PALAWAN, Philippines -- U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ramchand Francisco stood saluting the Philippine national flag during the teleconferenced bilateral exercise KAMANDAG 6 opening ceremony in Palawan, Philippines; he blinked back tears. It was the first time he had hailed his home country's colors while wearing the U.S. Air Force uniform.
“I was thinking to myself, this is [surreal] — I’m home,” he said.
Thanks to a partnership between the United States Marine Corps and the Language Enabled Airman Program, Francisco — alongside Capt. Timothy Nolan and Tech Sgt. Cesar Salilican — embedded with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit Command Element as Tagalog interpreters during exercise KAMANDAG 6 aboard Marine Base Rudolfo Punsalang, Palawan, Philippines. For both services, the alliance unexpectedly became an unbreakable bond across cultures.
LEAP accepts applications for prospective linguists across the Air Force two months out of the year. Those who complete the program must maintain their certifications yearly and become eligible for a Training Partnership Request. To be considered for a TPR, a LEAP scholar must retain a current Defense Language Proficiency Test score, which assesses an interpreter’s listening, reading, and speaking proficiency. When a requirement arises from the Air Force or a sister service, the pool of TPR-eligible Airmen receives a notification.
Within minutes of getting the TPR for KAMANDAG 6, Nolan remembered reaching out to his command in hopes of being accepted.
“All we were told in an email was that the Marine Corps was looking for three Tagalog speakers for an assignment in the Philippines,” Nolan said. “We didn’t know until we got to Palawan there were about 130 applicants for this specific assignment.”
For Nolan, the desire to become an interpreter through LEAP initially stemmed from his deep love for his native language and Filipino culture. After moving to the U.S. from Manila at 21 years old, he was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force as an MQ-9 Reaper pilot. Shortly into his career, he discovered LEAP, and after applying to the program twice, he was accepted and began intensive Tagalog studies. He quickly realized that learning military colloquialisms in Tagalog was challenging at first.
“As we were growing with the program, there was a lot of education in learning the military terms and formal speech, which I think helped equip us for this specific assignment,” Nolan said. “All those words we weren't used to using conversationally were reinstilled in us.”
Francisco and Salilcan had played basketball together while stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, but neither had met Nolan until they arrived at the airport.
“From day one, we were a team,” Nolan said. “I think this is a friendship and brotherhood that will last for the rest of our lives.”
When Salilican first came to the U.S. at the age of 13, he experienced culture shock after growing used to the Filipino way of life.
“Nowhere were there Filipinos around me, so there was a time when I just stopped using the language because there was no one to talk to,” Salilican said. “There were times when I felt like I was slowly losing the language but I knew deep down it was still there and I felt it every time I came home.”
Salilican’s natural ability to retain the language proved to be a virtue — he passed the DLPT with a perfect score and became a LEAP scholar in 2021. He said his background as a systems operations flight chief in a special operations wing and deploying with joint services ultimately helped him better integrate with the Marines and Sailors of the 11th MEU CE.
“I hope the Marines and Sailors can take a lot of skills away from the Filipinos, including their ability to improvise and adapt,” Salilican said. “When they are out in the field, they will find ways to create something, like making a jungle antenna out of pipes. When they’re in deep forest and don’t have communications or signal, they’ll throw a rock over a tree and pull up an antenna to continue working despite the conditions around them.”
The number of proficient Tagalog speakers in the Air Force is extremely high, which made the selection of the three Airmen an even greater honor, Francisco said. As a young man, he remembers meeting a Filipino air force recruiter by happenstance while in processing for the U.S. Army, who empowered him to make the choice to switch branches. For KAMANDAG, he said the mix of military occupational specialties between the three was a significant factor in getting the approvals of their respective commanders.
“Tech. sergeant is communications, I’m logistics, and captain’s a pilot — based on the needs of this assignment, we could compliment the MEU much better because of our positions,” Francisco said.
Nolan’s ability to understand unmanned aerial systems from his pilot training helped him integrate with Marines as they employed the RQ-20B Puma and the MAG Aerospace SuperSwiper II.
“The translation for small unmanned aerial systems was easy for me because I knew the technical terms; when it came to tactics, techniques, and procedures development or airspace considerations, my level of expertise was right there with it,” Nolan said. “Master sergeant’s real-world experience leading troops as a senior NCO made him well suited for the leadership symposium. Tech sergeant’s experience with communications — there was a pretty good language barrier between the U.S. side and the Filipino side — he was able to bridge that gap.”
While the trio began their mission under the impression that their role would strictly be to translate exchanges between U.S. and Philippine Marines, they found a more profound cultural connection than any of them could have imagined.
“By day two or three, we felt like we had become more than just translators; we had become bridges between cultures,” Nolan said. “The Marines would look to us to provide the ground truth without stepping on toes and providing cultural considerations to scenarios. Your expertise, leadership, and everything you do as an Airman ties in because your input is just as valuable with other things outside of just language and culture.”
Throughout the first week, the Airmen began to notice the Philippine Marines opening up more in classes and asking questions of their U.S. counterparts, knowing they had Filipino brothers in the room who would take care of them.
“Seeing our countrymen’s eyes light up and see that we are one of them, even though we wear a U.S. Air Force uniform … they want to open up and ask questions,” Fransisco said. “They feel safe.”
Nolan noticed that the language barrier proved to be an easy obstacle to overcome because of the natural bond between the U.S. and Filipino Marines. During the exercise, the two nations shared multiple “Boodle Fights” — traditional Filipino meals eaten using hands, a sign of respect and trust from one culture to the next. Many exchanged unit shirts and memorabilia, and the Filipino love for karaoke soon became a shared pastime on Marine Base Rudolfo.
“When U.S. and Philippine Marines find a common interest, they become inseparable,” Nolan said. “They exchange information and joke around and laugh.”
As the Airmen departed the Philippines, what once was an assignment for them to communicate between two partners developed into a cultural bridge and lifelong bond.
“We were welcomed with open arms by the U.S. Marines and they allowed us to expand our borders by letting us do what we do best,” Nolan said. “Being in the presence of our Filipino counterparts is truly honorable for us, and the MEU has in turn epitomized respectful guests. In my heart and mind as a Filipino, I appreciate that a lot.”