircraft doors opened, and you drew that first breath … the smell … you knew something was wrong. No one wanted to talk about what it was, but you knew. It was heart-wrenching to witness the scale of the devastation.”

On the ground, Toussaint worked in a makeshift hospital tent, helping coordinate the hundreds of people coming in to the area with injuries. It was a never-ending job, with people coming into his own tent at all hours to ask for assistance with language during emergencies. Despite the heavy emotional toll, Toussaint said he was glad of the experience, and a surprise came out of the sadness.

“My parents walked for three days, on foot, to get to my location,” he said. “They saw me in my uniform, with their name on that uniform. They saw what we were doing to help. And they said, ‘Yes, now we understand what you meant when you talked about the U.S. military.’”

Toussaint pursued a commission through Officer Training School, and he currently serves as a contracting officer for the Defense Contract Management Agency. His proficiency in French led to his being accepted into LEAP in 2014. Through LEAP, Toussaint has participated in instructor-led computerized training to further develop his language, and he also completed an immersion training in Senegal in 2015.

Most recently, Toussaint’s participation in LEAP led him to assist as part of the African Partnership Flight in Dakar, Senegal, in March. The APF brings together U.S. and African air force leaders to increase interoperability and partnerships, and communication is key to its success.

“APF is the U.S. Air Force’s premier event where we aim to strengthen relationships with our African air force partners by sharing best practices while discussing tactics, techniques and procedures for enhancing regional and continental cooperation,” said Maj. Natosha Reed, APF mission commander.

Over the course of the week-long event, U.S. Airmen conducted multilateral, military-to-military engagements focusing on casualty evacuation, aeromedical evacuation, as well as air and ground safety with partner African air forces from nine countries. For Toussaint, his primary role was language facilitation for classroom instructions, trainings, practical exercises and high-visibility meetings. Working with senior officers from several different nations was a challenging endeavor, he said.

“Being able to translate ‘live’ conversations between U.S. Generals and African Air Chiefs is no easy task,” Toussaint said. “Being continuously called upon to translate, elucidate, and in some cases, interpret certain positions helped reinforce my understanding of nuances, cultural idiosyncrasies, and further develop my accepting of other’s cultural perspectives.”

In one instance, Toussaint played a crucial role in bridging cultural differences when the U.S. leadership learned that the African air chiefs planned to present the U.S. commander there with a present. The U.S. commander wasn’t prepared with a gift in kind, and initially wanted to refuse the token. “I think he felt like it was not fair or appropriate to accept with nothing in return,” Toussaint said. “But to refuse would have been very insulting.” After ensuring the acceptance met all the legal requirements, Toussaint was able to convince his senior officer to accept, and the presentation went off without incident.

It is interactions like these, Toussaint said, that illustrate why cultural understanding is key to partnership success. “It breaks down barriers, and makes everything a whole lot easier. We can get away from our preconceived ideas about other people, and truly understand. Understanding the language and the culture removes frustration from the people you’re interacting with.”

When discussing the APF, and his other military accomplishments, Toussaint is quick to assign credit. “The Air Force afforded me these opportunities, and it is a dream come true,” Toussaint said. “It is the Air Force, and this country, that allowed all this to happen.”