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

LEAP to FAO Spotlight: Lt. Col. Michael Ball

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  • By Lt. Col. Michael Ball, LEAP Scholar and Foreign Area Officer

My language journey began in high school, in which Spanish was my favorite class. Unfortunately, I did not study Spanish in college, but I resumed self-study a year before joining the Air Force in 2007. I reached the intermediate level in 2010, which is when I joined the Language Enabled Airman Program. 

Although selected for Spanish, the program did not have much funding for Spanish at the beginning, so LEAP allowed me to study Portuguese for the first few years.  Later in 2014, I did an Advanced Spanish Language Intensive Training Event in Guatemala embedded with their Army as an interpreter for basic infantry and counternarcotics training conducted by the Georgia Army National Guard. I completed a regular LITE to Costa Rica in 2016. 

I started my military career in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1999 at age 17, serving in an engineer battalion in Okinawa, Japan, and later at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton. I studied Economics at California State University partially on active duty and partially during a break in service before joining the Air Force in 2007; in 2012, I completed a Master’s in International Relations at Webster University with the express goal of becoming a Foreign Area Officer. 

I started in the Air Force as an Acquisitions Officer, working on the B-52H Program, the C-130J International Collaborative Block Upgrade Program, and the Shared Early Warning Systems Program. The latter was a Foreign Military Sales program where I first started truly building FAO-like skills outside of LEAP. As the CENTCOM Manager for SEWS, I worked alongside contractors in country training Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis, and Jordanians in Missile Warning operations and was responsible for regularly briefing general officers - even a Service Chief on one occasion - on operational or administrative issues related to their FMS cases. I also deployed to the Security Assistance Office in Afghanistan in 2016 and extensively worked FMS cases through the U.S. Army’s Security Assistance Center. I believe these FMS experiences, combined with my LEAP experiences, were excellent preparation to become a future FAO.  

I first heard about the FAO program in 2008 as a second lieutenant, about a year before LEAP was inaugurated. I met a soon-to-be China FAO in 2008 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and was fascinated by the program. I knew immediately that it was “FAO or bust” for me in my Air Force career despite advice to the contrary by some past mentors. 

LEAP largely made me a FAO. Without LEAP, I may not be here today on my second FAO tour at Air University as the Chief of the new International Affairs Plan and Program Division. I was a Direct Utilization FAO, which means I self-qualified with the language scores, a Master’s Degree, and the required six months of regional experience, which I built through LEAP. 

My first FAO tour was tumultuous. I was the Operations Officer in Nicaragua, whose partner of choice was Russia. Despite various political, logistical, and bureaucratic obstacles, I led and facilitated some “firsts” in Nicaragua, including the first U.S. ship visit to a Nicaraguan port in 26 years that was hoped to be the foundation for joint counter-narcotics operations and a subject matter expert exchange with the Air Force and the Army of Nicaragua. Most remarkably, I engaged at the executive level of government to gain approval to open a Maritime Patrol Aircraft Program in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, the civil unrest in Nicaragua from April to November of 2018 led to the cancellation of most DOD programs in Nicaragua and the elimination of my billet and others. After a short stint as a Desk Officer at USSOUTHCOM, I was transferred to Ecuador.

Ironically, I was the last active-duty Security Cooperations Organization officer in Nicaragua, and also the first active-duty SCO officer in Ecuador. I had the honor or re-opening SCO Ecuador in a whirlwind of activity over 24 months ending in September 2020 in which my small team and I executed over 15 Key Leader Engagements, a ship visit (USS COMFORT), the establishment of various training and Building Partner Capacity programs, and much more. 

If you have any interest and capacity at all in languages, international relations, security cooperation, apply to LEAP. You have everything to gain. You’ll improve your language skills while also learning about joint operations worldwide. Additionally, years later, if you decide to do this full-time as a Foreign Area Officer or in some other capacity in your origin AFSC, your LEAP resume will be a decisive factor in your application to any Air Force Program. You do not have to be a FAO to work in international relations within the Air Force. Primary AFSCs have lots of opportunities as well. 

Again, I owe the last six years and all my future career success to LEAP. Without LEAP, I would not be here today, building global relationships with 80 countries as a Division Chief at the International Officer School at Maxwell AFB, AL, and future FAO challenges I hope to meet as well. I send my deep thanks again to the Language Enabled Airmen Program and all its dedicated staff members. 

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