By AFCLC Outreach Team
/ Published April 01, 2021
Photo courtesy of Capt. Byron Muhlenberg
The Language Enabled Airman Program is an indispensable program that enables our Airmen to expand their cultural understanding and make operational and strategic impacts well beyond their immediate career field. My journey as a LEAP scholar began as a freshman at the U.S. Air Force Academy, but the journey did not start as expected. The Academy originally placed me in French. French is a beautiful, important language, and France is crucial to our military operations; however, my calling was Japanese. The reason for this was rooted in my cultural roots.
My parents always tried to give us the opportunity to understand and learn where we came from. We would read and travel all over the world, which opened our eyes to a multifaceted world. Despite these opportunities, there was one part of my ancestry I always felt I never understood enough – Japanese. Many reasons, including the post-world war cultural tensions in the 60s and 70s when my mother was growing up, resulted in a limited knowledge of the Japanese culture and my childhood disenchantment with East Asian culture. My connection to my Japanese heritage was weak. However, I knew I wanted to strengthen this connection and discover something new.
After the first French class, I walked up to the Language Department chair and begged him to let me change. My persistence must have worked as he ultimately conceded to allowing me to switch to Japanese. Almost 10 years later, I can say that choosing to learn Japanese was one of the best decisions in my life. As a cadet, I had the opportunity to study abroad for two summers in Japan. Upon entering active duty, I was selected as a Japanese LEAP scholar and was assigned to the 374th Contracting Squadron at Yokota Air Base, Japan, for my first assignment. I am currently assigned as the director of business operations for the 35th Contracting Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan.
LEAP allowed me to improve my Japanese language skills and cultural understanding through in-country Language Intensive Training Events and online eMentor courses. I entered LEAP with Defense Language Proficiency Test scores of 1/1 in Japanese and are now a 3/3. Over time, I began utilizing my language and cultural knowledge to interact with the local nationals in my everyday job, making me a more effective leader.
Before long, LEAP began utilizing my language skills to directly support the U.S. mission in Japan and the larger Indo-Pacific Theater. I have supported the Bilateral Defense Okinawa Working Group at Kadena Air Base, Japan, and the U.S. Marine Corps in Exercise Northern Viper 2020 in Hokkaido, Japan, through LEAP’s Training Partnership Request program.
Rather than be stove-piped into a specific career field, these opportunities enable the LEAP scholar to utilize one’s knowledge in ways they may not be accustomed to. In these exercises, the scholar must become more than an interpreter of language and culture and all of the military, political, social, and economic elements. I was forced to understand the context of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the cornerstone of our Pacific strategy, at a deeper level – which is important for any Airman to understand. As a result, I have come to appreciate the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance and our entire network of alliances in the Indo-Pacific theater and the world. Based on mutual cooperation and defense, this network can only be sustained by the Airmen and service members of all countries involved.
Our LEAP scholars, the language and cultural experts on the ground, are multipliers of these efforts by ensuring unequivocal communication and coordination with our allies. I am grateful for the opportunity LEAP has given me to directly support our strategy in the Indo-Pacific Theater. I look forward to ways to continue supporting our mission in the future.
Japanese LEAP Scholar Capt. Byron Muhlenberg
551 E. Maxwell Blvd, Bldg 500, Maxwell AFB, AL 36112