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LEAP Spotlight: Senior Master Sgt. Alejandro Velez

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  • By Senior Master Sgt. Alejandro Velez, Spanish LEAP Scholar

I was born in Miami, FL, but my family moved back to Medellin, Colombia, a couple of months later during the 80s drug cartel era. At 19, I decided to return to the U.S. to change my life and pursue the “American Dream.” 

My main goals when I arrived were to transform my circumstances, become a role model for others, and make my mother proud of me for the first time. During one of the most challenging times of my life, when I didn’t have a home, a plan, or a purpose, I met my first mentor. He was a Catholic priest who gave me a helping hand and introduced me to the Air Force.

Like many other Language Enabled Airman Program Scholars, my language journey began when I joined the Air Force. My greatest challenge during basic training and Security Forces Tech School was that I didn’t speak English and was unfamiliar with American culture. It took me more than a year to become proficient in English. Still, with the help of a mentor from the Inter-American Air Forces Academy and some self-learning techniques, I discovered that I had the talent to learn languages and cultures at a relatively fast pace. 

At my 12-year mark and working in Camp Darby, Italy, as the NCOIC for a Commander Support Staff section, I came across an ad that would change my career by helping me get out of my comfort zone. As I was doing my daily internet browsing of the Air Force Portal, I saw a short article from the Air Force Culture and Language Center advertising a new program for enlisted members with proficiency in foreign languages and cross-cultural competency who would be willing to use their talents and skills for the benefit of our Air Force. 

This short narrative, which could have been disregarded by most, spoke volumes to me. For the first time in my career, I felt unique; this program told me I was not ordinary but that I was special just the way I was, and the Air Force needed me. I immediately applied for the Language Enabled Airman Program, and my acceptance became the motivation I needed to start taking control of my career. 

Within months of becoming a LEAP Scholar, I started to see the results of my efforts through training resources, such as E-mentor classes to improve my skills and Language Intensive Training Events that allowed me to put my skills to great use. I decided to learn Italian, and within six months, I was helping the community of this small base with everything from finding a home, translating documents, interpreting interviews, and even teaching basic communication techniques to use with the local nationals. Through LEAP, I was also offered the opportunity to support the POW/MIA Accounting Agency by helping recover material and evidence of more than 73,000 missing service members unaccounted for from World War II in Trieste, Italy. 

During my first LITE, I had the opportunity of working and supporting the Air Force mission in Colombia, where I grew up. Since I still had a Colombian accent and knew the culture and some strategic cities very well, I was tasked with language support for multiple missions. I became key in various humanitarian assistance initiatives. This was when I realized LEAP would be the platform that would allow me to fulfill one of my goals of helping the people I grew up with while representing the country that gave me a second opportunity. This opened my eyes to understanding the significant impact and responsibility that LEAP members have.  

I have always firmly believed we could be auditioning for the opportunity of our life at any time without knowing it, and the only thing needed are three tools: resiliency, discipline, and a positive attitude. My first big audition for a great opportunity came through LEAP when I was working at AFPC. With 17 years in the Air Force, I was ready to throw the towel on my dream of someday working at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy because I was still not selected after fifteen applications. This changed when I participated in the 2018 IAAFA Western Hemisphere Exchange Symposium as a LEAP Scholar and an escort for one of the distinguished guests, the Commander of the Dominican Republic Air Force. LEAP opened the door by allowing me to showcase my skills with IAAFA’s leadership, and I displayed the leadership, language, and cultural abilities I learned from the program. 

The Academy hired me as a PME instructor tasked with helping develop and empower more than 21 partner nations’ enlisted forces. One year later, I climbed to the position of International PME Center Commandant and earned the opportunity of being assigned to a special mission for eight months, helping restructure the Colombian Air Force NCO development. 

Returning from Colombia, I assumed the position of Senior Enlisted Leader at the 837 TRS, one of two training units at IAAFA. Our vision was to incorporate language-capable USAF members into all our classes. LEAP became our biggest customer and ally by helping us incorporate the right talent to cultivate deep, enduring relationships through security cooperation with our allies and partners.

As the security cooperation agent and primary lead for all international NCO development programs with Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas, I used our alliance with AFCLC to help us recruit 15 language- capable Airmen in five different career fields to support FAMEX, a bi-annual air and trade show organized by the Mexican Armed Forces (SEDENA) that serves as a major NORTHCOM security cooperation event. 

Since one of my priorities is to push for more security cooperation efforts with Canada, and their second official language is French, we decided to accelerate change by incorporating LEAP French speakers as students in the Royal Canadian Academy Airman Leadership School equivalent courses. 

In representation of all my colleagues in the USAF International Affairs field and assigned to all the different components across the world, I have to say that the LEAP program is our greatest resource, and AFCLC is our biggest ally; we cannot be successful at our jobs without them.

I think it is never too early to begin this journey with LEAP. This was the motivation behind creating the LEAP Chapter at Tyndall AFB. Sharing my experiences and stories gives younger Airmen an incentive to look forward to during their first critical years in the Air Force when they are trying to find themselves and discovering their purpose.

LEAP gives you the opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and develop a unique sense of belonging and Airmanship. If you show proactivity and initiative to go above and beyond, not settling only on your native or primary language, they will develop you and help you reach your cultural goals.

The rise of threats, such as China and Russia, have forced the Defense Department to shift its focus into a Great Power Competition. If we keep pushing and supporting programs like LEAP, we will always have a secret weapon that cannot be replicated. By empowering our multicultural people and powerful diversity, we will remain the partner nation of choice because we are the only nation capable of delivering needed support in any language, for any culture, any place and at any time.

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