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Squadron commanders: keys to building alliances through LEAP

1st Lt. Lorrayne Kealty, 14th Air Support Operations Squadron, Pope Army Air Field, N.C., speaks with Central and South American air force leaders at the Conference of American Air Chiefs in Panama in June 2019. As a Language Enabled Airman Program scholar, Kealty presented at the conference at the encouragement of her squadron commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Sweeny. Conference attendees were pleasantly surprised by Kealty’s mastery of their native language, choosing to listen to her in person instead of relying on interpreters speaking through their earpieces. (Courtesy photo)

1st Lt. Lorrayne Kealty, 14th Air Support Operations Squadron, Pope Army Air Field, N.C., speaks with Central and South American air force leaders at the Conference of American Air Chiefs in Panama in June 2019. As a Language Enabled Airman Program scholar, Kealty presented at the conference at the encouragement of her squadron commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Sweeny. Conference attendees were pleasantly surprised by Kealty’s mastery of their native language, choosing to listen to her in person instead of relying on interpreters speaking through their earpieces. (Courtesy photo)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --

There’s an old saying that goes like this: “If you ever see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know it had some help getting there.”

In the Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Language Enabled Airman Program, the 3,002 scholars currently in the program are utilizing this training to build and strengthen alliances in 96 languages worldwide. The number of scholars will grow following the release of the 2019 active duty selection board.

However, squadron commanders are the key enablers who make the scholars’ efforts possible by investing in their deliberate language development. While accomplishing their missions, the commanders also are winning the future by strengthening partnerships today through these scholars.

Without debate, squadron commanders are the unsung heroes of LEAP. In the language program’s learning model, all educational efforts happen at a time that works for both the scholar and their commanders. With constant demands upon squadrons to accomplish missions and the demands of Airmen in their professional and personal lives, balancing the present and the future is no easy task. 

1st Lt. Lorrayne Kealty and her squadron commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Sweeney, 14th Air Support Operations Squadron, Pope Army Air Field, North Carolina, found out firsthand how valuable readily available language skills could be in a quickly changing environment.

Kealty applied for and was accepted into LEAP in 2017. With support from her commander, she completed one eMentor online course and one 28-day overseas immersion, which raised her language skills to a level of functional fluency.

Recently, the 14th ASOS supported a mission that required a technical briefing on a data system. The audience was most of the air service chiefs from Central and South America and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. Sweeney knew that Kealty was a scholar in LEAP, and because he had invested in her deliberate development, Sweeney passed on the options of hiring a contracted interpreter or allowing the onsite personnel to interpret. Sweeney chose his own Airman to not only deliver the briefing, but deliver it in Spanish.

“I couldn’t think of a better way for the 14th ASOS to connect with our partners than to have one of our own connecting and speaking to them in their own language,” Sweeney said.

Kealty took the stage for the briefing, and when she started speaking their native language, all of the partner nations’ air chiefs took out their ear pieces and instantly connected to an American Airman talking about the application of airpower.

It was this moment when Sweeney saw return on investment.

“I knew we had made the right decision,” he said.

The ability to connect through the culture and language of key partner nations took this event to a level beyond informative. Kealty made a moment where all in attendance knew they were valued because the Air Force had invested in Airmen that could operate with them seamlessly in their own culture and language.     

Goldfein took to his own Facebook account to commend Kealty and the 14th ASOS. He posted:

“Infinitely shareable, fully exportable — this is how these two sharp Airmen described the Airborne Extensible Relay Over-Horizon Network, or AERONet, during their live demo at CONJEFAMER.

Sweeney’s investments with LEAP scholars did not start or stop there. They also paid dividends with Staff Sgt. Khalil Chamma, who entered LEAP in 2014. Through the program’s curriculum, and a lot of effort on his own time, he has honed his skills in the Arabic language and culture to a high level. Sweeney was able to leverage those skills during intense training workups prior to deployment and also during a security cooperation event with special operators from Egypt.

“One of the chief of staff of the Air Force’s priorities is strengthening alliances. This is one of our key missions in ASOS, so anything we can do, even at the squadron level, helps support that priority,” Sweeney said.

Chamma’s ability to operate seamlessly with his Egyptian counterparts contributed to developing a high level of interoperability when the U.S. and Egypt were working together on areas of common interest. 

“We spend a lot of time doing this with the Army in English, so it only makes sense that we have the capability to do this with allied and coalition partners in foreign languages” Sweeney added.

Sweeney encourages other squadron commanders to invest in the deliberate development of their Airmen enrolled in LEAP.

“It’s important to recognize your willing and able Airmen,” he said. “Fight for them to develop their skills, and put them in opportunities to do great things for the Air Force. If you develop the right folks for the right reasons, they will perform magnificently.”

Through 1,056 eMentor courses, 570 overseas immersions and 92 opportunities for applied learning in fiscal year 2019, AFCLC’s staff has managed training for LEAP scholars to deservedly be the stars of the show. However, there wouldn’t be a show without supervisors and commanders who are visionary enough, like Sweeney, to see how investment today can provide manifold returns tomorrow.

To learn more about LEAP, visit www.airuniversity.af.edu/AFCLC/Language-Studies/