Face of Defense: Air Force Officer Seeks New Challenges
By Air Force 1st Lt. Scott Ghiringhelli
Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center
MONTEREY, Calif., Jun. 16, 2011 After completing his reserve officers' training and earning a bachelor and master of science in aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Air Force 1st Lt. Ryan Castonia could well have gone on to a career as an engineer in the Air Force.
Air Force 1st Lt. Ryan Castonia, center, then a second lieutenant, studies Arabic with fellow students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif. U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Scott Ghiringhelli
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
That would have been a success story by anyone's standards, but he was not content to stop there.
While still an Air Force ROTC cadet at MIT, Castonia sought out different opportunities for his future. Beyond the natural career path as an engineer, he was slotted to be a pilot, and finally settled on a combat rescue officer position. He also attended the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center here as part of the Air Force's new Language Enabled Airman Program, despite having no prior language proficiency.
"The LEAP program was created while I was still in ROTC, and the announcement came out through our cadre," Castonia explained. "I've always wanted to learn a foreign language; I just didn't feel like I was in a good time or place to ever do it [before]."
Air Force Culture and Language Center officials launched LEAP last year. The program is designed to identify airmen with foreign language abilities and foster those skills throughout their careers. Though Castonia was not already proficient in a foreign language, he applied for LEAP based on his high Defense Language Aptitude Battery score and 4.0 grade point average, both of which indicated his likelihood for success. Success, it seems, is no stranger to Castonia.
Castonia applied for a pilot trainee slot to become an Air Force pilot and was one of the select few to be accepted. But before he was to put on his gold bars, yet another opportunity caught his attention. After hearing about the CRO mission, Castonia fell in love with it.
He endured the mental, physical and psychological challenges of the dual-phase selection process and was one of only 11 chosen to become a part of this relatively new special operations career field initiated in 2000.
"I've always worked really hard to try to maintain a good balance between academics and athletics," he said. "My parents have always pushed that, and so I felt like the military was a good place where you can maintain that balance."
CROs parallel the Air Force's elite pararescue career field, open only to enlisted service members, and provide an officer cadre to lead pararescue teams and survival evasion resistance and escape specialists.
It would seem with all these accomplishments and opportunities, there was nothing more for this cadet to strive for. Not so.
Castonia applied for and was accepted into LEAP. He is among the first five Air Force lieutenants to come to the foreign language center and participate in LEAP. Once service members achieve a certain level of proficiency, they receive incentive pay for their chosen language. But LEAP requires them to maintain that proficiency in addition to the daily duties of their primary Air Force specialty. Castonia, however, sees that commitment as a privilege rather than a burden.
"I just think having the possibility of coming to DLI as a young officer is an amazing opportunity," he said.
After completing his language training, Castonia will start the grueling nine-week program designed to weed out those CRO trainees who are not able or willing to meet the challenge. Once completed, he will receive training that includes airborne school, combat diver's school, survival evasion resistance escape training and emergency medical technician training, among other classes.
What might seem daunting to some is referred to in child-like anticipation by Castonia. He is motivated not only by his love of learning and being challenged, but an obvious sense of duty.
"My junior year in high school I started to realize that I wanted to serve in some way, the reason being I just feel really blessed," he said. "I feel I've had a lot of opportunities, even at that point in my life, and wanted to give back in some way."
Castonia's enthusiasm and accomplishments as an Air Force ROTC cadet did not go unnoticed. He received a multitude of military and academic awards at MIT, and ultimately was named Air Force Cadet of the Year for 2009, an award sponsored by the Air Squadron of the United Kingdom. The honor is awarded to one person each year, selected from all of the Air Force cadets working towards a commission in AFROTC, the Air Force Academy or officer training school.
Castonia will graduate from the language center’s Arabic-language program in July.
Typical of his predilection for seeking out challenge and opportunity, Arabic is classified as a category IV language, one of the most difficult for English speakers to learn.
Castonia said he is looking forward to a successful military career and a career-long language experience in LEAP.
"There's a lot of ways you can give back to your country,” he said, “and I just felt like military service was something that fit with me."