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

LEAP Spotlight: Capt. William Watson

  • Published
  • By AFCLC Outreach Team

“The reasons why I applied to the Language Enabled Airman Program started early on, and the Air Force helped me with continuing my language journey. 

“While my formal language learning was through education, I received my start in Chinese learning at home. My dad is fluent in Chinese from the Defense Language Institute in the Marine Corps. He was an assistant attaché in Bejing. We ended up moving to Senegal, so he learned French and dealt with the AFRICOM dynamic. I never picked up French as well as I would have liked, but Chinese stuck with me.

“I attended a few DoD-sponsored language programs, such as Project Global Officer in ROTC, where they allowed me to study abroad and receive full credits. I did that twice in college, and it was instrumental in showing me this was something I wanted to do.

“I was lucky enough to get a language scholarship from the Air Force via ROTC and graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in Mandarin Chinese and Political Science. 

“Once I got in the military, I became an Air Battle Manager and am currently flying on the E-3 Sentry. Because my primary Air Force duties are operational and combat-focused, one of the things that led me to LEAP was that the Air Force has this program to continue language and cultural understanding.

“LEAP wasn’t open to cadets when I was in college, but once I got into the military, a buddy of mine who was already in LEAP as a Chinese Scholar told me about the opportunity. I sent in the application and was lucky enough to get picked up. 

“I’ve always believed we all have our jobs within the Air Force focused on a larger mission, but I think cultural understanding, language skills, and being educated in that sense can help toward the greater problem-solving concepts in the world. Unlike my job on the jet or anybody’s job on the ground, I think LEAP is that next-level type of support. What I can do on the jet is very tactical, focused, and singular in its direction, but anybody who has political, language, and cultural understanding can make a much greater impact and help the U.S. in the cycle of the overall mission.

“As an Air Battle Manager, it is harder to get released for longer TDYs. However, I have been on one overseas Language Intensive Training Event in Shanghai, and it was phenomenal. It’s amazing that the Air Force allows you to study language and soak up as much culture and learn as much as you can for a month as part of your job. My language capabilities skyrocketed during that time, and I had so much fun. 

“The other LITE I attended was the Belt and Road Initiative Advanced Special Emphasis LITE. While the overseas LITE was great for language learning, BRI showed me what LEAP could do. It showed me how LEAP affects change at a level I didn’t know was possible when it comes to language in the Air Force. When thinking about the focus on China’s BRI, the U.S. military has never really had a program like that. This was the first time the Air Force has taken people who know the language and culture and tried to have them tackle a problem in a higher-level academic situation. 

“Writing papers and presenting them to senior leaders is the kind of stuff I am interested in. I think this is the key to the puzzle, not just focusing on missile ranges and dropping bombs, but the type of academic, political, strategic problem-solving way of thinking LEAP encourages. I learned so much through this welding together of the academic, language, and military aspects in the BRI LITE. I was able to bring a lot back for myself, my unit, and anyone around me who had questions about that topic.

“The training I get through LEAP helps me explain the ‘why’ to people around me. We all get spun up on the same intelligence knowledge, but LEAP training gives me the ability to understand the reasoning behind why a certain country would do a certain thing or have a certain kind of thinking. 

“There’s so much history, culture, and context a lot of Americans don’t grasp. It’s hard for us to understand other country’s motivations and reasoning. Once we understand, we get a more complete picture, which helps us problem solve.

“I enjoy learning about languages and cultures. When I sign up for an eMentor class or know I have a LITE coming up, that’s something I look forward to. My command has been very supportive of letting me take the time to do that kind of stuff. It’s given me a more well-rounded experience. 

“While the language pay is a definite benefit, having the eMentor courses and language proficiency tests help set goal posts and gives you structure for maintaining language proficiency. Without LEAP, it’s easy to let life get in the way, and a lot of my skills would have probably deteriorated. LEAP provides that structure at an Air Force institution level to help me maintain and get better.

“Oftentimes, rated members are so zoned in on tactics and our specialty, it can lead to tunnel vision. LEAP allows me to take a step back and put all the pieces together to get a broader context and be a better officer and Airman. I think that’s what the Air Force is looking for.

“LEAP is the best thing in the Air Force. I believe there is no better program. I talk to some of my friends across the other branches, and from what I’ve heard, they don’t really have anything that does what LEAP does. 

“I encourage anyone who thinks they may have language skills to apply for the program. It’s the best thing that I’ve encountered about the Air Force so far. It’s so vitally important not only to the Air Force mission but the mission of the United States in terms of global networking, understanding, and partnership building.”

--Mandarin Chinese LEAP Scholar Capt. William Watson

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