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LEAP: The Critical Link to Mission Success

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  • By Mikala McCurry, AFCLC Outreach Team

Arabic Language Enabled Airman Program Scholar Maj. Zachary Ziegler has been an instrumental member of LEAP, providing outstanding support on several Training Partnership Requests, including a major annual military exercise known as African Lion.

U.S. Africa Command’s Exercise African Lion 21 is a joint, multinational exercise in Morocco, Tunisia, and Senegal linked to the U.S. European Command’s Exercise Defender 21 to counter malign influence in North Africa and increase interoperability.

During this event, Ziegler provided a language and cultural link between United States military personnel and Moroccans (both military and rural residents) at the temporary Military Medical Surgical Field Hospital in Tafraoute, Morocco.

“I learned Arabic through the Air Force and some civilian programs as well. While in Morocco, I was able to bridge that gap between English and Arabic. Specifically, I supported the dental clinic translating for dentists and patients. I’ve been very grateful for the opportunity, and I would say that LEAP is doing exactly what’s needed and what’s required,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler’s skill set and knowledge in multiple dialects of the Arabic language were crucial in the success of his language support to the African Lion Exercise as he experienced several complex language and cultural circumstances during his mission.

“Language is an extremely complex thing here, not only in the Middle East but also in Morocco, where they have multiple dialects. There’s Standard Arabic, the local dialect, and also Berber. Many of our providers there speak English, so I was working a lot with family members who speak only Berber to get to Arabic and then get to English. It really makes the patient comfortable from the get-go. Many of these people have never seen a doctor or a dentist before, so we are allowing them to feel comfortable.

“African Lion is the largest military exercise in Africa, and the Military Medical Surgical Field Hospital receives a large amount of positive public attention. Before arriving in Morocco, I was excited to augment the mission. Still, after only one day of work, I realized that Arabic translators are essential to achieving U.S. goals during this exercise. The LEAP Arabic and French interpreters regularly provided the only method for completing the intended interaction between U.S. personnel and Moroccans. In addition, when other exercise participants heard about LEAP support, they regularly expressed their wish for similar support, and I informally supported several U.S. language needs during my transit,” Ziegler said.

Not only was Ziegler able to provide needed language support, but he was also able to gain essential cultural knowledge while emerged in the Moroccan environment.

“This Language Intensive Training Event extended my regional experience to include an entirely different part of the Arab World. In 2010, I completed a LITE Arabic study in Rabat; however, this working LITE was an immersion at a much higher level. Before the African Lion 21 event, my understanding of the Arab World was built almost entirely from experience in the Middle East. Daily working alongside the Moroccan military and its citizens presented cultural, political, and language elements of the Maghreb Arabic dialect that are entirely different from the Middle East.

“Maghrebi (Western) Arabic is the most difficult dialect in the Arab World. Most Arab Middle Easterners cannot understand Moroccans in their local dialect but require Modern Standard Arabic to communicate. After fully immersing myself at the field hospital, I learned key Moroccan words and phrases that allowed me to relate to locals on a deeper level. Likewise, anyone with experience in the Arab World can attest that body language is sometimes equally important,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler’s support of the African Lion Exercise exemplifies the essence of LEAP and shows the importance of cultural and language training in the success of strategic military operations. Mr. Howard Ward, Director of the Air Force Culture and Language Center, praised Maj. Ziegler for his extraordinary work and representation of the LEAP program.

“Maj. Ziegler, AFCLC thanks you for being a great exemplar for our program and other rated officers in your deliberate development path. We want to say thank you for the great work during African Lion in Morocco! As impressive as your skills have become in not only MSA but Iraqi, Syrian and Egyptian dialects, your skills in hammering home all the right talking points about LEAP are equally impressive! Thanks again for the great effort and being a great exemplar for your fellow scholars,” Ward said.

The Utah National Guard also expressed extreme appreciation and admiration for the support that Ziegler and the LEAP team provided during the African Lion exercise.

“The Utah National Guard (151 Medical Group) was very impressed with LEAP, and we are eager to request LEAP support in our continued state partnership with Morocco and future African Lions. We were concerned when only one of our nine linguists could attend this trip. However, we were pleasantly surprised by LEAP’s responsiveness and administrative professionalism. We were also impressed with LEAP’s ability to combine both language and cultural competency. I only wish that your team could experience the gratitude of the over 8,000 patients (many who had never seen a doctor or dentist) who received care at the camp hospital. Without LEAP, the mission would have lacked a critical human element in our mission to win hearts and minds,” Col. Christensen, Utah Guard, 151 Medical Group, said.

Ziegler is a 2010 Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Upon graduation, he was recruited by the Air Force’s Language Enabled Airman Program as the only pilot with a perfect Arabic score. He has been a member of LEAP for the past 12 years and strongly advocates for the program.

“African Lion is a perfect example of how LEAP provides critical language and cultural resources for our U.S. military. I am proud to be a part of the Arabic-French LEAP team that served as the critical link between U.S. medical personnel and the 8,000 patients who visited our camp in the desert near Tafraoute, Morocco. This experience will remain a bookmark in my career.

“LEAP is one of the best programs I’ve experienced in my 12 years in the Air Force, and I’m very grateful to have been in that program for the past 12 years. As I approach the end of my military commitment, LEAP remains a reason to consider continuing my military service,” Ziegler said.

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