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Remove the Earpieces: LEAP Scholar Conquers Barriers

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“As soon as I started speaking, the Spanish-speaking leaders immediately removed their earpieces where interpreters had been translating for them, and I saw the smiles fill the room."

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- “I was on vacation the week prior in the Dominican Republic when my boss called and asked if I’d be able to fly to El Salvador that weekend and brief the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.” Hiding her nervous energy, 1st Lt. Lorrayne Kealty replied, “of course, no problem.”

It was the day before their departure when Kealty’s supervisor told her he wanted a portion of the presentation to be in Spanish. As an Intelligence Officer, Kealty is not new to briefings but had never briefed in Spanish before. Two days later as she stood in the Conference Center, surrounded by flags from the Americas, monitors, speakers, and nameplates for all the Air Chiefs, it dawned on Kealty what a tremendous opportunity she was about to embark on.

“I had lost my voice a few days prior, and when we arrived in El Salvador, I still didn’t have my voice back, which I couldn’t believe. I had the most important briefing of my career in front of the highest-ranking Air Force Official and 21 of his counterparts, and I could barely speak. I tried every remedy I knew and talked as little as possible, leading up to the presentation.”

The Conference of American Air Chiefs, or CONJEFAMER as it is known by its Spanish acronym, is where leaders from the Americas gather to discuss regional issues and security cooperation. With a raspy voice, a bit of uncertainty and a few hours to spare, Kealty stood before the crowd. It was her first time translating in Spanish using very technical and tactical terms, her first time briefing a crowd of this prestige, and her first time speaking before the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. She was excited, a bit jittery, but overall, Kealty knew she was ready. It was one of those rare instances in life where preparation meets opportunity. By the time the conference was over, her natural abilities and proper training allowed her to serve her country and leave a lasting impression on some of the most powerful Air Force leaders in the world.

“My parents are both Colombian and have always stressed the importance of staying true to our heritage and culture. They taught me Spanish at a young age and immersed me in the culture and history.” Kealty said.

Assigned to the 14th Air Support Operations Squadron at Pope Army Airfield, NC, Kealty did not need to use her Spanish training and jumped at the opportunity to be able to continue studying the language and diverse cultures. Describing herself as a “fluent, but not a native speaker,” Kealty recalls worrying that as she got older, she would lose her language skills. When she learned about the Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Language Enabled Airman’s Program, she said her Commander supported her decision to apply.

LEAP develops and sustains Airmen via a two-part system of recurring online eMentor training and periodic immersions. Applicants selected for LEAP must meet existing language proficiency, potential to achieve higher levels of language proficiency, and Air Force language requirements.

“LEAP allowed me to use the language abilities I already had and continue to improve them. I had been told that everyone ‘speaks Spanish’ and that LEAP isn’t always looking for Spanish speakers, but I didn’t let that discourage me and applied anyway. I was ecstatic when I was accepted into the program,” Kealty said.

Shortly after joining the ranks of 3,000+ LEAP scholars, Kealty took her first eMentor course before traveling to Uruguay in October 2018 for her first Language Intensive Training Event. Both experiences made her a stronger Spanish speaker, and each time she was supported by her squadron commander, she said.

“Being in Uruguay, I experienced some culture shock. I soon realized that Uruguay was culturally diverse and different from the other Spanish speaking countries I visited. I set my goal on experiencing the culture, such as trying all the main dishes, music, history, and learning the slang and nuances that made Uruguay so special. I was fortunate to have one-on-one time with my teachers and a wonderful host family that exposed me to the local culture,” she said.

Once her immersion was over, Kealty returned to her regular routine at work. Months later, her supervisor was gearing up for a trip to brief at CONJEFAMER. The team was coming off rotation from Finland and was preparing the Airborne Extensible Relay Over-Horizon Network, or AERONet presentation for El Salvador when they realized they did not have a Spanish speaker. AERONet, a tactical network, allows partner communications for missions ranging from humanitarian aid to disaster relief, and security.

“That’s when my boss called me,” Kealty said. “He knew I spoke Spanish, and LEAP gave me the credibility he needed to ensure my place on the team. I had the DLPT and OPI scores, plus the culture training to give him the confidence he needed to know I was the right person for the job.”

To prepare for the trip, Kealty reached out to the Spanish LEAP Facebook page and asked for materials to cover some of the tactical and technical terminologies she would need for her presentation. Unfortunately, the script for the presentation was changed the day prior, and Kealty had to learn new terms.

“I remember telling my boss how worried I was I wouldn’t be able to talk, let alone project my voice for a presentation to such a prestigious crowd. I practiced over and over, called my parents to help me make some last-minute edits, and drank lots of hot tea to soothe my throat,” Kealty said. As the presentation began, Kealty’s nerves faded, and she knew it was time.

“As soon as I started speaking, the Spanish-speaking leaders immediately removed their earpieces where interpreters had been translating for them, and I saw the smiles fill the room. It was at that moment I felt instant gratitude for my parents, my education, and LEAP. I made a joke and apologized for my raspy voice and watched as they intently listened to my presentation.”

The presentation was very successful, but Kealty was not finished. After the briefing concluded, she set out for another mission: To speak with Gen. Goldfein, with hopes of getting a picture.

“My boss knew I wanted to meet the General and take a selfie. Since he had to leave right after our brief, we intercepted him in the hallway, and he chatted with us for a few minutes and even coined us. I also got my selfie, which I was pretty stoked about! Later on that night, he came back to speak with the team about our presentation and offered suggestions for our follow-on TDY to Colombia. He recommended I brief the entire presentation in Spanish. Naturally, I was shocked, but I made sure to let him know how LEAP helped me prepare for my presentation. The next day we left for Colombia to brief their Air Force, and that was another awesome experience.”

Shortly after the conference ended, Gen. Goldfein shared Kealty’s sentiments on social media. Taking to his official Facebook page, he wrote:
“Infinitely shareable, fully exportable — this is how these two sharp Airmen described the Airborne Extensible Relay Over-Horizon Network, or AERONet, during their live demo at CONJEFAMER. We developed AERONet as a tactical network to build partner communication capabilities for missions ranging from humanitarian to defense. Thank you to Capt Jeremy Weinschelbaum and 1st Lt Lorrayne Kealty of the 14th ASOS out at Pope Army Airfield for the outstanding work you’ve done here informing our top Air Force leaders in the Americas”.

“We hear a lot around the Air Force about partnerships and interoperability,” Kealty said. “If you truly understand the people and the culture, that’s how you build these partnerships. I think LEAP does a great job of making sure we not only speak the language, but truly understand the people, the culture, and the why”.