AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy – At 15 years old, a young man who spoke no English left Africa on a journey to America that would change his life.
Born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Air Force Staff Sgt. Alain Mukendi, an Airman Leadership School instructor here, grew up speaking French and three African dialects. In 1999, his father won the Diversity Visa lottery, allowing his family to move to the United States. Two years later, Mukendi and his family made St. Louis their new home.
"I hated it for the first six months,” Mukendi said. “It was extremely difficult, because it was a complete 180-degree change. From the culture to the language, everything was different. I was afraid to speak, because I did not want to be made fun of."
Two weeks after arriving in St. Louis, Mukendi was enrolled in school where he managed to learn enough English to graduate in two years. A few months later, he enlisted in the Air Force, a decision he said was steered by the benefits. At the time, he added, he didn’t know how much more the Air Force would give him.
"I needed a root canal, and it was going to cost me about $500 to get it done," he said. "By chance, I came across a recruiter. He explained the benefits, and then I made one of the best decisions in my life."
As he progressed through basic training, Mukendi said, he learned to speak loudly and clearly despite the language barrier. He built the confidence needed throughout basic and technical training as he learned to be a leader among his peers.
"I was forced to speak in basic training, but it was good for me," he said. "I had no choice but to execute and do my job as an airman. I even became a [designated leader] and helped to lead 300 students."
As his confidence grew, so did his ability to effectively communicate with his peers. This newfound skill eventually helped him transition from being the student to being the teacher.
"I was inspired to share the experiences and background and give back to the Air Force as much as he could," Mukendi said.
Mukendi now uses his 11 years of military experience helping lead future noncommissioned officers as an Airman Leadership School instructor. He also is learning to become a regional expert through his Language Enabled Airman Program selection.
LEAP helps the Air Force to meet its global requirements by developing and maintaining cultural and language capabilities. Mukendi, who is fluent in French, was given the opportunity after his selection to go back to Africa to further develop his language proficiency to help the Air Force.
"I am blessed with the aptitude of a different language, and I am happy that the Air Force recognizes that," he said. "This is a great opportunity, as I am able to give back to the Air Force through my cultural experience."
On his return to Africa, Mukendi and several other LEAP selectees stayed in Lome University in Togo. Throughout the stay, interaction among the students, the local civilians and military personnel helped to immerse them in the culture every day.
"It was great learning new things -- the locals took good care of us," Mukendi said. "I learned a phrase while I was there -- ‘C'est gratuit’ -- which means ‘It's free.’ They were basically telling us that whatever deeds they did for us were free, and we did not have to worry about giving anything back."
The 30-day stay in Togo gave him lot more back than expected, Mukendi said.
"As a young boy, I was always taught that it's all about giving back," he said. "I am finally giving back to the Air Force, who has given so much to me. I am able to share my experiences with my students, coworkers and future airmen."