By Brandon Bridges, Air Force Culture and Language Center
/ Published May 15, 2015
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- A group of participants from the Air Force's Language Enabled Airman Program enjoyed a rare opportunity April 29, 2015, to provide direct support for a visit by senior international leaders to Air University.
As part of a reciprocal arrangement with the Air War College, Air University hosted a delegation of Chinese officers from the People's Liberation Army Air Force Command College. The four participants from LEAP joined the group of Air University personnel escorting the delegation around Maxwell, providing language and translation support along the way.
Purpose and Scope
The delegation visiting AU consisted of the deputy commandant of the PLAAF Command College and a mix of instructors and students, who were here to learn about how the Air Force trains its leaders and thinkers.
The LEAP participants were Capt. Thomas Chiasson and Capt. Kevin Chao, both of Los Angeles AFB; Capt. Timmy Wang, of Creech AFB, Nevada; and Capt. Shaoping Mo, of Lackland AFB, Texas.
"Events like this serve as a reminder that it's not just about us as Americans," said Lt. Col. Joseph Thomas IV, Air University protocol officer. "If we're going to succeed as a global influencer, then we have to show awareness of the cultures of those we respect and work with. Having people like our LEAP participants along who not only speak the language, but understand the culture, demonstrate that we truly value diversity and are serious about cooperating with our global community."
Involvement by LEAP
Upon being contacted by the LEAP office at the Air Force Culture and Language here, Chao was quick to volunteer. A participant of LEAP since 2011, Chao had been abroad on Language Intensive Training Events twice--once to Beijing, and once to Taiwan--but had rarely had opportunity at home to put his language skills to use.
"My trip to Taiwan made me realize how important it is for an officer to be bilingual, to serve as that bridge between our country and our partners," said Chao.
Prior to joining LEAP, Chao saw it primarily as an opportunity to study Chinese and maintain his proficiency. In his job as a developmental engineer, he says, such opportunities are rare.
"Little did I know that not only does it focus on language, but also culture and provided enormous opportunities to utilize my language skills to support the actual mission," he said.
The selection of LEAP members to support the Chinese delegation reflects a key objective of the program: to create a pool of ready and willing Airmen with a variety of Air Force specialty codes to provide language support as needed.
"The advantage of having a toolbox of cross-culturally competent Airmen is that you're prepared no matter what situation comes up," said Chiasson, a developmental engineer and whose participation in LEAP began in 2010.
"I was excited to take part in such an important event," said Wang, a flight officer who joined LEAP in 2010. "LEAP is great since it brings together people from all backgrounds. Most of us don't get to use our language skills on the job. Part of the excitement of coming here is to use our language skills."
For Mo, a LEAP member since 2011 and a pharmacist, participating in the Chinese visit represented a chance to make use of her native language proficiency. A native of China, she speaks seven different dialects of the language: Cantanese, Mandarin, Hakka, Chaozhaou, Fanghai, and Hunan, along with Kaijian, the dialect spoken in her native village.
"I'm just as excited," she said.
A Cross-Cultural Success
When the delegation first arrived, they were greeted by heavy rain. The moment, however, provided the first of what would be many opportunities for a cultural exchange.
"To the Chinese, rain symbolizes washing away dust, and bringing good luck," explained Mo. "It was perfect timing."
More importantly than the weather, according to Chao, was the welcoming climate that was established early on.
Throughout the visit, the LEAP participants engaged the Chinese officers in side conversations, and the on-the-spot feedback they received was consistently positive.
"They liked that LEAP was supporting the visit," said Wang. "The last time we did this there was just one translator for the entire group. This time, we only had five to six people per LEAP participant."
"I'd never met a PLAAF officer, so it was eye opening to sit down and have a conversation about our military life," said Chao. "Engagements and interactions like this strengthen our trust and boost our understanding of each other, and all this together will help eliminate misunderstandings and miscommunications."
"If you want to have global-reaching power," added Wang, "then you need to develop global language and culture understanding. And that's what LEAP does."
According to Col. Mark Swentkoske, the U.S. Air Attaché at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, the Chinese delegation lauded the AU stop as "the best" for support and information exchange, and Air University was quick to offer praise to LEAP for helping make that happen.
"Their professionalism and participation were key in making this visit a success," said Thomas. "Their unique skill set and expertise enabled AU and PLAAF to share ideas and information in a way that would not have been possible without their support. In addition, they displayed the highest level of professionalism and portrayed Air Force captains as competent and effective, further demonstrating the impact of professional education and formal training."