BOGOTA, Colombia --
“The War is Won in the Air.” That is the title of Chapter 23, of Juan Manuel Santos’ book, Jaque al Terror, in which the former President of Colombia outlines the military planning and operations that broke the Marxist guerrilla organization, known as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). In 2009, President Santo needed just four pages to explain how airpower brought an armed insurgent group that exploited violence to terrorize a population for 50 years to the negotiating table. Since the signing of the 2016 Colombia Peace Process, the Republic has utilized the relative peace dividend to transition from a consumer to a blossoming exporter of security cooperation.
Having a professional force is a key component of interoperability and being a trusted partner. As Colombia integrates with regional partners and NATO, United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) has prioritized the professional development of the Colombian Forces, specifically within their non-commissioned officer corps, and the enhanced integration of women in service. The 474th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron, based in Bogota, Colombia, is uniquely equipped to bolster both initiatives with MSgt Paula Serna, the squadron superintendent, who is also a heritage Colombian.
MSgt Serna’s rank, position and assignments in multiple theaters over her 20-year career immediately garners respect and admiration from Colombian counterparts. Likewise, her “paisa” accent establishes an instant connection when she speaks, almost as if she still lived in her native city of Medellin. MSgt Serna welcomes the opportunity to utilize these benefits to reach the Command’s goals.
“I would like to be an example, specifically, being a Latina from Colombia,” said Serna. Speaking on her experience at the Inter-Americas Air Forces Academy (IAAFA) she added,” IAAFA provides an environment in which both students and instructors can share lessons learned from the entirety of Latin America. On a daily basis, I use those best practices to help the Colombian NCOs develop their leadership skills.”
MSgt Serna’s heritage and professionalism made her the ideal interlocuter for 12th Air Force Command Chief, CMSgt Jamie Clark, when he engaged with the Colombian Air Force leadership. The primary purpose of this key leader engagement was to laud the Colombians on how well they have done advancing a professional non-commissioned officer corps, but there is still work to be done. This engagement would have been impossible without MSgt Serna translating, not just English/Spanish, but also the cultural challenges within the Colombian Air Force.
MSgt Serna has used the lessons learned from her previous experiences to shape her partner engagements. Specifically, when she mentors female sergeants in the Colombian Air Force.
Relampago VI, a combined exercise focused on improving air superiority and interoperability between the U.S. and Colombian Air Forces, provided an opportunity to showcase her leadership and example, as she forward deployed as the Superintendent for the 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. Seeing a Latina non-commissioned officer assigned in a position of leadership for 177 personnel and six F-16s aircraft was inspiring for the members of Rio Negro Air Base.
“MSgt Serna demonstrated to my entire base that your professionalism, leadership and competence matter far more than your gender, and we focus on being our best in those three areas,” said Colonel Alejandro Velez Ospina, CACOM-5 base commander. “There are no limits in any Air Force.”
All of the Airmen in 474th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron employ their bilingual skills, which are a linchpin to bolstering our bilateral partnership. Communication is the key to any partnership. Via the Language Enabled Airmen Program (LEAP) and Foreign Area Officers (FAO) programs, the U.S. Air Force has developed Airmen of all ranks who can cooperate and communicate with our partners. Activities like Relampago VI highlight the huge return on investment generated from the focus on developing multilingual Airmen who can support Command initiatives by their example and ability to communicate and connect.
“The culture of the Colombian people is much like ours,” said U.S. Air Force Major General Barry R. Cornish, 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) commander. “They have a strong sense of values, national security, democracy and freedom. The Colombian people have always been great friends to the American people and we are strongly committed to continuing that.”