By Seth Maggard, Air Force Culture and Language Center (photo source: AP)| 1 November 2016
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. – Major Sean Carlson poured a cup of tea and settled in at a tea garden, taking in the serene landscape that was all too familiar to him in Turkey. Suddenly, the piercing roar of six F-16 fighters ripped through the stagnant air like a disturbance on a calm water top. The rhythmic humming of voices crackled over air waves as local news reporters scrambled to report. Familiar with the local language and culture, Carlson leaned in to try and catch what was happening.
“I knew instantly that this was not a normal situation,” he said as he recollected the events of that evening.
He and his counterparts with the 1st Expeditionary Rescue Group were settling in after a day of operations supporting U.S. military with rescue flights in Syria and Iraq. Carlson was included in the operation as an Airman with a multitude of cultural knowledge and experience that created interoperability throughout their deployment. Back home, he is assigned to the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Gunter Annex as an Acquisitions Manager.
That evening proved to be unlike anything the service members had experienced before, though, as a portion of the Turkish military enacted a coup attempt to overthrow the government. The results of that evening are all too familiar now, but when Carlson and his counterparts were interrupted during their evening tea, there was no forewarning that could’ve set them up for what was going on outside of the small air base.
“As the linguist, I immediately thought to contact the 1ERQG deputy and notify him what I was hearing and seeing,” Carlson said, noticing that many of his counterparts, several American service members, were still within the confines of the Turkish air base but off the U.S. Air Force camp and needed to be recalled immediately in order to avoid being caught in the combat nearby. On Carlson’s word, the deputy was able to swiftly receive word of what was going on and safely recall all of his troops to the relative safety of the Turkish air base.
Carlson’s language and cultural knowledge were trained and sustained by his participation in the Language Enabled Airman Program. Since 2011, Carlson has participated in the program’s numerous online courses with eMentor, as well as special cultural immersion training opportunities with LEAP’s Language Intensive Training Events. These events took him to Turkey in 2015, where he formed partnerships and gained training with local Turkish military.
“I spent most of my childhood in Turkey, half of my family is from there, and I grew up speaking the language, so most of my training in LEAP were opportunities to maintain my language skills,” he remarked.
The LEAP program provided Carlson with language tutoring that was specific to his military proficiency, with a plan to span his career and inject opportunities for real-world training in country.
“I actually heard about LEAP from a friend who made it seem like the program was a perfect fit for someone with my skills, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of my training,” Carlson said.
Flash forward to 2016, Carlson was identified as the culturally proficient member that 1 ERQG needed to bring to Turkey in support of its rescue missions. On that night, Carlson’s language skills would be tested further than anyone had anticipated, but he was well-prepared. In the following hours after the fighters cut through the skies and alerted the start of the coup attempt, the acquisitions program manager was listening and interpreting local news stories for leadership and others that were filtering into the base after being recalled.
“I noticed that there was a difference in what was being reported on Turkish news, and what the American media was publishing,” Carlson said as he again recalled the events from the safety of a Maxwell AFB office. “The local media was publishing things like ‘This street has tanks on it and is blocked’ or ‘all helicopters are being grounded”
LEAP training led to a quality maintenance of his language skills and will continue to train and maintain him for inclusion into real-world events just like this one. There was no way of knowing what was going to happen when the LEAP program primed Maj Carlson, which is a testament to the quality of training and the seamless operations put forth through its stellar participants each day. Maj Carlson is a notch above many when considering his investment into the program and utilizing his skills on a whim like this in such dire situations.
“There was definitely a shift in operations after the coup attempt. Most of our previous military partnerships had been severed, and local police were guarding the base. Flights were grounded, and many services on the air base shut down,” Carlson said. His duty remained to bridge cultural gaps and interoperate with many of the individuals coming on base, but he adapted to the real-world changes.
He is not scheduled to return to Turkey anytime in the future, but definitely plans to continue maintaining his language skills for when the time comes again to identify a uniformed communicator to provide their skills for the sake of Airpower and emerge as a proficient asset from the local Language Regional Expertise and Culture community.