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LEAP Scholars build bonds in the Pacific with peak performance at Cope North 2024

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  • By James Brown, AFCLC Outreach Team

Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP) Scholars recently played a vital role in an annual multinational military exercise. These LEAP scholars were part of an 18-member multinational Japanese translation team that participated in Cope North 2024. This exercise aligns with our National Security Strategy priority of seeking deeper bonds with our Southeast Asian partners.

Cope North took place Feb. 5-23 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.  It is the Pacific Air Forces’ (PACAF) largest exercise, with 2,448 personnel having participated this year. The LEAP Scholars, Maj. John Gabe Newman, Capt. Ken Nakanishi, and 1st Lt Xavier Kirksey provided Japanese interpretation across all facets of the exercise including aeromedical evacuation, combat air forces, mobility air forces, security forces, and contingency response among others. The LEAP Scholars were directly embedded with Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) leaders enabling an exercise first of having JASDF-led forward operating locations. Additionally, there was another exercise first of having a JASDF senior leader supervising overall exercise operations for a day. The LEAP translation team was a big factor in making these first-time events possible. 

The Cope North 2024 Exercise Director, Lt. Col. David Overstreet, emphasized the important role that LEAP Scholars played in the exercise.

“Expert linguists provided by LEAP were absolutely imperative to the success of Cope North 2024,” he said. “These highly qualified/skilled Airmen were a key enabler when it came to normalizing our alliance with the Japanese and Australian forces. Simply put, we couldn’t do it without them.”

According to Newman, Cope North was an opportunity to work on a wide range of military expertise with some of the United States’ important allies in the United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) region. He said the exercise also covered many different aspects of the military.

“After working as an interpreter this year, I realized that air operations are only part of a much larger exercise,” Newman said. “Cope North challenges its participants in many other areas including aeromedical evacuation, logistics, mobility air forces, security forces, contingency response, public affairs, personnel, and maintenance among others. When we step outside the comfort of our own career fields, we become better Airmen by learning how other members in the USAF and partner Air Forces operate.”

Working with Japanese counterparts was beneficial according to Nakanishi.

“Working with the JASDF personnel was an extremely rewarding experience,” he said. “They brought their A-game and had a sense of urgency to gain as much as they could, given the current situation with east Asian politics. They were eager to work with us and take on any opportunity presented to them to take leadership roles.”

The exercise first of having JASDF-led forward operating locations was a vital learning challenge within Cope North.

“Exercise leadership does a great job every year challenging planners with how the USAF can incorporate our allies into the exercise more,” Newman said. “Promoting further security cooperation, this year, exercise planners challenged the JASDF with leading spoke locations from both an operations and logistics perspective. We had permanently assigned interpreters at two locations supporting this effort. Conducting air operations from a remote spoke location is difficult, especially in an environment where there are scattered landmasses. The goal of Cope North is to create tactical problems in a training environment so that if these problems arise in an actual conflict, our militaries will be able to provide timely solutions. The JASDF did an outstanding job leading the spoke locations and I think took back a lot of lessons learned with them.”

According to Newman, the team of interpreters who supported the exercise was essential to the cooperation between the U.S. and the JASDF during the exercise.

“The English used at Cope North can be extremely difficult to non-native speakers; there are numerous accents, the challenge of idiomatic language, the speed of the language, and the amount of industry-specific vocabulary create a language barrier that needs to be bridged,” he said. “Our team of interpreters supported all facets of the exercise in which the JASDF were participating. I was fortunate enough to have a highly motivated team of interpreters that were laser-focused on the mission. We were tasked to provide high-visibility Japanese interpretation for the most senior members of the exercise. Thankfully, exercise leadership was acutely aware of the importance of incorporating the JASDF into the exercise, so they were very supportive in allowing us to translate documents and give us time to provide adequate interpretation.”

Despite the challenges, the translation team helped facilitate one of the biggest benefits of the exercise, according to Kirksey, solidifying our connections with our Japanese allies.

“One of the main benefits is building relationships with our Allies,” he said. “When we tackle challenges or the mission as an integrated team, it helps us strengthen our bond, which was apparent by the end of the exercise.”

The success of Cope North is another example of how LEAP Scholars are an asset to missions around the globe.  

“I’m extremely happy to have had the opportunity to participate in Cope North 2024, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the LEAP program,” Newman said. “Sending LEAP Scholars to exercises like Cope North has a direct impact on strengthening our strategic cooperation with our allies and increasing the USAF’s combat readiness through lessons learned from our allies.”

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