Nellis Airman ‘LEAPs’ into language program

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Mikaley Kline
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
She speaks Russian, Bulgarian and English while possessing master's degrees in economics, law, business administration as well as international relations. She's worked as a teacher and a border patrol agent at one of the busiest checkpoints in Bulgaria before immigrating to the United States to eventually begin a career as an American Airman.

Capt. Reni Angelova, 99th Medical Group practice manager, stumbled upon the Language Enabled Airman Program when she went in to take an annual test to maintain her foreign language proficiency.

"I speak few languages and had to go in because I was due for (Defense Language Proficiency Testing) testing," said Angelova. "I was sitting in the waiting area when someone asked whether I was there to test for LEAP. I turned around and asked "What is LEAP?"

LEAP is managed by the Air Force Culture and Language Center to help sustain, enhance and utilize the existing language and talent skills possessed by Airmen. The goal of LEAP is to develop a group of Airmen with different specialties and careers who have the ability to communicate in one or more foreign languages.

"The idea is to help maintain language skills and refresh them every so often so that you are up to date with changes in the language and culture," said Angelova. "The mission allows you to improve your cultural awareness, along with your language skills to be ready to support our worldwide operations."

Upon learning of the LEAP opportunity, Angelova researched the program and decided to apply since the next board was around the corner.

"I asked permission from my squadron commander, Lt. Col. Coleman, and he said 'Absolutely Yes,' said Angelova. "The board requires submission of your last three (Officer Performance Reports), along with an endorsement from the squadron commander. The board selection process takes into consideration your language skill set, as well as your overall performance as an Airman. Few months later, my squadron commander surprised me with the great news; I was selected for the LEAP program."

To help maintain language skills, participants go through two phases; phase I is an online class and phase II is a Language Intensive Training Event. The LITE includes a three to four week TDY in the country where the language is spoken in a natural environment, with opportunities to take a class in a local school, teach, involve in a humanitarian mission, or support U.S Embassy mission - all geared towards refreshing the language skills and cultural awareness.  

"I thought about teaching or taking a class but I have already done both" said Angelova. "I decided to call the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria and see if they'd like a month of linguist support under LEAP. The answer was 'Yes, by all means - we can always use additional support.'"

Upon arrival in Bulgaria, Angelova was assigned to the Office of Defense Coordination which reports to U.S. Military Attaché in Bulgaria. 

"I had the opportunity to work with the U.S. Army in support the largest NATO Airdrop operation 'Swift Response' since the end of the Cold War" said Angelova. "The Airdrop mission included several nations and was conducted simultaneously on the territory of few NATO member countries.

"During my last TDY week I was assigned to the U.S Navy SEAL Team 10 as an interpreter and cultural expert," said Angelova. "The U.S. Navy SEAL Team 10 was part of a Joint Planning and Advisory Team, conducting Joint Combined Exchange Training mission with the host country Specialized Unit for Combating Terrorism. It was truly impressive to see the impact of our operations overseas in sharing experience and building relationships."

Angelova had previous experience with NATO missions she was stationed at Joint-Base Andrews in Maryland.

"I volunteered to be an escort during the NATO Air Chief Symposium in Washington D.C.," said Angelova. "The event coordination teams took into consideration our foreign language skills and assigned us to the air chiefs whose country's language we spoke. I was escorting the Bulgarian Air Chief at the time, General Popov.

"I had the opportunity to meet General Popov during my LEAP TDY three year after the Symposium. General Popov is currently the Deputy Chief of Defense in Bulgaria. He remembered me with the best of impressions for an outstanding support during the NATO Symposium. This a clear proof of the LEAP impact on building partnerships and maintaining them over time by providing the same level of expertise and cultural awareness."

Born in Sandanski, Bulgaria, Angelova was in high school when the country went through a transition period.

"My first dream was to fly for the military, but at the time they were not accepting girls as flyers," said Capt Angelova. "I was accepted into a civilian university and graduated two Master Degrees, Economics with Russian and Bulgarian, and Law."

In the meantime, Angelova worked as a teacher and eventually became a border patrol agent.

"There are moments in life when you realize that something is missing and you know it is time to make a change. This is how I felt," said Angelova. "I needed something that would let me spread my wings and fly. The environment I was in was slowly changing but not fast enough to offer equal opportunities. 

"The United States allowed me the opportunity to make my wishes come true. I applied for the Permanent Residency Lottery or the "Green Card Lottery," which offered permanent residency for the states and submitted the application for my parents and brother as well."

Angelova's brother won the lottery four years after she initially started the process and moved to Chicago. Four years after he left Bulgaria, Angelova won her green card and found herself heading to the United States.

"I landed in Chicago and I felt at home in the U.S.," said Angelova. "I had no doubts how to utilize the blessing of winning the lottery. I was determined to follow my dreams and make a difference."

She returned to her dream of serving in the military.

"My first impression from the U.S. military was during one of my border patrol night shifts at the checkpoint in Bulgaria," said Angelova. "There was an U.S. military convoy crossing the border and we were processing their paperwork. The image of the American soldier, proudly serving left an ever-lasting impression of an incredible dedication and commitment. The U.S. military was making a difference around the world. I wished that one day I'd feel the same way."

In 2003, Angelova sought out a recruiter to help make her dream a reality.

"I started researching what I needed to do to join. I found a recruiting office but was told that because I was 29, I couldn't join," said Angelova. "I read that there are waivers but the recruiting office did not confirm it. So I thought, 'Well Reni I guess we'll have to close that chapter.'"

Angelova's parents knew a family in California and shared her disappointment. They asked a recruiter in California about the waiver process and he confirmed it. Angelova flew to California to initiate the process.

"I had found Tech. Sgt. Cory Frommer. He looked at my records, my degrees, and language skills and told me 'I think that you're worth the time and will be a great asset for the U.S. Air Force. I think your package will be very complicated, but I am willing to work with you,'" she said.

She joined the Air Force as an Airman on March 23, 2004 and was assigned to Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina in the Air Transportation career field.

"While at Pope AFB, a Bulgarian delegation of mayors visited to discuss areas for potential use as NATO bases.  They had lots of questions referencing noise and impact on the local population and surrounding areas during the visit," said Angelova. "I was one of the briefers, surprisingly giving the briefing in excellent Bulgarian. The delegation was impressed. They were not expecting it.

"The base commander shared that my briefing broke the ice. The negotiations went smoother than they did in the beginning, heading in a positive direction."

Upon advisement and encouragement from her supervision, Angelova decided to apply for a commission.

"They told me my dedication could be utilized in a different capacity," said Angelova. "I put in the package and one morning, my Medical Service Corps recruiter called with the news of being selected and my Commission Officer School date."

Her first assignment as an officer sent her to Joint-Base Andrews in Washington D.C., and she soon landed at Nellis AFB after that.

Lt. Col. Laurie McKenna, 99th MDG senior GPM, shared that Angelova is a stellar example of what any individual can be regardless of where they come from, their culture, or their beliefs.

"You can become whatever you want, whenever you want. Yet still, respect everything along the way," said McKenna. "She is very motivational and inspiring. She exudes the four pillars of wellness. We bounce things off each other as a team. She knows her job. If she doesn't know the answer, she tracks it down. So I know that if I give her something to do, I can forget it because I know she'll get it done."

McKenna would like to encourage other supervisors to let their Airmen take part in programs like LEAP if they have the foreign language proficiency.

"I've seen her contribution to the LEAP program. All supervisors should keep in mind that when you have an Airman you know has talents outside of what's required for the position they are currently in, to expand those opportunities and make people aware of them," said McKenna. "Her trip over to Bulgaria was more than being an interpreter. She was integrating many types of people across various forces in different countries. Having that talent and being able to do it successfully, is an opportunity that should be there for all our talented Airmen.

"Work-wise, it hurt when she left and you can feel that, but for the larger Air Force mission it was an absolute win-win situation. It was worth every moment that she was gone for her to be able to support that."