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

LEAP Spotlight: Master Sgt. Ricardo Cepeda Pastrana

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  • By Master Sgt. Ricardo Cepeda Pastrana, Spanish LEAP Scholar

I’m Master Sgt. Ricardo Rafael Cepeda-Pastrana, and I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. After attending engineering school for a few years, I decided in 2011 to join the United States Air Force as an Aircraft Electrical and Environmental Systems technician. 

Although it is required to learn English as a second language in Puerto Rico’s educational system, I was raised in a Spanish-only home. I didn’t really see the importance of learning a second language or culture at the time. It was tough joining the U.S. Air Force without being a native English speaker, but I quickly realized I could turn what I once saw as a weakness into an asset in our Armed Forces. I have met other Spanish speakers that have instructed Professional Military Education and Technical School courses to United States allies in their native language, strengthening our force’s global relationship and interoperability.   

Despite my language barrier, I started my military career at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, as a C-130J aircraft technician, where I earned a Community College of the Air Force degree in Aviation Maintenance Technology, was awarded Airman Below-The-Zone, and was promoted to Staff Sergeant before departing to Hurlburt Field, Fla., for my next assignment in 2014. 

During my assignment at Hurlburt, I had the honor of participating on the cadre team responsible for the standup of the first Air Force’s AC-130J “Gunship” unit, the 73rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit. It was also during this assignment that I became a Language Enabled Airman Program Scholar and completed a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of West Florida. 

I learned about LEAP from a Scholar in the 73rd AMU who was preparing to travel to Spain for his first Language Intensive Training Event. He explained to me the benefits and opportunities that come with being a LEAP Scholar, and I was instantly intrigued. More than anything else, I was really interested in expanding my Hispanic language expertise and regional culture skills across other Spanish-speaking countries. I was selected as a Scholar during the 2018 LEAP board. 

My first LITE took me to Chile. Although I was skeptical about staying with a host family there, I’m glad I did versus staying in a hotel. Even though I’m a native Spanish speaker, I really immersed into their culture, and we both learned and shared our language and culture differences. It was also great having someone with regional expertise to ask for point-of-interest locations to visit and experiences to maximize my time beyond the classroom. 

In 2020, right before COVID, I had my most recent change of station to continue my Air Force Special Operations Command career with the 353rd Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, where I currently serve as MC-130J Production Superintendent. During this assignment, I expanded my involvement with LEAP, earned a master’s degree in Engineering Management, and was selected for Officer Training School to join the Officer Corps in the United States Space Force as a Mechanical Engineer. I am currently awaiting my OTS class date to launch a career I have considered a dream for years. 

I’ve been given the opportunity to give back to LEAP by leading the LEAP Okinawa Chapter. Although I’m the current president, our team makes it successful by organizing and leading professional development sessions, monthly meetings, community outreach events, and supporting local and near-peer missions utilizing their language, regional expertise, and culture skills. Some of our members have even assisted other bases in the standup of their own local chapter. 

LEAP has helped me see the value of coming in with LREC skills, particularly now that there is a great emphasis on the Multi-Capable Airmen concept. If you’re a LEAP Scholar, consider yourself a screened and well-qualified MCA with a unique skillset that can’t be gained in a few weeks’ course. Ultimately, LEAP gave me a greater sense of inclusion and belonging, which I have spread throughout my formations.  

If you’re eligible to apply, do it! You have a highly desired skillset that LEAP would help you expand while enjoying the benefits and opportunities of being a LEAP Scholar. If you’re not eligible yet, take every opportunity to use those skills and get involved in your local chapter if you have one. This would help you maintain your language and culture skills while making you a stronger applicant when your time comes to apply. 

I’m glad AFCLC identified the need to create LEAP and implemented it in a way where both the mission and scholars benefit from it. 

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