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LEAP Spotlight: Master Sgt. Luisa Martinez

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  • By Master Sgt. Luisa Martinez, Spanish LEAP Scholar

I joined the Air Force in the traffic management career field and cross-trained into equal opportunity about five years in. I am originally from Colombia and moved to the United States at age 11. I always wanted to be in the military, which was my goal after high school.

I grew up in a multi-lingual household, so English is my second language. Once I joined the military, however, I completely stopped speaking my primary language of Spanish. I didn’t learn about the Language Enabled Airman Program until late in my career from a captain who asked why I wasn’t in it. I applied but was not selected the first time. I started digging into it more and talking to others in the program to gain insight on how to better my application package.

Although I didn’t have any opportunities in the Equal Opportunity career field to use my Spanish language skills, once I PCS’ed to the 12th Air Force, I could use those skills more often and deploy on TDYs for the unit. This experience helped me build my LEAP application package to where I was finally selected in 2022.

I recently completed my first Language Intensive Training Event, or LITE, in Panama. I stayed with a host family, so learning their culture was an interesting experience. Panama has several cultures within the country, so I gained a lot of knowledge about different lifestyles and tribes within the region.

Learning the different cultures challenged me to truly immerse myself in the region. Several tribes have interesting rituals and traditions and are governed internally by tribe leaders, not the Panamanian government. While some tribes were not inclusive of women, others were very friendly and welcoming. It was amazing to see all the different cultures within one country.

Panama does not have an official military entity, but it has a group that functions as a military for the city. I visited one of the captains I met at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, who serves within this group in Panama. We worked together to make connections for military members and cadets to tour the area and build future relationships.

I took an eMentor course that helped me work on background information and knowledge to prepare for my first LITE, and then the LITE helped me work on language fluency and vocabulary. I put the things I learned in the eMentor course into practice during the LITE.

Now that I’ve completed this LITE, I’ve become more interested in Women, Peace, and Security initiatives. I will take more training and volunteer more on translation projects and events around this topic.

Being in LEAP and having these experiences has greatly enhanced my language skills because you must speak in the target language. In CONUS settings, we’d still speak in English, but in places like Panama, where they don’t speak much English, and we’re trying to build relationships and connections, we have no choice but to speak their native language.

LEAP has also impacted my personal life. I’ve built relationships through these experiences and now feel like I have another family with my host family from Panama. I also have a different perspective of Panama - what the country has been through, the history behind our country’s relationships, and how it all connects. 

Being there also helped the Panamanians improve their perspective of Americans. I showed them I understood their feelings toward the U.S. military and gave them a space to have those conversations while showing them we related to them. By the end of the experience, we had shifted mindsets to the point where several individuals emphasized they wanted U.S. military members there and asked when we were coming back.

For anyone interested in joining LEAP, I encourage you to go for it! It grows you as a person and gives you a different perspective on life. You also build long-lasting relationships with individuals you’d probably never have a chance to connect with otherwise. There’s so much more we can learn from outside the U.S.

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