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Vermont Air National Guard Innovates, Completes First-Ever Virtual Workshop with African Nation

  • Published
  • By Julie Paroline, 158th Fighter Wing

Across the span of three days in July, the Vermont Air National Guard partnered with the Barnes Center for Enlisted Education at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Ala., to host the first-ever, entirely virtual engagement with any African Military Education Program (AMEP) school in Africa: a course on professional military education (PME) and continuing education for Senegalese Air Force instructors.

Attendees called in from Alabama, Vermont, Senegal and Djibouti to participate in the virtual workshops designed to ensure the continued skills development of Airmen during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This remote curriculum and experience was a follow-on from a two-week instructor development course held in Senegal in November 2019.

Dr. Al Stolberg, academic advisor to the African Center for Strategic Studies-led AMEP program, praised this milestone virtual engagement.

“The Vermont Air Guard virtual workshop is the very first virtual engagement with any AMEP school in Africa; not only with enlisted professionals but for any officer school as well. Thus, not only is the VT Air Guard first for any other SPP program, but also for any active duty U.S. school that supports the AMEP program.”

The AMEP program, designed by the Department of State, is a part of the African Center for Strategic Studies. This program’s primary intent is to modernize and professionalize the PME systems for the United States’ Sub-Saharan African partner nations, such as those involved in State Partnership Programs (SPP).

The State Partnership Program links each state’s respective National Guard with the armed forces or equivalent from a foreign partner nation to conduct military-to-military engagements in support of defense security goals, as well as building cooperative, mutually beneficial social and economic relationships. The Vermont National Guard has been partnered with Senegal since 2008 and North Macedonia since 1993.

“AMEP is a demand-driven program; meaning that the partner nation must request U.S. support for a given school in areas such as curriculum development (what to teach) and faculty development (how to teach). This is applicable for African war colleges, staff colleges, military academies, NCO Academies, and several junior officer and specialized schools,” said Stolberg.

The request for developing the Senegalese enlisted corps came from the Senegalese Air Force Chief of Staff and Chefs D’Etat Major Des Armées, the chief of the general staff of the armed forces for Senegal. This initiative pinpoints the need to empower and develop the enlisted members of the Senegalese Air Force, as their force continues to grow over the next few years.

Senior Master Sgt. Michael Bilharz, SPP academic lead for the Senegal enlisted professional military education (PME) academy, was tasked by Vermont’s Joint Force Headquarters to engage with and ensure all the right people, Airmen, instructors, and programs - like AMEP and LEAP - were involved throughout the process.

“The Senegalese reached out to the State Partnership Program, and asked for a way to make their enlisted force more professional,” said Bilharz. “They have a very robust officer development corps, they send them all over the world for training, for professional military education. But their enlisted corps hasn’t been developed like that.”

According to Bilharz, the Senegalese Air Force initiated this work with the AMEP and SPP to build a “middle, non-commissioned officer program”, because their existing enlisted development essentially halts after initial PME and technical training. That means there are few structured development courses available after initial training for those that become top enlisted leaders of the Senegalese Air Force.

“They’re trying to get away from that, they’re trying to develop more professional NCOs. Their NCOs are relied on to be the technical experts, just like we do here," said Bilharz, acknowledging the need for additional professional leadership training. “So, we were charged with working with them to help them create an NCO program, not build one for them, but help them create one.”

In order to involve Airmen of the Vermont Air National Guard at the start of this initiative, notice for participating in PME for the AMEP school in Senegal became available during summer, 2019. One of the Airmen who pursued this opportunity was Tech. Sgt. David Vallieres, a full-time member of the 158th Security Forces Squadron who has a background in instructing.

Vallieres deployed to Senegal in November 2019 for the introductory on-site training, and also participated in this virtual rendition as an instructor, supported by course material provided by the Barnes Center’s Air Force Enlisted Professional Military Education.

According to Bilharz, the Barnes Center was brought in to provide the most current instruction and to assist the Vermont Air National Guardsmen with teaching the instructor development. They will also assist in building the curriculum, with the added assistance of the AMEP team, during a future engagement.

“The instructor development in military-to-military engagements was supposed to be two events, one in November 2019 and one in March 2020,” explained Bilharz. “This team was ready to go out the door in March 2020, COVID hit, everything got cancelled, so we went back to the drawing board and contacted the AMEP program with what we wanted to do [virtually].”

According to Vallieres, the course topics recapped this past month via Microsoft Teams included general PME and foundational instructional skills, such as classroom management skills, lesson plan creation and preparation, dealing with difficult students, effective listening and delivery skills, and questioning techniques. The next phase of instruction will transition into lesson building and curriculum development, but the emphasis is currently on teaching Senegalese Air Force instructors how to effectively deliver that military education content to their students, empowering these instructor NCOs to develop the future generations of enlisted instructors.

“I haven’t seen this level of proactive terms of having the two-year, short-term and long-term plan. And that’s the plan, is to help them. We have all of the material here in the states, but it has to be their own, it has to be Senegalese,” said Vallieres.

Bilharz also emphasized the importance of the Senegalese owning this course development, and that the U.S. counterparts were there to assist and support during the building phases, but this new training would need to be entirely managed by the Senegalese Air Force.

“The goal is to make this a self-sustaining program. We want them to be able to teach the next round of instructors, their program - not the U.S. military’s, not the Air Force’s - but a program that we helped them build, we want them to be able to teach it to the next generation, with assistance as needed…We’re just guiding them, we’re providing best practices.”

This virtual enlisted-to-enlisted engagement was additionally distinctive due to the nature of requiring translators to join every training session. Two members of the Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP), a volunteer program managed by the Air Force Culture and Language Center (AFCLC), were selected to assist.

Capt. Bakary Jallow and Master Sgt. Alain Mukendi, both active duty LEAP scholars, translated the English presentations into the Wolof dialect and French respectively, and interpreted attendee comments and questions into English. According to Jallow, only one or two of the nearly dozen Senegalese participants understood English, so translating into French and Wolof provided the participants with a strengthened sense of belonging.

“I was there to help translate from Wolof, which is the local dialect in Senegal, to English. We had French speakers too, but sometimes they feel more confident speaking in Wolof,” said Jallow. “I could sense the excitement when I started speaking Wolof, and they were engaged and excited. Having a local translator that speaks your own dialect can tell you that the Air Force cares.

“They even talked about that during the feedback, that they appreciated the fact that the U.S. Air Force cares about their training based on our preparation and all the materials we brought… It gave them a sense of belonging and put them at ease, it made them feel like they are at home because to them, it is a brother speaking to them, that’s how they felt. This is a relationship.”

Similarly, Mukendi has experience as both an instructor of this course and interpreter, having been on-site during the November training as an instructor, and having now participated by offering his bilingual talents to assist in translation during this month’s 3-day training refresher.

“It wasn’t a difficult transition [from instructor to translator], it was actually pretty smooth for me because I have no problem speaking French. It is my first language and I’m familiar with the material that we’re talking about. And also, more importantly, I am familiar with the people, because it was the same group that we had back in November, just the difference is that we are not all in the same place and separated because of COVID,” said Mukendi.

Without the assistance of local translators or LEAP scholars like Jallow and Mukendi, a military-to-military educational engagement like this one would be nearly impossible due to the language barrier while presenting, the two explained.

“It was very important that in this setting, for what we talk about and what we teach, for it to be able to be translated into the official language of French, because that’s the best way for [the Senegalese] to receive its intended meaning,” reflected Mukendi. “We don’t take it lightly, and it was very effective for them, in my opinion. I’m truly appreciative of the opportunity to be able to do that.”

As for the future of this program, Bilharz and Mukendi are confident that, although COVID-19 may once again require them to adapt and change original plans, there is already so much forward momentum that a worldwide pandemic will not stop this curriculum and instruction.

“I don’t think COVID is going to stop anything from developing. It might take time, it might be longer that it would if we were present, but either way even if we couldn’t be [in Senegal], I’m sure we still would have been working on this, virtually, somehow, we still would have been working towards a common goal of establishing a great curriculum for those NCOs and at the end of the day, something that is going to work for many people in the future,” said Mukendi. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going the right way and COVID is not going to make us stop anything that’s supposed to be happening with this.”

In fact, according to Vallieres, when the Vermont Air National Guard was in Senegal last year, they had “people come in for two days from the Pentagon [that asked] what we were doing, they were going to use us as an example. We’re definitely paving the way in a lot of aspects, and this is just another one of them.”

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Vermont Air National Guard is planning to hold another virtual training for November 2020 and continues to be on-hold for future ground military engagements with both state partner countries.

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