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Air Force’s inaugural ECHO Flight Airmen share their experiences

By Rachel Kersey | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | June 26, 2020

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —

There are many reasons why someone might want to join the U.S. Air Force.

“I decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps,” said Airman Alexander Piniero Tulier.

“I wanted to be my own person and challenge myself, and see what I was capable of,” said Airman Ruben Valentin Mendez.

“I wanted to serve my country and defend it,” said Airman 1st Class Alexie Delgado Berrios.

Along with seven others, these Airmen graduated June 18 from Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

The 10 men were part of the Defense Language Institute English Language Center’s first-ever ECHO Flight beta test, a replica of the U.S. Army ECHO Company program which has been carried out by DLIELC since 1975. ECHO flight’s mission was to provide English-language training and cultural immersion to enable anyone who would like to serve in the Air Force to do so effectively.

“Language shouldn’t be a barrier to joining our ranks,” said Col. Kouji Gillis, DLIELC commandant and 637th Training Group commander. “Echo Flight removes that barrier and allows the Air Force to tap into individuals who can go on to be in much-needed career fields, like linguistics.”

ECHO Flight’s trainees arrived at JBSA-Lackland March 24, having heard about the program from recruiters in their hometowns. After a 14-day restriction of movement to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the students began their English-language training April 6.

The program drew primarily native Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico. Represented were students from Moca, in the west, to San Juan, in the east, and other towns in between. There was also a trainee from South Korea.

Many of the trainees came from challenging situations, hoping to better themselves and their lives.

“I really wanted more opportunities that I could not have in Puerto Rico,” said Airman 1st Class Eliezer Hernandez Vidal. “I was working in bad places, even with a bachelor's degree. Before the Air Force, my life was boring and monotonous, every day doing the same thing. I was tired of that life.”

After six weeks of instruction, during which the trainees had lessons on grammar, vocabulary, reading, speaking, pronunciation and other essentials, they graduated May 14 and were sent to Air Force Basic Military Training with the other new recruits.

Basic Military training can be challenging, but ECHO Flight students had a head start on their fellow recruits - they had just gone through training in a similar environment.

"The military training Instructors taught us things from BMT,” Hernandez Vidal said. “We knew everything and could help our flight with tips on the experience.”

After graduating, the new Airmen hope to enter a variety of careers.

Piniero-Tulier hopes to work in personnel. Airman 1st Class Gabriel Irizarry will work in medical logistics. Vasquez Vera will be a dental assistant. Others will begin their careers in materials management, client systems, aircraft metals technology, and more.

Gillis said he hopes the ECHO Flight program can continue to provide opportunities for more qualified individuals to join the Air Force or Space Force.

The consensus among the students is that ECHO Flight is a great program because of its encouraging and attentive teachers, but the trainees still have to be willing to work hard.

"The teachers were excellent in explaining details about the rules of English," said Airman 1st Class Norman Miniz Vaquer. "I would recommend it to every non-English speaker."

Valentin Mendez said the program will teach people English, but their fluency and proficiency depends on how much effort they are willing to put into it. For hard workers, ECHO Flight may be a pathway to a better life. 

“This will help a lot of people in Puerto Rico and around the world,” Hernandez Vidal said. “This opportunity is a dream come true.”