Language-Enabled Airmen bridge cultures, elevate missions

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Leonid Soubbotine
  • Air Force Culture and Language Center Public Affairs

In the modern interconnected world of cyberspace and AI, it might seem like everything can be done with a click of a button. Yet when faced with the realities of Agile Combat Employment and collaboration with global partners or adversaries in distant and austere locations, the significance of swift communication and cultural understanding cannot be overstated.

That’s where Language Enabled Airmen Program scholars come into play.

LEAP capitalizes on the existing linguistic expertise within the U.S. Air Force, transforming language skills into active tools for communication, diplomacy and cultural understanding.

“The U.S. being such a melting pot, we all have diverse backgrounds, and there are people that already speak another language to varying degrees of it,” said 1st Lt. Brian Woo, 23rd Comptroller Squadron financial analysis flight commander, who is fluent in Chinese-Cantonese. “LEAP is an excellent opportunity to leverage and train what somebody already has, as opposed to making a riskier investment in someone who doesn't have any language background whatsoever.”

Expanding and enhancing the capabilities of Airmen is crucial to the success of the Air Force mission. Developing language proficiency and understanding cultural nuances takes time and effort, which can span years, something that LEAP scholars have a significant advantage in.

“In a non-English speaking environment, it’s extremely advantageous to have a trusted translator that can advance our mission and intent while rapidly building relationships with the local nationals,” Woo said.

The LEAP program and its scholars enable cross-cultural and linguistic communication. The Air Force Culture and Language Center managed program has been proven effective in many deployed and TDY locations.

For example, the 23rd Wing deployed to the Dominican Republic in February 2023, and almost 50 aircrew were held up at customs before the ACE exercise Forward Tiger could even begin. Akin to restoring power with a generator after a hurricane, overcoming the language barrier illuminated what could have been a challenging situation.

“There was a language barrier, and nobody spoke Spanish,” said Tech. Sgt. Giancarlo Cintron, 23rd Wing Religious Affairs NCOIC. “I had to intervene and talk to customs, so all those passports could get processed. I think being from Puerto Rico, it definitely helped that Dominicans are like our neighbors, and it translated into them saying, ‘Whatever you need, we are here for you.’”

Employing his language skills and being a LEAP scholar has been an important part of Cintron’s career. He played a crucial role during that exercise by interpreting between senior enlisted leaders of the Dominican Armed Forces and the 12th AF and 23rd Wing Command Chiefs. He further assisted by narrating the A-10 demonstration in Spanish to an audience of 7,000 spectators during the Dominican Republic Air Force’s 75th birthday air show.

“LEAP has impacted my career enormously,” Cintron said. “First of all, I received a foreign language proficiency bonus. Not only that, I've been able to mentor and brief more than 300 Air Force and ROTC cadets on the program and the career opportunities that it offers.”

As the Air Force, Department of Defense, and the U.S. continue to collaborate with partner nations worldwide in these uncertain times, language and cultural knowledge remain relevant. Woo and Cintron both encourage anyone with any level of foreign language experience to look into applying for LEAP.

“Joining LEAP can be a transformative and enriching experience,” Cintron said. “The dedication to mastering languages and understanding diverse cultures contributes to the Air Force’s readiness and effectiveness on the global stage.”