JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
After nearly three years in the planning and several delays due to COVID-19, the Senior Enlisted Leader International Summit finally became a reality Aug. 9-13. The event, co-hosted by Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass and the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, brought together approximately 120 top enlisted leaders from the U.S. and 44 partner nations.
“I believe this year’s SELIS theme of ‘Building an Airman’ couldn’t have been more appropriate,” said Senior Master Sgt. Gary Woo, a SELIS planning committee lead. Woo is the Air Force International Enlisted Engagements Manager, Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force International Affairs.
More than 120 volunteers came together to make that one week in August a memorable one. Now, more than a month after the summit, some of the organizers reflected on the teamwork and planning it took to make SELIS a success.
Those volunteers represented Air Education and Training Command; Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force International Affairs; 37th Training Wing; IAAFA; 37th Training Group; Defense Language Institute English Language Center; 502nd Air Base Wing; 59th Medical Wing; 558th Flying Training Squadron; Special Warfare Training Wing; and more. There were also 13 translators who specialized in Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Mongolian, Arabic, and French languages.
“As we crosstalk and share with each other on what it means to be a professional Airman we are able to gain valuable perspective on how best to ‘build’ that individual, to better overcome next-generation challenges,” Woo said, adding that the “relationships and connections that were built among senior enlisted leaders from around the globe reinforced the shared goal of winning the fight … together.”
SELIS is normally held every two years for international senior enlisted counterparts to the chief master sergeant of the Air Force to discuss issues affecting the international community of enlisted Airmen and to further build relationships. It was last held at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, in 2018.
Even without COVID-19, a gathering of this magnitude requires global cooperation and communication. Woo estimated that it took 40 work hours per principal attendee to ensure a successful and meaningful summit.
To get an attendee from their country to San Antonio meant “constantly working and communicating with the International Enlisted Engagement Managers, U.S. Embassies, processing Foreign Visitor Requests (clearances), COVID-19 testing, and funding,” said Senior Master Sgt. Kelli Jackson, 37th Training Group Superintendent of Military Training and one of the SELIS planning committee leads.
The regions represented at the conference were Air Forces Southern and Northern, Pacific Air Forces, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, and Air Force Central Command. Approximately 100 countries were invited from around the globe. PACAF was underrepresented due to the Pacific Air Chiefs 2021 Conference which was held just two weeks later.
“The main challenge was COVID-19. It limited our capabilities globally, within the local area, and throughout Joint Base San Antonio. The second biggest challenge was competing with summer leave, primary duties, and TDYs. Despite SELIS feeling like a full-time job, it wasn’t anyone’s full-time job and we had to keep pushing with our ordinary duties and lives. Lastly, keeping the team motivated. The more we pushed the date back, the more volunteers we lost due to PCSs, TDYS, or other requirements,” Jackson said.
“Bringing in 44 CMSAF/CMSAF equivalents from around the globe presents a number of logistical challenges even without COVID-19,” Woo added. “A host of Department of Defense and Department of State personnel are required to ensure that we are one, making sure that everyone is in the right place at the right time and two, with COVID, that we are overcoming those challenges in a manner that is safe, smart, and in line with both U.S. and international protocols to mitigate that risk.”
Jackson said patience was a key factor.
“As much as we wanted to hold this conference on the original dates, we had to make hard calls at the right times in order for it to pay off later. The more COVID-19 pushed us back, the stronger we became as a team. We were determined to make this the best conference we could, and based on the feedback, I’d say we made that happen,” she said.
Selecting IAAFA as the co-host proved to be the right decision.
“In the Security Cooperation battlespace, IAAFA made sense,” said Chief Master Sgt. Emilio Avila, IAAFA senior enlisted leader. “We have intimate know-how on hosting events of this magnitude and strategic importance. We understand funding lines, logistics, etc.”
Avila added that maintaining and ensuring the narrative both inside and outside the team was crucial.
“When we pushed the May event to August, we stuck with that until the very end — a huge credit to Senior Master Sgts. Jackson’s and Woo’s leadership,” the chief said. “We minimized the rumors and stayed consistent, which I truly believe gave the senior enlisted leaders the faith and trust that we were going to execute while keeping everyone safe. May I add, zero COVID-19 cases as all the SELs flew back to their countries!”
Organizers felt that SELIS also helped them grow on a personal level.
“As the IAAFA Protocol and TCA coordinator I am more focused and knowledgeable on the SOUTHCOM Western Hemisphere AOR, but after SELIS I have learned that professionalism in ‘Building an Airman’ is a global goal for all,” said Francisco Hernandez, a member of the SELIS planning team.
Jackson said it was important to step outside her comfort zone.
“This was an opportunity of a lifetime and I’m honored to have been chosen to help lead this event and learn more about the IAAFA culture and SAF/IA enterprise. I grew professionally and personally from this experience,” she said.
“I believe it’s incredibly important that engaging, connecting, and reinforcing our partnerships is critical … but unfortunately often overlooked,” Woo added. “Allowing a wider audience a look at the strategic level of enlisted engagement only serves to make us stronger.”
Col. Jose Jimenez, the IAAFA commandant, said he was proud – but not surprised – of his team’s commitment to making SELIS a success.
“This was a real triumph for us on many levels. Despite COVID-19, we had the most attendees of the last several summits. We were able to show all the attendees where the journey begins for all Airmen, and how the entire 37th Training Wing contributes to that mission,” Jimenez said. “IAAFA Airmen are experts in hosting and engaging with partner nation personnel. With SELIS, we just turned it up a notch.”
For more on SELIS, read International enlisted leaders focus on ‘Building an Airman.’