After completing his Reserve Officers’ Training and earning a Bachelor and Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ryan Castonia could well have gone on to a great career as an engineer in the Air Force. That would have been a success story by anyone’s standards, but he was not content to stop there.
While still a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (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 (CRO) position. He also managed to find his way to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) as part of the Air Force’s new Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP) 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).”
The Air Force Culture and Language Center launched the LEAP in 2010. 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 language, he applied for LEAP based on his high Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) 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 coveted 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 Combat Rescue Officer 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…, 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 only open to enlisted servicemembers, and provide an officer corps to lead pararescue teams and Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) specialists.
It would seem with all these accomplishments and opportunities, that there was nothing more for this outstanding cadet to strive for. Not so.
Castonia applied for and was accepted into LEAP based on his merits. He is among the first five Air Force lieutenants to come to DLIFLC and participate in LEAP. Once servicemembers achieve a certain level of proficiency, they receive incentive pay for their language. But LEAP requires them to maintain that proficiency in addition to the daily duties of their primary Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC). 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.”
After completing his language training, Castonia will start the grueling nine week indoctrination meant to weed out those CRO trainees who are not able or willing to meet the challenge. Once completed, he will receive a myriad of training that includes, Airborne School, Combat Diver’s School, SEREs training, and Emergency Medical Technician training, among others. What might seem daunting to some is referred to in child-like anticipation by Castonia, but he is not motivated only by his love of learning and being challenged, there is 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. 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 AFROTC cadet did not go unnoticed. He received a multitude of military and academic awards while at MIT, and was ultimately 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 the Air Force cadets working towards a commission in AFROTC, the Air Force Academy, and Officer Training School.
Castonia will graduate from the DLIFLC’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. He is looking forward to a successful military career and a career-long language experience in LEAP. Where else could a young man with so much motivation and aptitude fulfill so many of his ambitions?
“There’s a lot of ways you can give back to your country and I just felt like military service was something that fit with me.”
Story and Photo Credits
Story and classroom photo by 1st Lt. Scott Ghiringhelli, Strategic Communications
Other photo by Scott M. Ash, US Air Force