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LEAP Scholars: Equipped with Skills that Cannot be “Just-in-Time” Trained

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  • By Mikala McCurry and Lori Quiller, AFCLC Outreach Team

With events happening around the world at a moment’s notice, Airmen and Guardians must always be ready for the fight. Not unlike the skills built over time by a pilot, the culture, language, and regional expertise the total force needs for critical missions cannot be “just-in-time” trained. 

Through the Language Enabled Airman Program, more than 3,410 Airmen and Guardians, across 93 strategic languages, are equipped with the resources, training, and tools for utilization at a moment’s notice with skills that cannot be “just-in-time” trained. Serving as pilots, maintenance officers, finance journeymen, and medics, these Scholars develop and maintain their skills “at the ready” while serving in their primary career fields. Instrumental to this process is the dedicated language instructors who serve as online eMentors and on-site instructors via Language Intensive Training Events, or LITEs.

To carry the LEAP Special Experience Identifier, Airmen and Guardians must endure consistent, active, and vigorous language and culture training and be ready to engage anywhere in the world when needed. These service members are already finely tuned warriors, and now as LEAP Scholars, they are also lifelong learners who routinely consume language and culture education.

When Abu Dhabi agreed to receive and host evacuees from Afghanistan in August 2021, LEAP Scholars were eager to support the mission. A team of Airmen from Al Dhafra Air Base, led by LEAP Scholar and U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Asim Khan, director of staff for the U.S. Air Forces Central Air Warfare Center, ADAB, worked 10-to-18-hour shifts, translating personal information to facilitate a smooth transition for evacuees arriving at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Joining the processing team at Abu Dhabi International Airport, with virtually no time to prepare, LREC skills proved an invaluable lifeline.

“Based on experience, I recognized emergent requirements to address language gaps between the evacuees, UAE and U.S. officials,” Khan said. “We actualized a logarithmic increase in operational tempo in a matter of hours, and the stressors associated with processing over 5,000 evacuees indicated many areas for improvement after the arrival of each U.S. Air Force C-17.”

A LEAP Scholar’s skills are sharpened and honed over years of study and practice through one-on-one interactions and coursework. In addition, cross-cultural competency and language education ensure a ready pool of scholars trained to build partnership and interoperability. 

For intelligence officer 1st Lt. Kent Romney, one of only 34 LEAP Scholars developed by the Air Force Culture and Language Center in Russian and Ukrainian, LEAP courses prepared him for utilization by the Ukrainian Special Forces personnel at the Naval Small Craft Intelligence and Technical Training School for their Black Sea Initiative. This experience spurred significant linguistic, intercultural, and professional development for Romney while helping the U.S. Air Force establish a strong partnership with Ukrainian military personnel.

“Although I had picked up Ukrainian from studying Russian and living in Ukraine for a couple of years, it was not until I enrolled into LEAP that I received any formal Ukrainian language study,” Romney said. “LEAP has been instrumental in my Ukrainian language and intercultural development. Not only has LEAP provided me with formal language training opportunities such as eMentor online language courses and LITEs, but it has also continually provided me with guidance and direction I need to maximize my language and intercultural potential during my career as an Air Force Officer.”

AFCLC has made a considerable investment in strategic languages, such as developing Chinese Mandarin and Russian capability. For example, since 2010, Chinese Mandarin and Russian LEAP Scholars have completed 61,748 eMentor course hours and 20,203 days of training through LITEs. Because of this specialized cultivation, LEAP Scholars are utilized worldwide by organizations missing the LREC component in their mission plan. 

Keith McCabe, AFCLC’s LITE Program Manager, said the Center's Language Development Coordinators create a unique balance of language and culture to sustain continuing education training for LEAP Scholars.

“LEAP Program Managers and LDCs work diligently with our training and travel coordinators to develop, sustain, and enhance LEAP Scholars’ language skills by creating language programs in strategic locations around the world so they can benefit from both language and cultural aspects in the region,” McCabe said.

Career-spanning development in the Spanish language is critical to filling language-designated positions and ad hoc requirements that promote interoperability with partners. For example, when the United States was designated as the “Nation of Honor” for the 2021 Mexican Air Defense Trade Show, a team of Spanish-speaking LEAP Scholars was called upon for both their diplomatic and technical skills to participate alongside the Mexican military.

“Without the LEAP Scholars’ support, the cross-coordination and tactical level engagement would have been extremely difficult. Being flexible and adaptable to change was key,” said Spanish LEAP Scholar and Health Services Management Specialist Senior Master Sgt. Diego Yoshisaki. “Our LEAP Scholars not only dominated the Spanish language but also were aware of military customs and courtesies. ‘Flexecution’ was pivotal, and these Airmen showcased their professionalism, partnerships, and Airmanship with the Mexican military, the Mexican citizens, as well as with their fellow Airmen.” 

LEAP Scholars are often called upon for utilization to provide the critical link needed to complete a mission. Demands for French and Arabic skills, for example, often manifest on short notice. LEAP provides willing-and-ready Airmen and Guardians who have provided their own long-term investment in their learning for such requirements.

For example, during AFRICAN Lion, the largest military exercise in Africa, LEAP Scholars’ skillsets and knowledge in French and multiple dialects of the Arabic language were crucial in the success of their language support to the exercise as they experienced several complex language and cultural circumstances during their mission.

LEAP Scholar and B-2 pilot Maj. Zachary Ziegler is one of 187 Arabic LEAP Scholars trained with the highly technical language, regional expertise, and culture skill set ready to deploy for utilization when needed. Identified via a short-notice Training Partnership Request, Maj. Ziegler’s skills were ready.

“While in Morocco, I was able to bridge that gap between English and Arabic,” Ziegler said. “After only one day of work, I realized Arabic translators are essential to achieving U.S. goals during this exercise.”

Across a spectrum of languages, long-term investment through LEAP is having the intended effect of ensuring the Air Force no longer relies on just-in-time training.

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