WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — In the 711th Human Performance Wing and across the Air Force, Airmen are encouraged to bring everything they have to the fight.
A large part of that fight is the fight against terrorism both at home and abroad.
Capt. Patrick Mudimbi, an environmental health consultant for the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, has some unique weapons in his arsenal — he’s from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and his first language is French.
Shortly after his father died, Mudimbi left his home in Africa in 1996 because he wanted to step up and be a role model for his 17 brothers and sisters. With his mother’s help, he obtained a visa and moved to Ontario, Canada, where he lived with a distant relative. He had his sights set on joining the armed forces, but he hadn’t yet decided which service.
At the time, he spoke only French and he didn’t yet have the money for college courses. So to learn English and study for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, he disciplined himself by utilizing his local library.
“I studied English on Mondays and Tuesdays,” he said, “and then math and science Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. I also listened to a lot of country music because I could hear the words they were singing.”
About a year later, Mudimbi walked by an “Aim High” advertisement and decided any service with that motto was the service for him; so, he enlisted in the Air Force.
Because of his French fluency, his leadership sent him to train at the Air Force Culture and Language Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He is now part of the Language Enabled Airman Program.
Mudimbi was deployed on a humanitarian mission after the Haiti earthquake to translate for doctors, patients and whoever needed his skillset. Most recently, he was sent to Senegal to help Marines.
“Air Force Culture and Language Center needed someone who could speak French to go to Senegal to support a Marine mission to train combatant and intelligence groups so they can protect their country against terrorism there,” he said. “But they also needed someone who understood the culture.”
Mudimbi has a unique understanding of the diversity linked at the intersections of culture, language and race — not just in the Air Force, but across services.
“I’m an example of how having diversity is a strength in the U.S. military because here we can dig out certain skills to accomplish our mission,” he said.
Knowing a language isn’t the only tool translators need to convey various messages; they need to know customs, slang, gender norms — a much more in-depth awareness of cultural communication that can only truly be acquired through immersion in a specific region.
“Cultures provide people with ways of thinking, ways of seeing, hearing, and interpreting the world. The same words can mean different things to people from different cultures, even when they speak the same language,” according to the University of Colorado’s Conflict Research Consortium.
“Because I’m from the Congo, the military members from Senegal seemed to relate to me very well. I was able to talk with them easily without any obstacles,” he said. “While I do speak a different dialect of French, the fact that I have an African background and I look like them — that automatically connected us.
“The French is the language, but the culture is the bridge,” he added.
The act of listening can also strengthen bonds and build trust, a wisdom with global appeal across all identities.
“You might not agree with or even understand what a person is saying, but if you just listen, that person will feel considered and valued,” he said.
Due to Mudimbi’s unique capability and awareness, he was able to help both short and long-term missions.
“Senegal’s military didn’t just learn how to do the job with my translations, but they also learned to trust me and, in turn, the U.S. military,” Mudimbi said. “They have to believe that we are together, we’re there to help them fight terror in their country as well as counteract the global threat.
“This particular mission, although it was in a different country, is counterterrorism,” he continued. “The goal is to stop terrorism from coming to the United States. So going over there is a direct mission to protect the (U.S.)”
Editors note: This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.