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LEAP Scholars Bridge Interpretation Gap in JIATF-S

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  • By LEAP scholars Tech. Sgt. Edwin Lenis Gonzalez and Tech. Sgt. Jose Lopez Rodriguez

 In November 2018, the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) International Affairs Division Chief, U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Picco, found his team in dire need of two qualified translators/interpreters. The contract for his current command translators, a team of two civilian linguists, was ending, leaving him with a gap in language support until the new INSCOM contract could be executed. Through a contact in U.S. Southern Command, Picco learned of the Air Force Language Enabled Airman Program, a career-spanning volunteer program whose objective is to develop language-enabled, cross-cultural scholars who can operate seamlessly with air forces and populations around the world.

 Picco immediately reached out to Chris Chesser, the Air Force Culture Language Center’s Language Distance Learning program manager and requested highly experienced LEAP scholars from the General Purpose Force who could fill a short-notice tasking to JIATF-S to serve as command translators. After carefully considering JIATF-S’ needs and its unique team and mission dynamics, Chesser provided a list of 10 LEAP participants out of 1,200 for Picco to consider. After careful consideration, Picco selected Tech. Sgts. Jose M. Lopez Rodriguez and Edwin A. Gonzalez Lenis.

 Soon after, AFCLC contacted Lopez and Gonzalez and presented them with the opportunity to fulfill the command translator positions in JIATF-S. With full support from their respective chains of command, the two LEAP scholars were off to Key West, Florida. Taking over a job from two civilian linguists with more than two decades of experience was not easyThe two new command translators had to in-process the unit, learn the JIATF-S mission, become familiar with the live interpretation equipment, compound layout, and what seemed to be hundreds of acronyms and maritime lingo unfamiliar to both Airmen. The duo would now be representing their wings and career fields of Security Forces and Fuels to this joint team while being the voice for the Task Force Director and 25 Foreign Liaison Officers, and it was something they never imagined.


“I never thought I would have the opportunity to work for an organization like JIATF-S, and I’m grateful to LEAP, Commander Picco and the JIATF-S team took a chance on us,” Lopez said.


Although they had never met before their new assignment, Lopez and Gonzalez quickly realized they had some LEAP scholar friends in common from their time in LEAP and the Language Intensive Training Events they participated in. They were both very excited and zealous about the mission they were embarking on and eager to represent LEAP. They soon learned that as the JIATF-S Command Translators, they had to be ready to translate and provide live interpretation at any time. Topics ranged from weather briefings, operations briefings, "all hands," memorandums of agreements, operation reports and seizure summaries. At JIATF-S, cultural knowledge is just as necessary as language skills due to the diverse background of all the FLOs from 21 countries. With both command translators growing up in Latino-influenced cultures, it made building relationships with the FLO's natural.


Previous eMentor online classes and LITEs ensured the LEAP scholars had a solid foundation and postured them to enhance interoperability as well as support and deliver on every task that came with this new job description. Being in JIATF-S from December 2018 to April 2019, allowed them to conduct live interpretation for the U.S. Southern Command, Commander, on multiple visits. They also provided coverage for visits from the president of Panama, Costa Rica Minister of Defense, Colombian Military Defense Chief, and a trip to Ecuador to meet with the Minister of Defense and each military service Chiefs.


“LEAP truly sharpens linguistic abilities, I never thought I would be able to translate and perform live interpretation at this level. I am so grateful for the training and development that LEAP gives us. Thank you, JIATF-S, for the opportunity and experience to be part of a Team of Teams,” Gonzalez said.


The high-tempo work environment in JIATF-S provided Lopez and Gonzalez with a language development opportunity they had never dreamed of that elevated their language register and cultural knowledge competence immensely. For their above and beyond performance as command translators, Lopez and Gonzalez were awarded the Joint Service Achievement Medal for their contributions to the JIATF-S mission of detecting and monitoring illicit trafficking in the air and maritime domains and building regional stability. Furthermore, Lopez and Gonzalez left such a great impression that JIATF-S invited them both back at the beginning of 2020 to provide language support to bridge a four-week gap when the one-year 2019 contract ended.

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