Cope North 17
Exercise Cope North 17 participants on the Andersen Air Force Base, Guam flightline Feb. 15, 2017. The exercise includes 22 total flying units and more than 1,700 personnel from three countries and continues the growth of strong, interoperable relationships within the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region through integration of airborne and land-based command and control assets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Keith James)

Story by Jodi L. Jordan | AFCLC

When the commander of one of the world’s largest air power exercises needed a Japanese language expert recently, and needed one fast, a Language Enabled Airman Program participant was just the guy to answer the call.

Capt. James Guthrie is an expert Japanese language speaker, due in part to the continuing language skill development LEAP provides. LEAP is a career-spanning program operated by the Air Force Culture and Language Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. LEAP sustains, enhances and helps the Air Force 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.

As one of those cross-culturally competent leaders, Guthrie is assigned as an exchange officer with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, where he works with the JASDF’s maintenance officer school. Guthrie got the notice that he’d be helping advance U.S./JASDF relations outside of the school house only a week before Exercise Cope North 17, a trilateral exercise featuring more than 2,700 people and 100 aircraft, kicked off.

The exercise is one of the largest exercises in the Pacific region, and this year, the JASDF, Royal Australian Air Force, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy spent three weeks at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, for the 88th iteration of the exercise. In early February, Col. Juris Jansons, U.S. Air Force Cope North 17 exercise director, sent a letter to the commander of Guthrie’s Japanese organization, requesting Guthrie’s help during the event. Guthrie’s JASDF commander was supportive of the opportunity, recognizing the importance of reliable interpretation and cultural knowledge.

Guthrie set off for Guam, not knowing exactly what his duties would entail, but trusting that the knowledge and continuing language experienced he’d received as a LEAP participant for seven years would serve him well.

Guthrie said his experience started with one of the most intense language assignments he’d ever received. At the opening meeting for the exercise, Guthrie was in attendance to listen – or so he thought.

“So we were at the in-brief. Each nation’s force has a lead, and the JASDF commander got up with his interpreter. He gave his speech in Japanese, with but his interpreter spoke English, of course,” Guthrie said. “So he sat down, and then the Air Force commander looks at me. He gives a nod, and I’m like, ‘Well, I guess we’re doing this.”

Guthrie then had the challenge of interpreting “cold,” in front of about 500 of his colleagues, including the most senior members in attendance at the exercise. His performance earned him trust, respect and notoriety. “For the rest of the exercise, people I didn’t even realize were in the room were coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, I heard you at the in-brief – good job,’” he said.

Throughout the exercise, Guthrie was a key player, as he was the only American interpreter in attendance. He said JASDF participants generally excelled in their occupational language knowledge – the things they need to understand to work seamlessly with the U.S. in air operations. Some of Guthrie’s most important work was during the times when things were more conversational, he said. “They are great at knowing the stuff they have to say in the cockpit,” Guthrie said. “It’s the day-to-day conversations that can be challenging.” Those kinds of interactions and conversations are a key part of partnership and trust-building, one of Guthrie’s most important jobs.

“It’s good to have a program like LEAP, because you maintain your language and cultural skills, and that allows us can bridge the gaps,” Guthrie said. “You can’t always count on your allies to speak perfect English. LEAP really helps out.”

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 , e-mail or call 334-953-7729.