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What Happens If You Don’t Speak the Language?

“The reason I was in Turkey had nothing to do with LEAP,” Maj. Alex Watkins explained. “It was extremely LEAP-like and quite cool! I feel privileged like I just fell into this position, and it’s been awesome because this is the kind of thing I would love to do in the long run throughout my career.” (Courtesy photo)

“The reason I was in Turkey had nothing to do with LEAP,” Maj. Alex Watkins explained. “It was extremely LEAP-like and quite cool! I feel privileged like I just fell into this position, and it’s been awesome because this is the kind of thing I would love to do in the long run throughout my career.” (Courtesy photo)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

When Maj. Alex Watkins deployed to Turkey, it may not have been Language Enabled Airman Program-oriented, but she used her specialized skill set in ways that could help her redefine her career path.

“The reason I was in Turkey had nothing to do with LEAP,” Watkins explained. “It was extremely LEAP-like and quite cool! I feel privileged like I just fell into this position, and it’s been awesome because this is the kind of thing I would love to do in the long run throughout my career.”

While in Turkey, Watkins was one of six U.S. personnel assigned to the region. Her job was to liaise with the Turkish Air Force as an air defense liaison team member supporting Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve Coalition. Watkins said she “lobbied” the Turkish Air Force by bringing awareness to U.S. objectives in the region.

“I brought U.S. objectives to the table with the Turks,” Maj. Watkins said. “Although we are in a coalition with the Turks, they are pursuing their national objectives. So, my job was to properly deconflict any U.S. missions from theirs. So essentially, my job was to reconcile the U.S. and coalition efforts with those of the Turkish efforts and making sure that everyone was acting in a safe capacity.”

Interestingly, Watkins does not speak Turkish. She is a Spanish-speaking LEAP Scholar, but she used her culture and language training to her advantage while she was in Turkey.

“I’ve used my Spanish language abilities to better communicate my point sometimes to the Turkish Air Force representatives with whom I work. Many of the officers I work with have spent some time in NATO Air Operation Centers, such as Torrejon, Spain. Some took to learning Spanish well while living in Spain because they were immersed in the culture and because Spanish is a lot like Turkish in that it’s a phonetic language,” Watkins explained. “There’s also lots of Turkish words that might have been originally derived from Spanish. The Spanish I honed through diverse LEAP programs, such as Language Intensive Training Events and e-Mentor, enabled me to better accomplish U.S. strategic and operational objectives in Turkey.”

While she found Turkish a complex language to learn, Watkins confessed she feels she knew enough to carry on casual conversations.

“I’ve walked into a room full of Turkish officers and enlisted personnel, greeted them with a very colloquial, local Turkish greeting, only to turn around and have them laugh politely at me. When I pried and asked what was so funny, they explained it was very clear I was making an effort in earnest to learn their language and accent and that often I sounded genuinely Turkish. It was more of an endearing laugh. Or so they said,” Watkins said.

According to Watkins, going the extra mile by making an effort, paying attention to cultural cues, and learning the language paid big dividends in her job. She credits her LEAP training for giving her that kind of awareness of learning how to work well in foreign operations.

“You have to adapt and learn,” Watkins said. “You have to pick up as much information as possible, ask as many questions as you can about the language and culture, and work hard to build trust and confidence. For me, it was fun and challenging to be in a place where I didn’t fully understand the language. It’s fascinating to learn about new languages and cultures! I was in Turkey for about seven months and hoping to go back. It was probably one of the most interesting assignments I’ve ever had!”