AFCLC, Air Force Culture and Language Center, Air Force's Global Classroom

LEAP Spotlight: Maj. Timothy Bettis

  • Published
  • By AFCLC Outreach Team

“I studied Spanish in high school partially as a way of reconnecting with the language and culture of my late grandfather, an Army Air Corps and U.S. Air Force veteran. I always joked that learning Spanish finally helped me understand English grammar, but more importantly, it helped me develop a mental framework for learning a new language that I immediately applied elsewhere.

“I was really interested in the Arabic language, but growing up in rural Minnesota, the formal opportunities to study Arabic were non-existent. Thanks to a World Language Day sponsored by the University of Minnesota, I traveled to their Minneapolis campus alongside other high school students and attended sample classes for Arabic, Chinese and Ojibwe. It was there I was introduced to Dr. Hisham Khalek, now the ARDI Chair of Arabic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, but then was serving as a language professor for several institutions across the Twin Cities. In 2007, I enrolled in my first formal Arabic class with Dr. Khalek at the University of St. Thomas. Thanks to him, I was also able to travel to Lebanon in 2008 as my first-ever venture outside the United States.

“I graduated in 2011 from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a degree in International and Middle Eastern Studies. The pinnacle moment of my college experience was my study abroad in the Levant, where I traveled between Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Syria.

“I commissioned into the USAF through Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps in 2011 and became an intelligence officer. From 2013-16, I cut my teeth in my first operational units, where I was responsible for supporting MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircrew mission sets.

“I discovered LEAP in 2013-14 in my first operational assignment, thanks to my then flight commander, Capt. James Lodge, who knew I’d be a shoo-in for the program. I was interested in LEAP because it provided me with a formal opportunity to maintain and sharpen my Arabic tongue while serving in a high-tempo operational assignment that included shift work.

“While Las Vegas was a great city to live in, the opportunities to use my Arabic in the local community were not forthcoming. I especially appreciated LEAP because it didn’t require me to be assigned to a regionally-aligned billet to apply. The USAF empowered me to develop a skillset relevant to the DOD’s mission that I would be able to use at a future date. A professional development program that is inherently proactive in the way it selects and trains Airmen is a breath of fresh air in an institution fueled by a vigorous pursuit of inclusion and diversity.

“This period also coincided with the height of the Arab Spring, which brought significant domestic unrest to the region. Operating across CENTCOM, I found myself the only officer in my operations group with academic and practical experience across the Middle East that wasn’t gained from behind barbed wire. This helped propel me into a position where I became the de facto regional advisor to my squadron commander, where I helped add history and cultural context to his and his boss’s decision-making.

“I’ve taken eMentor classes for both Modern Standard Arabic and various dialects, including Levantine and Syrian Arabic. The ability of AFCLC to be forward-thinking and enable USAF students to flex their curriculum to anticipate future DOD needs is highly important. The bottom-up nature of this program allows students to be more agile in matching their interests and capabilities to emerging DOD needs more than a top-down, requirements-based bureaucracy could ever be.

“In 2016, I was reassigned to Headquarters 9th Air Force as the Command Intelligence Briefer. Shortly thereafter, HQ 9 AF was tagged by then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Goldfein to stand up the USAF’s first-ever joint task force-capable headquarters. I, then just a captain, became the 2-star commander’s de facto intelligence advisor to help guide and assemble this Joint Task Force’s intelligence directorate. Due to the strict protocols of controlling and sharing intelligence information, I quickly expanded this into an opportunity to shape the JTF to be coalition ready from day one, establishing a foreign disclosure office, bringing in a United Kingdom exchange officer, and prepping the culture of the headquarters staff to enable a need to share internal environment.

“From 2019-20, I served on the staff of AFCENT’s intelligence directorate, helping plan and shape AFCENT’s intelligence collection priorities for both planned operations as well as contingencies. I was selected to be a Foreign Area Officer in 2019 but unable to enter the training pipeline until a year later. I convinced AFCLC to let me take a Space-A French class under the logic that the Francophone world overlaps heavily with the Arabic-speaking world. I had the time and opportunity, and the DOD had the operational need.

“Our AORs are not mono-lingual, and the Middle East lies at the intersection of three major continents. Cultural and linguistic adaptability is an operational necessity for FAOs. Therefore flexibility in the LEAP curricula is both a tactical necessity and the manifestation of bureaucracy responsible for cultivating a force posture capable of operating transregionally. This flexibility within Air Education and Training Command that allows individual Airmen to tailor their studies appropriately is also better at delivering a force capable of meeting the President’s charge to revitalize America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships.

“With my LEAP training, I have also had the opportunity to mentor some junior embassy staff on the history and culture of the Persian Gulf to better help them navigate some of the cultural barriers they were experiencing.

“More strategically, while in Bahrain, I was able to help augment the U.S. Embassy team supporting the U.S. delegation to the 2021 Manama Dialogue, the region’s largest annual security conference. I was assigned to the team that led the planning for the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his engagement at the dialogue itself and his bilateral meetings with officials from Iraq, Indonesia, Kenya and Bahrain.

“This experience in Bahrain was my first real-world opportunity to engage with a foreign partner in a language other than English; Bahrain is a major non-NATO ally, making this bilateral relationship all the more critical. While Bahrain is culturally diverse due to the nature of the economy’s reliance on foreign workers, and a large portion of the country speaks some degree of English, the ability of U.S. servicewomen and men to speak Arabic immediately builds rapport with the Bahraini officials and defense forces. Respecting, studying, and engaging with a partner nation’s language, history, and culture immediately dispels any negative notion of American hubris and helps engender a sense of mutual respect in our bi- and multi-lateral relationships.

“While I was merely a pinch hitter on a team full of all-star players, it was exciting to be a fly on the wall to watch the execution of international affairs and diplomacy first-hand.”

--Modern Standard Arabic LEAP Scholar and FAO Maj. Timothy Bettis

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