Bridging the gap: international school at Lackland Air Force Base brings military people, cultures together.
The Inter-American Air Forces Academy, located at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, isn't your typical school. Here there are no homecoming kings and queens, no tenured teachers, and classes such as algebra and biology aren't on the course list.
Instead, the school brings together a hodgepodge of military people from all over North, South and Central America and teaches them about leadership, management and each other.
Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the school's courses: the International Noncommissioned Officer Academy.
"The course is designed to professionalize the NCOs and convert them into combat-ready airmen who can lead and manage air force units," said Master Sgt. Ben Miranda, one of the academy's instructors.
But the school isn't just about building leaders. It's also about building partnerships. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has identified five priorities for the service, the second of which is "partnering with joint and coalition teams."
"That's one of the things we're trying to do here," Sergeant Miranda said. "We're bringing airmen from all these nations together in an academic environment, letting them build relationships and really get to know each other on a personal and professional level."
The course mirrors the Air Force's traditional Noncommissioned Officer Academy in every way except one. INCOA is conducted in Spanish.
"All of the nations that participate are Spanish-speaking ones," Sergeant Miranda said. "So it makes it easier just to conduct the school in that language."
The course is seven and a half weeks long, has between eight and 14 students and is divided into three sections: communications, leadership and profession of arms. Each section is designed to increase the students' abilities to become better leaders at the small-unit level.
"We give the students the tools they need and then it's up to them to take what they learn and use it in their home country," said Tech. Sgt. Christian Castillo, an academy instructor.
And they do. Some even attend the academy so they can return home and teach the information there.
"When I go back, I will establish an NCO academy there," said Senior Master Sgt. Walter Avila, a member of the Guatemalan air force. "So this is a great opportunity for me and my country."
For many of the students, who come from places like Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru and Honduras, coming to the academy isn't just a chance to learn important leadership skills. Most have never been to the United States before, and experiencing the country's sights and sounds is an opportunity the service members simply can't pass up.
But more than the knick-knacks and electronics purchased at the base exchange, what the students are most excited to take home are the friendships and bonds made while at the academy.
"No matter where they're from, the students typically keep in touch even after they graduate and go home," Sergeant Castillo said.
In some cases, they talk on the phone, write e-mails, or, thanks to [he popularity of social media, even converse on the Internet over sites like Facebook and MySpace.
"I've enjoyed the course and being in the U.S.," Sergeant Avila said. "But our one objective is to learn from each other and graduate together."
In order to remain successful, INCOA is constantly evolving and the staff tailors the classes to what is relevant. As part of this evolution, the academy recently opened its doors to U.S. Air Force NCOs who are able to speak Spanish.
The goal is to increase teamwork among the nations and allow international students the ability to talk and interact with Airmen on a peer-to-peer level, rather than on an instructor-to-student one.
"Now, instead of us just standing up here and telling them how we do things, the students can look to their left or right, see a U.S. Airman and share each other's experiences," Sergeant Miranda said.
Plus, he added, if the course is good enough for the Air Force's international partners, then it's good enough for the service's Airmen.
"I definitely think it adds a certain level of credibility," said Tech. Sgt. George Nikolakakos, an intelligence specialist and one of the first U.S. Airmen to go through INCOA as a student. "The students from other countries see U.S. instructors up there teaching and see U.S. students in the class and it makes what's being taught that much easier to buy into."
During each class, heads nod, notes are taken and dialogue is open and frequent because, said Sergeant Miranda, the principles of leadership are the same no matter who you are, where you're from or what flag you stand under.
"I will take a lot of great experiences back to Guatemala with me," Sergeant Avila said. "But one of the best will be having met the people here and sharing their thoughts, ideas and experiences."
At the end of the day, that's what INCOA is all about: Building trust, partnerships and bonds between the U.S. Air Force and its coalition partners.
STORY BY TECH. SGT. MATTHEW BATES
PHOTOS BY STAFF SGT. DESIREE N. PALACIOS