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LEAP Scholars on the Front Lines with COVID-19

Pictured from left are Lt Col Charles Toth and Lt Col Corydon Jerch at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Photo courtesy of Lt Cols Toth and Jerch.

Pictured from left are Lt Col Charles Toth and Lt Col Corydon Jerch at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Photo courtesy of Lt Cols Toth and Jerch.

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE --

Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) track and investigate millions of cases of illnesses across the world. In late 2019, a novel coronavirus appeared in China, which had never been seen before and quickly blanketed the country. Epidemiologists conducted field investigations to learn as much as possible about the new virus, especially where it came from, its communicability, and its lethality.

As these health care investigators began weaving together what would become the story of the virus later to be named COVID-19, the virus quickly spread from China across India, Russia, Europe, Africa, and eventually jumping the Atlantic Ocean to America. It seemed no one was safe from the new pandemic.

Lt Col Corydon Jerch and Lt Col Charles Toth, who are both Language Enabled Airmen Program (LEAP) Scholars in Italian, were stationed at Aviano Air Base during the COVID-19 outbreak and were called upon to use their language skills to help formulate the 31st Fighter Wing’s plan for safely continuing operations in this challenging environment.

LEAP is a product of the Air Force Culture and Language Center and has produced thousands of scholars who are utilized in exercises worldwide. Because participation in LEAP is voluntary and highly competitive, Airmen must demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language specified on the Air Force Strategic Language List, receive an endorsement from their unit commander, and compete via board process. Selection to LEAP hinges on applicants’ existing language proficiency, potential to achieve higher levels of language proficiency, and the Air Force language requirements.

“At the time of the outbreak, I was the Director of Operations of the Operations Support Squadron,” Jerch said. “Living and working here in Northern Italy was concerning in the beginning. Italy was becoming a hotspot for Europe. Here in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia near Venice, we were quickly surrounded by reports of positive cases in February. We knew it was only a matter of time before the pandemic would spread to our local area. The Italian government placed restrictions on movements and began mandating non-essential institutions close. In early March, Friuli Venezia Giulia became a Red Zone, and so the area around Aviano was placed on lockdown as well.”

Questions quickly arose as to what that would mean for those on base. Jerch was soon asked to be part of an operational planning team to apply his understanding of flying operations and the language and culture of Italy to help navigate the intricacies of the pandemic and ensure the 31st Fighter Wing continued to be combat mission ready. The group was large enough to encompass several team members with different skill sets, which is how Jerch and Toth began working together.

“It was a simple task but with a difficult solution,” Jerch said. “The team sat down to figure out how we were going to work through this pandemic. We looked closely at the science in addition to American and Italian guidance and restrictions going into effect to help combat the spread. We had to strike a delicate balance to ensure we maintained a mission-ready posture and preserve a strong working relationship with our Italian hosts.”

At the end of February, Toth was traveling back from temporary duty in Hungary, and his concern was whether the borders would be closed. He hoped the outbreak wasn’t as bad as what he had heard. It wasn’t long before the situation in Italy became increasingly worse.

“As things progressed, we started monitoring the daily cases of COVID,” Toth said. “We saw the numbers continue to rise, but we were concentrating on our Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and hospital bed capabilities. Aviano does not have an in-patient facility, so there was great concern that if things began to spread, our space would be limited very quickly. Fortunately, we were able to devise a plan to stand up an in-patient facility within 24 hours. We never actually got critically close to pushing the “GO” button on that, but we drew a line in the sand that if the ICU capabilities got to 75 percent within the region, we would be able to go. We only got up to about 35 to 40 percent. Our relationships with the host nation were critical to monitoring the situation and helped drive our decisions.”

As Toth put it, it was difficult to know if the team was responding to the pandemic in the right way because the disease was spreading so quickly. Everyone was working overtime to do their best. They began by standing up the Medical Control Center, which led to the COVID Action Cell – a cast of supporting medical providers such as nurses and technicians ready to tackle the disease through testing and contact tracing. Everything hinged on working closely with the Italian government.

“You never know what’s going to come your way,” Toth said. “You never know when your language skills might make a difference or set you apart in a situation. The thing is that it can be very difficult to build relationships during a crisis. Relationships need to be in place before something like this happens, especially if you’re working in a foreign country.” Fortunately for Aviano, such relationships were in place with language enabled Airmen like Jerch and Toth.