Exchange officer learns to use heart, mind to win friendships abroad

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Alexander W. Riedel
  • Air Force News Service
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

When then-Capt. Paul Morris stepped off the aircraft in Lima, Peru, to report for his first assignment as a foreign exchange officer, he faced three years away from family and friends in an unfamiliar country.

Ahead lay uncertainty, accompanied by the tempting sense of adventure and intrigue of the unknown.

“Peru was a country whose people and story were as rich as the Amazon basin yet as unimaginable as the ancient Inca themselves,” he said. “My friends and family asked me at which U.S. base I was going to be stationed down there and I’d tell them there wasn’t one.”

Morris first arrived in Lima in June 2010 -- right in the middle of the country’s winter. The reversal of seasons would become symbolic of the differences in life and people he encountered once he stepped off the plane.

In contrast to the United States, much of Peru is covered with rural rainforest and approximately 77 percent of its population crowds into the urban centers. The capital city of Lima itself has a growing population of nearly 9 million people – almost as many as Morris’ home state of Georgia.

“Just being among millions of people was a shock,” he said. “It was my first time in country and my first time trying to survive with a foreign language -- without the aid of interpreters or U.S. base and force support structure.”

Morris had previously served a year as an air adviser with the Afghan air corps and had relied upon interpreter support for communication and the various allied and U.S. bases as cultural refuges. Peru offered no such aides.

The aim of the little-known international exchange program is to promote and enhance cooperation through mutual understanding of doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures for both militaries. However, Morris put his task more simply: to build trust and friendships for the future.

“Our goal (as exchange officers) is to build trust with our partner nations and to let them know what we’re all about,” he continued. “It’s an opportunity to display our core values, not as a cliché or written statement, but what it really means to work side by side with other Airmen and demonstrate that this is what makes our people effective -- this is what makes everything work. Our core values are a reflection of our moral foundation and instrumental in building trust with others.”

Considered one of the world’s largest growing economies according to World Bank data, Peru is making great strides in development, however, the economic transition has revealed a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots, Morris said.

“There is a different feel to life,” he said. “Going to work, you see the true meaning of financial challenges in the developing countries. There was a different balance between security and liberty, for example. Smash and grab tactics were common with vehicles in the street, privately-contracted police protected higher-end residences and homes towards the center of the city were built as individual fortresses. However, homes in the outskirts of Lima lacked even the most basic of services, with single moms forced to leave their children unattended in the slums to go earn a living.”

A logistics expert by trade, Morris started his tour of duty at the headquarters of the Peruvian air force, where he worked in foreign aircraft and support acquisitions. Later, he moved to the flightline to gain experience as an operations officer with the 808th Supply Squadron, supporting fixed-wing cargo transportation aircraft such as the L-100 Hercules, a civilian version of the U.S.’ C-130, the Russian Antonov An-32B and the Peru’s presidential fleet.

During his stay, Morris was given security-restricted housing according to his rank and position. But while embassy personnel mostly interact with high-level officials within the confines of U.S. administration offices, Morris was able to connect with his peers of the “Fuerza Aérea” and civilians alike at their workplace, immersing himself daily in the abundant culture around him.

“It was a big honor to represent our country to a foreign nation,” Morris said. “As part of the exchange, we are the first uniformed members many foreign nationals get to interact with on a daily basis. Initially, I was confused for a Russian officer by some at the airfield.”

Whether trying to improve aircraft safety procedures or flying to the edge of civilization at remote border bases in the Amazonian jungle -- technological, cultural and language differences made for challenging work days.

The biggest hurdle Morris noted was a strict, traditional adherence to military hierarchy within the local force.

“Morning formations were unique in that they separated the officers from the enlisted, regardless of squadron,” he recalled. “Further, separate dining facilities existed for the officer and enlisted corps. The two entities rarely mixed.”

To the young captain, it seemed officers were central figures in both control and execution of the mission— leaving enlisted troops with diminished roles.

“As (U.S.) Airmen, we are trained to empower subordinates with decision-making at the lowest levels and communicate up,” Morris said. “You need the feedback from your Airmen -- because otherwise, we’ll miss something.”

To help communication, Morris connected with his Peruvian exchange counterpart, Maj. Jesus Saez of the Peruvian air force, who is currently the commander of the Materiel Management flight with the 19th Logistics Readiness Squadron, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.

“The problem is that Information doesn’t flow as fast in Peru,” Saez explained. “Emails, for example, are not considered official communication and require real paperwork instead. In Peru, we use more paperwork and face-to-face communication, which takes more time.”

Armed with a better cultural understanding, Morris attempted to break down the top-to-bottom hierarchy to build more of a two-way communication system. To do this, the captain led by example and connected with the Peruvian airmen around him. His team soon began sharing their successes and challenges with him, enabling Morris to relay concerns to decision makers.

Even though Morris encouraged and demonstrated the advantages of bottom-up communication, Peru’s airmen had their own lessons to teach. Morris said he was surprised by the Peruvians’ welcoming mentality and uncanny openness about personal issues and beliefs.

“It is not uncommon to serve an entire tour with U.S. Airmen without knowing the source of their moral foundation due to our domestic political sensitivities,” Morris said. “We generally stick with our core values and press forth. However, the professionals of the Peruvian air force … inquired into them to get to know me.

“For example, one of my commanders shared his belief that the current narratives and challenges of both of our countries can be best understood through the sharp distinction of our respective foundations of Spanish conquerors versus European missionaries escaping religious persecution. That perspective really helped me grasp greater situational awareness of South America as a whole.”

Leaving behind some of his cultural inhibitions, he said he learned to open up personally to those around him – eventually overcoming his “closed heart.”

“In the U.S. we have a lot of folks with open minds, but maybe not an open heart,” Morris said. “We tend to focus on the task more than on developing relationships and want to tolerate rather than understand. But who wants to be ‘tolerated?’

“Having an open heart really sets the divide between success and failure when it comes to understanding other people,” Morris continued. “It’s not about academic debate or proving who is right or wrong. It comes down to empathy. But having an open heart is a lot harder for folks, because it requires true understanding of yourself and what you hold to be true before you can understand someone else.”

On the other end of the exchange, Saez said this approach to personal connection seems to be missing in the U.S.

“Here, everybody communicates and does what their computer tells them, making the personal interaction with the team work cold and empty, ” he said. “Perhaps the U.S. Air Force has to become more human. There could be more interaction between people. I think a message can be transmitted more accurately that way and Airmen can feel what their supervisors feel and expect. It’s about taking better care of each other, which can have a real impact on the mission.”

Saez said he took away his own leadership lessons. Reflecting Morris’ observations that the young Peruvian air forces have a need for empowerment, Saez said one of the things he will be bringing home is the need to let his airmen take charge of their mission and participate in the decision-making process.

“The difference is that, in the states, the system gives more empowerment to the enlisted personnel,” he said. “In Peru, as a developing country, the system requires that officers to be in charge of everything. I will take this with me and make less of a difference between the enlisted and officers in the future, in order to give more empowerment to the enlisted folks. All of us are on the same team and head toward the same ends.”

With cultural differences in mind and an enriched outlook, both officers were able to realize the positive impacts of the exchange program.

“The exchange program is very beneficial for Peru,” Saez said. “The individual airmen can see how worldwide air operations, along with the logistics support are conducted and how a very big Air Force works and deploys. Our air operations overseas are not as numerous and we do not have air bases bed down in other countries. Moreover; here at Little Rock (AFB), in one base, there are almost as many people as in the entire Peruvian air force. That makes a difference.”

Having gained insights from Peru’s smaller force, Morris’ efforts and dedication paid off in more ways than he expected when he was recently awarded the Peruvian air forces Medal of Merit at the embassy of Peru in Washington, D.C., marking the first time an officer in the program received the country’s award.

“Receiving the award was very meaningful to me,” he said. “When I look at the medal of merit, it represents a lot of people to me. It represents shared experiences and the hard work of a lot of folks and the friendships I made down there and I still continue to have. It was a huge honor.”

Besides creating lasting friendships with his fellow Airmen, Morris was able to create unexpected friendships outside of the office during his ventures beyond the military installation, where he experienced the culture and life of Lima and tried to make a positive impact by volunteering to help those in need. He was unofficially adopted by a loving Peruvian family whose mother keeps a picture of him alongside her other 5 children, three of whom are currently serving as officers in the Peruvian air force.

It was also in Peru where Morris met his fiancée Sarah Rebeca Vieira de Azevedo Ribeiro, a volunteer coordinator from Brazil, who was leading a group of American and Peruvians to help people in need. Sarah would make trips to the most impoverished areas of Lima caring for the spiritual and educational needs of countless children. Meeting her in church one day and getting to know her over the following months, Morris said he knew he found the woman he would one day marry.

“Seeing how she interacted with people, her heart, I knew she was the one for me,” Morris recalled. “She traveled to areas nobody else would go into, using transportation methods I was prohibited from taking. Her passion for the people, her love for them, it really rubbed off on me. It helped me understand the Peruvian air force, the context of the people and where they come from. It all starts with love. ”

After three years away from friends and family, Morris has returned to his stateside unit and pinned on a new rank of major -- with new friends, a new love and an even bigger Air Force family. He is set to take Sarah’s hand in marriage this summer where his journey began at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“The opportunity to use the profession of arms as a common denominator to develop life-long relationships and represent our core values is the best way to develop genuine friendships with other partner nations,” he continued. “A state can develop a policy -- but it is individuals that build or destroy trust.”