Overcoming cultural and language barriers in a time of need

  • Published
  • By Capt. Susan Wong-Tworek
  • SMC Military Satellite Communications Systems Directorate
Cultural and language barriers can be difficult to overcome for immigrant military members and even more so for the members' families. This is a true story of the Air Force family helping an Air Force member's family through those barriers and assisting them when they were faced with an unexpected tragic event - the death of their son.

After serving in the military for almost five years, Air Force Staff Sgt. Ho Tak "William" Leung returned home from Spangdahlem, Germany, to Duarte, Calif., Feb 28, for terminal leave. William was as bright and promising as an airman could be. He was selected below the zone, made staff sergeant the first time eligible, and completed his bachelor's degree all in less than five years. His decision to separate from the Air Force was made so he could go to law school and take care of his parents.

William's parents are immigrants from Hong Kong. Like many immigrant parents of different ethnicities, they spoke very limited English and understood little to nothing about the U.S. military. Ten days before he would have officially separated from active duty, March 21, Leung suddenly passed away in his sleep at the young age of 22. His parents were devastated to find their only child motionless in bed. They did not know what to do, who to call, or even the steps to take to notify the Air Force. Our commitment to the surviving families is a part of the military culture the Leung family would soon discover.

Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, addressed in A Survivor's Guide to Benefits, Taking Care of Our Families, "Whenever men and women make the decision to join the armed services of the United States, they are promising to put themselves between the people of the United States and those who would harm us. Sometimes this promise costs our brave men and women their lives. To honor their promise, their courage, and the sacrifice they have made, the Department of Defense commits to doing all we can to support the surviving families of our service members."

With the help of family friends, the Leungs eventually contacted the 52nd Security Forces commander at Staff Sgt. Leung's unit in Spangdahlem. The Space and Missile Systems Center's Mortuary Affairs Office was then notified the morning of March 22. The MAO is a team of active duty, reserve, guard and civilian federal employee members who take the Secretary of Defense's commitment to heart.

Anthony Higgins, 61st Force Support Squadron's operations officer here said, "I've had, as an active duty services officer and now as an Air Force civilian, the distinct honor and privilege to serve as a mortuary officer to both DoD and Air Force members. Whether at the Port Mortuary in Dover, Del., or at base level, this duty allows us to fully support those left behind through a most difficult process."

To add on to this difficult time, MAO discovered the parents did not speak English. They immediately searched for a family liaison officer who could speak Cantonese to bridge the language and possible cultural gap. Surprisingly, they found just one military member in California who was listed in the personnel system able to speak Cantonese: me. Fortunately, I am also stationed at SMC and was glad to be able to provide support in their time of need.

When an Air Force member passes away, the personal loss to family, friends and loved ones is terrific and immeasurable. The loss is also felt by all of our Air Force personnel. The reality is that each of us must deal with this kind of loss and sadness at some point in our life. Leung and his family, as with all of our airmen and their families, became part of the bigger Air Force family the day he stepped off the bus in San Antonio.

It was important for the FLO to quickly communicate the "our" family concept in the language the family understands and notify them of the services the Air Force is committed to provide. As with all mortuary affairs cases, informing the families of the assistance at an early stage can provide unbelievable relief and comfort during this painful and emotional time.

"Regardless of the category of the deceased, the family should be rendered the maximum level of assistance permitted by law," pointed out Maj. Thomas Kleczkowski, 61 FSS Mortuary Officer. "As a team, MAO and I had to work hand in hand to inform the family of all our support and services."

While my initial telephone contact with Leung's parents was very disheartening, they were happy and relieved not only to receive help, but also to hear someone speaking their language. They were further comforted when our team drove to their home to discuss funeral and memorial entitlements; money matters such as DoD and Veterans Affairs benefits; additional resources such as Military OneSource for information, resources and counseling support; and immediate and future assistance. It really eased their mind to witness the prompt and sincere support and service the Air Force was providing them.

"We are extremely grateful for your services during the memorial planning and actual day of service," said Leung's Aunt Lillian. "This situation was certainly unexpected and devastating, but everything you have done has made finding acceptance and comfort much easier for our family."

I really believe the weeks of frequent interaction provided comfort and more. I felt our support and service gave them a new sense of trust, respect and gratitude for the military. No private company or corporation in the world comes close to the care and services the military provides to our fallen comrades. This is the Leung family's first time being exposed to the softer side of the military and to a culture not often known to the public.

"It is always bittersweet," commented Higgins. "You mourn the loss of the Air Force member while reaffirming that those who remain will always be a part of the 'Air Force family.'" That's our culture, and no cultural or language barriers will get in the way of the Air Force caring for our families.