Enrique Oti, an Air Force communications officer was an Olmsted Scholar, Class of 2007, in Hangzhou, China. (George and Carol Olmsted Foundation)
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Steve Moritz, an F-15 and remotely piloted vehicle pilot, with his wife, Alma. He was an Olmsted Scholar, Class of 2005, in Guanajuato, Mexico. (George and Carol Olmsted Foundation)
Bobby Flammia, an F-16 pilot with his wife, Carrie, was an Olmsted Scholar, Class of 2012, in Florence, Italy. (George and Carol Olmsted Foundation)
Mike Sullivan, an EC-130 pilot, with his wife, Ching-Yi, and son, was an Olmsted Scholar, Class of 2013 in Beijing. (George and Carol Olmsted Foundation)
Maureen Tanner, a KC-10 pilot, with husband, Joe, and daughter, was an Olmsted Scholar, Class of 2012, in Strasbourg, France. (George and Carol Olmsted Foundation)
It’s like PCSing, except your only duties for two years are to learn a new language, take graduate courses, immerse yourself in a culture and travel in a foreign country — all on your own terms.
That’s the next assignment for Air Force Capts. Melissa Dombrock, Jonathan Hassell, William Herbert, David Manrrique and Daniel Wynn. They and 13 other officers from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps have been selected for the 2015 class of the Olmsted Scholar Program, sponsored by the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.
Established by Army Maj. Gen. George Olmsted and his wife in 1959, the 501(c)(3), nonprofit, private foundation has grown from supporting six scholars to around 20 scholars today. The foundation also sponsors undergraduate cadets and midshipmen for two- to three- week cultural trips overseas during the summer.
“This is their duty. They are an Olmsted scholar, studying overseas and traveling,” said retired Air Force Col. Bob Stratton, vice president of the foundation. “It’s part of the Olmsted experience — you’re there making history and watching history being made.”
Manrrique, an instructor combat systems officer with the 479th Operations Support Squadron, Pensacola, Fla., will study in Tel Aviv, Israel.
“To learn Hebrew, that’s just extremely exciting,” Manrrique said. “To visit Jerusalem, and walk in the same place as some of history’s most important figures, to be able to do that, and to learn a new language, it’s all extremely exciting.”
Herbert, an MC-130P instructor pilot with the 9th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., is heading to China and is looking forward to the Great Wall Marathon, which is on his “big to-do list.”
“This can really be a portable skill set, even beyond Chinese for me, because interacting with other people, that whole immersion experience, can translate into how we deal with people on a daily basis,” Herbert said.
Wynn, who also is headed to China, found out about the program from a friend while they were both deployed in 2011 to Afghanistan.
“It’s also a good career move, [in the sense that] the study will give credit toward the Intermediate Developmental Education, which is something all officers go through as they continue to work toward promotions,” said Wynn, an F-16 instructor pilot with the 56th Operations Support Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
Dombrock is headed to Rabat, Morocco, and Hassell to Florianópolis, Brazil.
“What [the foundation] is looking for is to try and identify future leaders of the Air Force,” said Stratton, who studied in Germany in the 1981 class of Olmsted scholars. “We’re not looking for linguists, they don’t have to be able to speak any additional language when they start this program, we’re not looking for them to be an attaché. ... We want people who can serve in senior positions in the Air Force [later on] who can utilize this unique experience.”
The program had two scholars in Cairo during the Arab Spring. “Being forced to leave, one scholar headed to Naples, Italy, to work for the Navy because she knew more about what was happening in Cairo than anyone else did,” Stratton said.
Stratton said the program currently has a scholar studying in Lviv, Ukraine, who ended up helping the U.S. embassy in Kiev, during the protests.
Maj. Gen. Steven Shepro, a 1993 alumnus of the Olmsted scholar program, said he pursued the program because he “wanted to understand the world that we were going to engage in, and wanted to be able to see it through others’ perspectives and understand those perspectives.”
Shepro, who is now fluent in six languages, studied in Strasbourg, France.
“[The next generation of] scholars should realize the world is growing smaller and flatter, and that our future is inextricably tied to the rest of the world,” Shepro, now director of operations, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Requirements, Air Force headquarters, said. “So it’s critical to understand how the rest of the world sees themselves, sees the world, and sees the United States to be able to navigate that future.”
How to apply
The Olmsted Scholar Program has its roots in the World War II experiences of its founder. Olmsted was sent to China to organize a network of factories and supply routes. Reflecting back on his interactions with both Chinese and Japanese officials, he realized that American military leaders should be much more exposed to foreign cultures in order to enhance their service, according to the foundation’s website.
In the Air Force, any officer with at least three years of commissioned service can apply. A call for applications goes out each summer with requirements established by the Air Force. Officers send their application to the Air Force Personnel Center, which holds a board, much like a promotion board, in November to screen the applicants. The top 12 to 15 finalist applications are then sent over to the Olmsted Foundation for a final review. The foundation notifies the selected scholars in March.
“The Air Force is the most competitive service by far, with well over a 100 applicants each year,” Stratton said.
Officers will spend up to one year in language proficiency training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., or Washington, D.C., before heading out to the country of their choice. The State Department vets and approves the scholar heading into the country with a National Security Decision Directive 38 application, just like any military service member PCSing overseas.
The scholars go on a “familiarization trip” to their country a couple of months before to meet with members of the U.S. embassy, consulate, the university where they will study, and to search around for places to live as well as schools for their children.
“Once you’re there, you’re basically on your own,” Stratton said. “We require the scholars travel around and learn about the culture of that particular nation, and we also insist they study some sort of humanities classes so they learn more about the people, the history and the anthropology, because that’s the focus of the program.”
A lasting experience
Looking back, some alumni said the experience stayed with them.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Airhart, a 2010 alumnus who studied in Kiev, said he appreciates the friendships he made.
“We have quite a few people who we refer to as ‘titka,’ or aunt, for our daughter, and my wife regularly Skypes and FaceTimes with multiple friends,” he said.
Airhart, who now flies F-22s and is the director of operations for the 1st Operational Support Squadron at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., recalls when he visited an SU-27 Ukrainian air force base and was asked to help translate for their deputy chief of staff.
“I got to sit in on their briefs, and it was amazing. The ‘threats of the day’ that they had put up on their wall were jets I used to fly, so F-15s, F-16s and the jets that we [U.S. Air Force] talk about are the SU-27, and here I am, walking around with these pilots, sharing a genuine experience with them, and it really put a human face to all of that,” Airhart said. “We even sang our versions of fighter pilot songs with them.”
Stratton said scholars “come back with the appreciation that other people think differently than [U.S. citizens] do. This is also a very useful skill in their military careers ... and it can come in handy if one day you’re stationed in different parts of the world.”■