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“I would not be an Air Force officer if it wasn’t for LEAP”

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

When 1st Lieutenant Gorge Hernandez-Rodriguez enlisted in 2008, he was living in Puerto Rico, struggling financially, and looking for a way to support himself through college. Rodriguez knew the Air Force would afford him those opportunities, but he had no idea that his commitment and his language skills would help him grow both professionally and personally.

“When I enlisted, I took the [Defense Language Proficiency Test] and from there, I heard about LEAP,” he said. “To be honest, most people assume that being from Puerto Rico that my Spanish scores would be pretty high. But, the truth is, I only spoke some Spanish growing up and my initial DLPT scores were a 2/2”.

The Defense Language Proficiency Test is a battery of foreign language tests produced by the Defense Language Institute and used by the Department of Defense to measure ability. Service members’ abilities are referenced on a 0-4 point scale on two modalities: listening/reading.

 “When I was accepted into LEAP in 2013, I took my first eMentor course with another student and really noticed an improvement in my Spanish speaking skills. During our course, the other student told me that he was getting ready to go to Colombia for his first immersion. At the time, I had no idea what an immersion was or what he meant and a few months later, I traveled to Colombia too”.

LEAP or the Language Enabled Airman Program is a career-spanning program managed by the Air Force Culture and Language Center at Air University. Using a two-part education and sustainment system, Airmen can enhance their existing language skills by taking online eMentor language courses and going on immersions or Language Intensive Training Events (LITES). Rodriguez admits he signed up and didn’t really know what he was getting into.

After taking his first online language course in Spanish, Rodriguez traveled to Colombia for his first LITE. An immersion experience that completely changed his career path.

“When I was in Colombia, I worked in Bogota with the SOUTHCOM Air Force Mission and was introduced to Colonel Szostak, who was the mission chief at the time,” Rodriguez said. “I always tell people that this LITE is what shaped me into the officer I am today. I was working under Szostak when he encouraged me to learn more about the Officer Training School and commission. I spent weeks working with him, learning from him, and networking with people in Colombia. This LITE really inspired me to work towards my end goal”.

Re-energized after his immersion, Rodriguez returned from Colombia ready to improve his Spanish skills and begin the commissioning process. Even with Szostak’s push, he had to work to trade in his stripes for a set of bars. He said he needed to gain his command’s support and he was concerned about his language scores and lack of awards.

“If I could send a message out to other people who are in my shoes, it would be this: ‘don’t disqualify yourself based on quarterly awards or DLPT scores. Never underestimate yourself. It’s not always about the numbers, it’s about the person as a whole.”

Hernandez-Rodriguez was able to focus on one of his key assets to the Air Force mission: his cross-cultural communication skills, and work on it without taking time away from his primary specialty as a mechanic. He was able to work online during his off hours with a tutor and personalized lessons in order to make him a stronger officer candidate.

“It took three attempts to commission before I made it,” he said, “but, I don’t regret any of it and I truly believed that LEAP helped me. This program has helped me stand out on a career level and on a personal level. I am now a 2nd Lieutenant. I have made lifelong connections, traveled around the world, literally jumped out of a helicopter, and served as a translator in West Virginia all with LEAP. I have improved my Spanish speaking skills to a 3/3 using eMentor courses and now, I am in the position where I can help others move up. When people ask me ‘how does a mechanic end up traveling to Colombia and working with an embassy?’ I instantly tell them that it is all thanks to LEAP.”