Story by Jodi Jordan, AFCLC | 6 June 2017
Maxwell AFB, Alabama – Take a typical personnel specialist and put him or her to work with a team of civil engineers repairing airfields, and you could expect some challenges. Now imagine that the civil engineers speak two different languages, and that the personnel specialist’s job is to make sure everyone understands each other.
This was the situation Staff Sgt. Chol Yang, a participant in the Language Enabled Airman Program, found himself in during a recent exercise at Daegu Air Base, South Korea.
LEAP is a career-spanning program to sustain, enhance and use the existing language skills of Airmen. The objective of LEAP is to develop cross-culturally competent leaders across all Air Force specialties with working-level foreign language proficiency. Yang, who immigrated with his family to the United States from Korea in 2001, is currently serving his second tour at Osan Air Base, South Korea. He joined LEAP in 2014, but his participating in the Combined Airfield Damage Repair exercise in April was the first time he’d used his language skills in a real-world Air Force capacity.
The annual exercise ensures seamless interoperability between the U.S. and ROK while repairing airfield damage and improves their capability to work together at a moment’s notice. A critical piece of the exercise is communication – and that’s where Yang’s expertise came in. The staff sergeant has a Special Experience Identifier in his own personnel records, and the Pacific Air Force team used that information to invite him to volunteer to participate in the exercise.
Yang spent about a week working “out in the field,” helping the U.S. and Korean forces in the austere conditions associated with airfield repair.
“I’m not a civil engineer, so a lot of the terms and the equipment were new to me,” Yang said. “So it was a lot of learning the terminology, and trying to find the right way to communicate it in layman’s terms. It was a challenge, but I was able to convey the meaning.”
The staff sergeant now rattles off acronyms like “EALS” (Emergency Airfield Lighting System) and “MAAS” (Mobile Airfield Arresting System) with ease – something he says was absolutely not in his skillset or vocabulary before the exercise. But the real value of the LEAP program isn’t to him personally, he said – it’s to the U.S. military.
“The U.S. military is present all over the world – and not everybody speaks English,” Yang said. “If an issue arises, if one of our allies needs help, having Airmen who can speak the language, understand the culture and share the meaning of the message makes us able to make better decisions. We’re really the ‘bridge’ that can make it work.”
LEAP is operated by the Air Force Culture and Language Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. For more information on LEAP or the AFCLC, see http://culture.af.mil/ , e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 334-953-7729.