USAF MSgt Robert Ortiz salutes as Partner Nation Generals enter the San Antonio / Bexar County Emergency Operations Center compound during IAAFA's Western Hemisphere Exchange Symposium.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Robert Ortiz salutes as partner nation generals enter the San Antonio/Bexar County Emergency Operations Center during IAAFA's Western Hemisphere Exchange Symposium. Credit: Courtesy / Andrew C. Patterson for the U.S. Air Force

Americans know San Antonio as “Military City, USA.” What many don’t know is that as host to various international military organizations, San Antonio is the face of the United States for military members from around the world.

This past weekend, one of those entities, the Inter-American Air Forces Academy (IAAFA), hosted the Western Hemisphere Exchange Symposium in venues all over San Antonio. What is typically a small conference with about 10 international guests this year evolved into an event for key military leaders from 21 nations. More than 400 attendees traveled to San Antonio to discuss ideas, build relationships, and experience the best of our city.

Founded in 1943, IAAFA celebrated its 75th anniversary last week. For the history buffs out there – yes, IAAFA is older than the Air Force itself. The academy provides professional military training and instruction in a variety of disciplines to U.S. allies – primarily those in Central and South America, but the academy trains more than 900 students from around the globe each year.

I began my assignment as a Flight Commander at IAAFA in May 2016, and now have a career in Security Cooperation – a fancy term for military diplomacy.

Since every member of IAAFA at some point will interact with foreign military leaders, the selection process is stringent. As representatives of the United States, our members must exhibit professionalism and have a proven record of excellence: they must be bilingual because they primarily interact with Spanish-speaking nations and offer training in Spanish; excel in their field and be competent instructors; and be willing to frequently travel to other countries, often with plans changing at the last minute.

Ask anyone who works at IAAFA, and they’ll tell you that while challenging, it is an honor to serve there. For many, it is the best assignment they’ve ever had.

Why are we, the United States, offering military training to other countries?

Many reasons.

One is interoperability. Joint coalitions or NATO peacekeeping operations are made up of militaries from across the globe. When you’re in the trenches with an ally, it helps if everyone knows how to use the same equipment and has similar training, standards, and a shared history.

Furthermore, the U.S. is not the only potential partner/trainer/friend out there. We offer our training and build these relationships because we want to be the “partner of choice.” As our allies develop their Armed Forces and look for training and equipment, we’d much prefer they come to us instead of, say, Russia. We may not be the only option – but we strive to be the best.

In the U.S. military, all members of the same rank receive the same pay, regardless of race or gender. This is not the case in all militaries around the world, nor for many industries within our own nation. Through IAAFA, we have a unique opportunity to promote our values, often without saying a word. Many of our instructors are female, and nearly all are members of the enlisted corps, not officers. Finding enlisted members leading instruction, especially of officers, isn’t something you would necessarily see in other countries. Simply by the way we conduct ourselves at IAAFA, we are able to influence the world in a positive manner.

For our partner nation students, enrolling in IAAFA is a huge honor. Take a look at the résumé of any top military leader across Latin America, and there’s a good chance they’re a graduate of IAAFA. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the relationships built here last a lifetime.

More than 400 military members from all over the world attend IAAFA's Western Hemisphere Exchange Symposium.
More than 400 military members from all over the world attend IAAFA’s Western Hemisphere Exchange Symposium. Credit: Courtesy / Andrew C. Patterson for the U.S. Air Force

That’s why, when it came time for IAAFA’s 75th anniversary and the Western Hemisphere Exchange Symposium, we wanted to do something we’ve never done before. More than just celebrate our history, we wanted to launch ourselves into the future. We invited countries to nominate their best and brightest to present at the symposium on one of four topics: Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response; Drug Control Operations; Aircraft Maintenance and Sustainment; and Airspace Command and Control. This symposium featured 14 presenters from around the globe, rather than us just inviting partners to hear American speakers share their perspectives and knowledge.

Moreover, we invited our U.S. military members serving in embassies overseas, so that they might learn firsthand what IAAFA has to offer, and better be able to carry that message to our partners in the countries in which they are stationed. We also invited key U.S. military leaders from the Pentagon and other areas of the Department of Defense so they, too, might become more familiar with IAAFA’s mission and motivated to leverage their areas of expertise to help. Finally, in order to really up the ante, we decided to invite the Commanders of the Air Forces – the top generals – of our allied nations, so as to have the real decision makers in our midst.

When planning for this event began in August 2017, I was appointed its action officer and assigned a small team to explore what kind of interest we could generate. By the time the event kicked off, I found myself leading a team of more than 60 of the most professional and dedicated airmen I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, many of us staying up for 24 hours at a time, making sure every last detail was perfect.

The end result was better than we could have imagined. We received help from the City of San Antonio, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, San Antonio Police Department, San Antonio River Authority, Bexar County, Holiday Inn, Omni La Mansión del Rio, Botika, and Viola’s Ventanas, and numerous military agencies, and thanks to their generous support, IAAFA’s relationships with its partner agencies grew stronger.

The response we have already received from our partner nations and from our military leaders was one of enthusiasm, appreciation, and pledges of support. While we thought the event would only take on this scope this one time, its success has spurred calls to make it this big every year. Relationships we were nervous about ended with warm hugs.

In the end, we did the one thing we all joined the Air Force to do. We changed the world.

Giles Gonnsen hails from Savannah, Georgia, so he is no stranger to beautiful communities. As an officer in the U.S. Air Force, he currently serves as a Flight Commander with the Inter-American Air Forces...