Story by Ms. Jodi Jordan | AFCLC
AIR FORCE CULTURE AND LANGUAGE CENTER — More than 8,000 miles separate Manila, Philippines and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The psychic distance between the two oceanfront cities is immeasurable. One Air Force officer has made this journey, leaving Manila as a child, and currently stationed in the 33d Fighter Wing as a Cyberspace Officer. Twenty-seven years later, he is now set to return to his native country, where he will be an integral part of building and sustaining security cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippine military.
Maj. Rommel O. Villanueva, also known as Vill, is a participant in the Language Enabled Airman Program. LEAP is a career-spanning program operated by the Air Force Culture and Language Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, AL. LEAP sustains, enhances and helps the Air Force use the existing language skills of Airmen. Vill is also a newly-selected Foreign Area Officer, and he will be assuming a post in Manila early next year. The FAO program is a highly-selective opportunity for mid-career officers that is designed to create true regional experts with professional language skills.
The path from Manila and back again wasn’t straight-forward for Vill, though. He recalled growing up in the city, the son of a Philippine Marine officer. “My dad was the Drum Major of the Philippine Marines Drum and Bugle Corps and had served for 26 years. It was the foremost military marching band and they were always part of a number of high-profile events, including U.S. military ceremonies.”
It was at a July 4th ceremony at the U.S Embassy that he got a glimpse of the American dream. “About 30 years ago, there’s the black iron gates to see the inside of the embassy. And right outside the gates, there were just weeds – not grass – and trash everywhere. On the inside of those black iron gates, it was this manicured, beautiful green lawn. Everything just looked pristine. And the food – there was just all these hotdogs and soft drinks, just out on the tables, to serve yourself as you wanted. It didn’t even seem real – as if I was in a different world – at least until we left the embassy compound.”
Fast forward to 1991, the Villanueva family immigrated to the United States. Unsure of his next steps, the 18-year-old worked in a Japanese manufacturing company, where he met a colleague who had just separated from the U.S. Air Force. Although his Dad’s admiration for the U.S. Marine Corps had made him consider being a Marine, the co-worker enlightened Vill to “go blue” instead. Vill, although not yet an American citizen, enlisted in the United States Air Force in March 1996.
He excelled during his first enlistment, earning his American citizenship and learning how to be an Airman. But Vill always had his sights on his dream to be a commissioned officer. In 2002, he left active duty to earn his undergraduate degree and pursue an officer’s commission through the Reserve Officer Training Corps. In 2005, he fulfilled the dream. Throughout his time in the Air Force, Vill always kept his skills sharp in his native tongue of Tagalog, and he longed for ways to put those skills to use to enable the Air Force missions. “I tried seeking opportunities through exercises and deployments, but there was really no formal structure in place to make it happen. I even sought assignments in the Pacific area, so I would be in place and more easily able to volunteer, but the Air Force assignment system is not designed to create those opportunities.”
Vill found a path when he learned about LEAP. The objective of LEAP is to develop cross-culturally competent leaders across all Air Force specialties with working-level foreign language proficiency. The program accepts applications from Airmen who already have some foreign language and culture abilities and motivation – and Vill fit the bill. He was accepted into the program in 2011.
“I am driven to contribute my innate language and cultural skills for the Air Force,” Vill said. “I want to make a difference in every opportunity the Air Force has provided me, regardless of the task– and to contribute to building and sustaining partnerships between my home country and the country I was born into.”
Through LEAP, Vill honed his language skills, completing hours of online training and participating in Language Intensive Training Events (LITE). In Spring of 2016, Vill completed an Advanced LITE in Manila. While on this TDY, Vill also pinned-on the rank of Major and held the ceremony in the historic U.S. Embassy Ballroom, attended by family and friends who have never set foot inside the U.S. Embassy and have witnessed a U.S. military promotion ceremony for the first time.
The Air Force Culture and Language Center has reshaped FAO development by providing language and cultural development opportunities early in officers’ careers. Once LEAP participants have the prerequisite time in service for potential vectoring by their career field developmental teams to the FAO track, many have much of the language and regional experience necessary for direct utilization in an international affairs billet. Such was the case with Vill, who required only a few months additional time in region for FAO certification. Using LEAP to prepare future FAO officers is already saving the Air Force time, money and manpower – while producing highly skilled FAOs.
Vill is one of the first officers who will be directly utilized as a FAO due in large part to language training and regional experiences gained through LEAP, and he’s also the first in line to praise the process. “People like me – we are willing to execute and contribute our innate skillsets. We can fill those gaps. We just needed a way and an opportunity. This is a great way to capitalize what the Air Force already has across the command, be better stewards of our resources and cut costs. I’ve come a long way in seeking an opportunity that never existed. And now … it’s here. And I’m so blessed to take it on!”