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

Bringing Heroes Home: LEAP Scholars Enhance DPAA Mission Success

  • Published
  • By James Brown, AFCLC Outreach Team

Suzanne Walker was born the day after her father’s aircraft was shot down over France during World War II. Her father, Army 2nd Lt. James Litherland III, was declared non-recoverable after multiple retrieval attempts at the crash site. Seventy-nine years later, due to the work of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), Litherland was returned to his daughter, and given a proper burial with full military honors in 2023.

The DPAA and the Air Force Culture and Language Center (AFCLC) are intertwined in the mission of bringing back every service member who became missing during their service in past conflicts, from countries around the world. AFCLC’s Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP) Scholars have supported POW/MIA missions since 2012, and the DPAA has utilized more than 60 LEAP Scholars since 2019.

LEAP Scholars bridge culture gaps for the DPAA teams, opening access and facilitating their mission.

“LEAP Scholars provide our missions with language expertise, as well as cultural expertise,” said U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Justin Heise of the DPAA. “Many of the LEAP Scholars we send to support missions, provide our host nations with a familiar face, and aid in finding common ground across cultural barriers. They become an integral part of the team, supporting our service members not only at work but during liberty, ensuring the team is comfortable and has a positive experience.”

According to Heise, LEAP Scholars are a constant source of personnel for DPAA missions. Utilizing its in-house database and training management system, the Language Enabled Development Resource, the AFCLC can respond quickly to mission requests.

“AFCLC and the LEAP Program are the largest supporters of DPAA short-term individual augmentee linguists,” he said. “We recently sent a request out for three applicants across all services on a very short-fuse, high-profile mission in which we had to move quickly to fill positions. Within three days we had more than 50 applicants from LEAP to screen, which really gave our Agency the opportunity to send the best possible representatives to help bring our fallen home.”

For LEAP Scholars there is a personal connection to seeing the DPAA follow through on the promise to recover missing U.S. service members, no matter how much time has passed.

“Our mission at DPAA is a different type of mission; it is the promise that we as a country make to our service men and women,” said Master Sgt. Bounthai Chanthala, a Lao LEAP Scholar with the 959th Surgical Operations Squadron. “That if you are in harm’s way and give the ultimate sacrifice, we as a country will do what we can do bring you home. ‘Never leave an Airman behind’ is in ‘The Airman’s Creed,’ and I get to keep this promise when I do these missions. Personally, I have been involved in about two or three repatriations that ultimately led to the identification of the service member, and we had the honor of bringing them home. This is a motivation that is so important that this is the only mission (outside of combat) that you can get a group of strangers from different services on a team and everyone, regardless of their job or background, does the job that needs to be done, no questions asked, no matter the conditions.”

Senior Master Sgt. Leander Townsend, a German LEAP Scholar with HQ Air Mobility Command agreed about the importance of DPAA missions and noted he was inspired to see the DPAA’s work first-hand.

“My experience with DPAA has not only been interesting, but meaningful and rewarding,” he said. “Seeing firsthand how DPAA tries everything they can to bring home fallen service members was incredible. The precise research and calculations to find the exact location are amazing. Assisting DPAA in its mission to locate missing service members has been a privilege. Through my role as a translator, we were able to connect the team with the local population. It was an honor to help the agency discover the remains of the fallen heroes and keep the team safe through communicating with various German entities, including, but not limited to, the local hospital and police department. This experience has further highlighted for me the immense capabilities of a joint U.S. military team and what we can accomplish with our allies.”

The leadership of both DPAA and the AFCLC agree the two organizations build synergy with one another.

“One of the highly dependent skillsets we need when we send teams on over the world, and we work in 45 countries, are linguists,” said Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Director Kelly McKeague. “It's also a skillset that transcends the people-to-people humanitarian effort that this is. We came to AFCLC several years ago, and said, you're training these men and women with cultural and language skills that nest nicely, in fact, almost create this synergy. And we would like to see if we can establish a relationship that's turned into a partnership. It's turned into a friendship. LEAP Scholars have helped us inordinately in countries as far-flung as Thailand, Germany, France, and Bosnia.”

AFCLC Director Howard Ward echoed McKeague, tying the strong partnership between AFCLC and the DPAA to the personal nature of the mission.

“We treasure the relationship with DPAA because it connects us to a very important line in our Airman’s Creed…‘I will never leave an Airman behind’,” he said. “One of the biggest factors in DPAA mission success is connecting with the local population that may have been eyewitnesses, remember locations, heard a story, or have some knowledge of what happened to an unaccounted-for service member. If we bridge the gap with the local population, we increase the odds of recovery and bring closure to a family’s loss. As Airmen, this isn’t an ordinary mission…it’s personal…and we take great pride in supporting the phenomenal team at DPAA.”

Because of how well the two organizations work together, McKeague envisions the partnership between DPAA and AFCLC lasting into the future.

“With 38,000 missing service members that we estimate to be recoverable in 45 countries, linguists are the high-demand low-density skillset we're often in need of, and that's why we're going to continue to turn to AFCLC to help us with that,” he said.

For more information about DPAA, its mission, and stories of repatriated soldiers, visit

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