LEAP Spotlight: Capt Zechariah Sparrow Published Nov. 2, 2023 By Capt. Zechariah Sparrow, Russian LEAP Scholar AFCLC MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- After graduating from the United States Air Force Academy in 2017 with a degree in political science and a minor in the Russian language, I began my career as an aircraft maintenance officer. I worked with the F-22 and C-17 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, before being stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. I worked the transition from the KC-10 to the KC-46 and was fortunate to transition over to the 818 Mobility Support Advisory Squadron, one of the two standing Air Advisor units in Air Mobility Command. As an Air Advisor, I can work with partner nations as we strive to develop their capabilities and forge lasting, mutually beneficial relationships. My relationship with the Russian language began comically in 2013 when I was in basic training at the Air Force Academy. Each cadet used to take a Spanish language placement test and would be assigned a language based on their results. Having studied Spanish in high school, I did well enough to be rewarded with being placed in Arabic. One class was enough for me to determine that we were not a good match for one another. My academic advisor informed me that because I tested “too well,” I was only allowed to take Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic, or Russian. The process of elimination led me to Russian because the language at least used some of the same characters and wrote in the same direction. Initially, my interest was simply in earning a good grade in the class, but when Russia invaded Crimea that winter, I began to understand the strategic importance of speaking a foreign language. I continued my language journey at the Air Force Academy and after but did not hear about the Language Enabled Airman Program until I was assigned to the 818 MSAS. Because we primarily work with West African partners, each member of the unit takes several months of French. However, a few members also got selected to continue their language training through LEAP. Since being accepted into LEAP a little over a year ago, I have been fortunate to take advantage of the training offered through eMentor, TUTOR, and Language Intensive Training Events, or LITEs. It has refined my Russian from an academic level to something truly useful in-country. The most amazing opportunity I have had through LEAP was my recent LITE to Tallinn, Estonia. Given that it is not possible to go to Russia itself to practice the language, I was one of two students sent on a test LITE to Tallinn. Aside from the charm of the city and intense language training, it was an incredible opportunity to be a part of something in the making. We met with all agencies responsible for the trip’s logistics, teaching, and travel. AFCLC also came out to conduct a site survey while we were there. Because Tallinn was such a new location, there were many unknowns. It proved to be an excellent location for language and culture training. The war in Ukraine is very real to many residents in Estonia, and I was able to use my language skills to talk to families who fled the country as well as to some Russians in the area. The LITE taught us that learning a language is not about learning vocabulary and grammar but also learning about the people who speak it. As an Air Advisor, speaking a foreign language is one of the most important tools in the kit. It can often determine the magnitude of success in a mission. I have not had the chance to use Russian as an Air Advisor yet, but we will be going to Central Asia early next year, and I will have the opportunity to speak Russian with our partner there. I hope we will continue to work with Russian-speaking partners to develop our relationships in the region and allow me to continue using my language as a part of my daily job. Outside of my career field, LEAP has also helped me personally. There are several Ukrainian families where I live, and I have been able to speak with them in one of their native languages. It has fostered relationships and taught me much about what they have endured. I hope to continue using LEAP throughout my career to connect to people at work and in my private life. At the end of the day, people are people. We all strive for the same basic goals. Knowing another language helps teach that lesson and opens doors you might not have known were closed. For those interested in applying to LEAP, I have two bits of advice. The first, just go for it! Take the DLAB, DLPT, and OPI and try for it. I work with many other Advisors who got selected for LEAP after years of speaking a language because they eliminated themselves and never applied. My second tip is to remember that you are not applying to learn a language but a people. You are applying to learn how to connect to another culture and open doors for the United States military. Best of luck to any future applicants!