Mission accomplished in any language

  • Published
  • By Wayne Amann
  • AFOSI Public Affairs

(Editor’s Note: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

– Nelson Mandela)


The global footprint of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations is made possible, in large measure, by the ability of its Special Agents to communicate in a myriad of foreign languages and adapt to their cultural surroundings.


An SA’s job is inherently challenging to begin with; language and cultural barriers only add to that challenge. That’s where the AFOSI Language Regional Expertise and Culture Program comes in.


The LREC Program is designed to support the AFOSI worldwide mission through the development of language skills, cross-cultural competence and regional expertise. Its mission is to develop, sustain and enhance a language skilled AFOSI force that enables a global presence with the necessary cultural knowledge to protect Air Force, Department of Defense and United States interests abroad.


“Without cultural intelligence and language capability, we lose an intrinsic connection with our international partners. said Ms. Randa Yassine, LREC Program Manager. “When we can ‘read the air’ and communicate effectively across borders we have a better opportunity to development necessary relationships.”


Language training opportunities depend upon an agent’s language skills, aptitude, availability, assigned position and leadership support. LREC trains through: In-residence courses via DoD programs and/or commercial vendors; local tutoring; virtual training; and language immersions.


Immersion was a productive method employed by a Special Agent in Germany who requested anonymity. His Advanced Language Intensive Training Event (LITE) earlier this year was designed to broaden his German vocabulary relating to legal jargon and complex terminology. For two weeks he worked with state- and district-level court judges observing legal proceedings, reading case files and conversing with judges in German about the differences between the German and American court systems.


He also attended a half-day professional seminar with several judges from the Justice Center in Kaiserslautern in which legal professionals and judges from the highest national court separate from constitutional matters, gave instruction on current legal issues in Germany ranging from appellate decisions to issues with technology, traffic and narcotics.


“The impact of this experience cannot be overstated and far exceeded my expectations,” the SA said. “I feel better equipped to handle complex discussions about investigations and legal proceedings and act as a more fluent liaison between AFOSI and our host nation counterparts. I briefed my fellow colleagues to help our communal understanding of the German legal system, because our work often intersects with it. What I learned from this immersion could not have been equally attained elsewhere.”


SA Cory Marion learned the fundamentals of French at the Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center. He later improved his proficiency through self-study and French immersion. As a member of the 25th Expeditionary Field Investigations Squadron, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, he’s employed his French speaking ability to support an array of missions across the African Continent and Europe.


While deployed to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, he enlisted a local teacher to help him learn the prominent regional language, Moore, to a proficiency level that rivaled his French capability. This ultimately aided his efforts to leverage professional connections during his deployment.


“Learning Moore demonstrated my interest in and appreciation of Burkinabe culture beyond what westerners typically display,” SA Marion said in his presentation to the 2018 LREC Symposium at the Air University, Maxwell AFB, Ala. “Strangers were more approachable and counterparts more obliging. I left with a deeper understanding of Mossi culture and authentic relationships resulting from a modest attempt to learn a regional language.”


SA Helen Marino, Commander, AFOSI Det. 523, Izmir, Turkey, grew up appreciating languages, coming from a multi-lingual family. She realized how critical language nuances and meanings were following 9/11. Looking for more linguistic and cultural context she learned Arabic and Farsi in college while taking Islamic Studies. SA Marino has leveraged her Arabic, Farsi, Italian, French and Spanish language skills, managing and participating in strategic engagements in AFOSI Regions 2 and 5.


She worked with counterparts across the Middle East, most notably during a month-long exchange program with the Jordanian Directorate of Military Security. While deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq she spoke Farsi and Arabic to partner forces. While assigned to the 25th EFIS, she presented seminars on counter-terrorism strategies and defense methodology to AFOSI partners in France, Italy, Burkina Faso, Niger, Tunisia and Uganda using local language and cultural familiarity to help pave the way.


“Communication is the foundation of what we do as Special Agents,” SA Marino said. “It’s imperative we demonstrate not only some level of linguistic capability, but also a willingness to exchange information with attention to local politics, history and culture. When I see my fellow OSI agents in overseas assignments leveraging their foreign language abilities, I’m proud my organization recognizes the importance of this skillset. I’m lucky to be afforded professional opportunities to use my foreign language knowledge and hope the relationships I’ve helped build will pay dividends toward common security goals.”


SA Abdalla Tawfik was born in Cairo, Egypt, and immigrated with his family to Wheaton, Ill., in 1992. During his career in the Navy he was assigned to Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, where he assisted the Naval Criminal Investigative Service with high level investigations. He then taught Arabic at the U.S. Naval Academy and became a full time Adjunct Professor in its Department of Language Studies. After separating from the Navy he became a contract linguist for AFOSI Det. 2411, Joint Base, Balad, Iraq.          


He became an AFOSI Special Agent in 2011 and is now assigned to Force Protection Detachment, Amman, Jordan, often in a liaison role with host nation security services to further OSI’s mission. His language skills in Arabic, Spanish, Italian, French and English enable him to effectively communicate command expectations, establish rapport and earn his international counterparts respect and admiration for learning their language and culture. He was the linguistic and cultural bridge at a Counter Extremism Conference in Rome involving Jordanian guests, Italian hosts and U.S. Federal agencies.


“No one can deny the importance of the human factor in the protection business,” SA Tawfik said. “Speaking to someone directly in their own language is infinitely more effective than speaking through an interpreter. People will always appreciate and respect you for taking the time to learn their language, and for recognizing the value of learning their culture.”


SA Paul Sorci leverages his long-term liaison via his ability to communicate in Japanese, coupled with his expertise in martial arts, tactical law enforcement and Japanese capabilities. This fosters lasting operational and strategic partnerships with his host-nation law enforcement and military counterparts while gaining unfettered access to vital information for Seat of Government Det. 622, Tokyo, and OSI.


As the first and only foreign martial arts instructor at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, SA Sorci leads the Jiu-Jitsu club, teaching control tactics, self-defense and competitive martial arts techniques. He did the same for 150 Japanese military Special Forces members during a seminar at Japanese Self Defense Forces Camp Asaka. He worked jointly with the FBI to increase Japanese tactical law enforcement capabilities by providing Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training to Special Assault/Special Investigations Team members Japan-wide. SA Sorci’s ability to directly eliminate language barriers allows OSI to lead the way in these unprecedented liaison opportunities.


“Here in Tokyo, being able to efficiently communicate with our Japanese law enforcement and military counterparts makes all the difference, especially in a culture that traditionally takes significantly longer than most to develop trust,” SA Sorci said. “A proficient speaker has more meaningful, productive and more detailed discussions during subject matter expert meetings, analytical exchanges, office calls, liaisons and more. Using an interpreter changes the dynamic and conversation pace significantly. However, proficient language capability, combined with other OSI skillsets brought to the table, opens opportunities for relationship enhancement.”


Det. 531, Aviano Air Base, Italy, like so many AFOSI locations, has a busy operations tempo, making it difficult to lose language-billeted agents for extended language maintenance courses. But, due to the joint efforts of AFOSI LREC Program Manager, Ms. Randa Yassine, Det. 531 and the Vicenza, Italy, language training detachment, a 4-5 day per quarter language course came to fruition at Aviano. The instructor teaches two course levels. SA’s in language designated positions train at the higher level with a cleared DLI instructor while other OSI members attend the lower level course as operations allow. This in-house immersion opens doors for AFOSI.


SA Erick Chavarria, 2nd Field Investigations Region, Operating Location-B, Davis Monthan AFB, Ariz., assisted fellow AFOSI agents at Joint Task Force Bravo, Soto Cano AB, Honduras, with an investigation into an alleged sexual assault occurring off base involving an Air Force subject and a Honduran national victim. Following initial coordination with JTFB leadership and the staff judge advocate, SA Chavarria and a fellow agent developed a way ahead to accomplish the remaining investigative steps which were predicated on their ability to converse in a foreign language.


Without their communication skills and cultural expertise they would not have been able to successfully coordinate with the Honduran National Police and the Honduran Prosecutor’s Office or interview the victim and some of the key witnesses. Not having the Spanish background would have complicated coordination with the local government and interaction with the host country according to their customs and courtesies. Employing an interpreter could have complicated matters since they translate phrases based on what makes sense to them.


“In my job it’s necessary to gain the trust of those we interact with, speaking their language allows me to understand their emotions as these can’t be translated with an interpreter,” SA Chavarria said. “Speaking a foreign language helps me grow professionally. I get to learn slangs or dialects unique to specific locations. Speaking another language is the best part of my job.

This is just a handful of the many instances throughout the agency showcasing how AFOSI is transforming language and cultural understanding from a limiting factor into a critical enabler to accomplish the mission.