My Experience at Inter-American Squadron Officer School

  • Published
  • By Capt. Irene Liscano
  • Kirtland AFB Special Victims’ Counsel

I had the incredible honor and privilege to attend Inter-American Squadron Officer School (ISOS) in the fall of 2020. It was an experience that forever changed my perspective on the U.S. Air Force, and my role as a Hispanic officer and leader. ISOS taught me about the interplay between the USAF and other air forces in the Western Hemisphere, I met exceptional U.S. and foreign military officers who helped me recognize my strengths and weaknesses as an individual, follower and leader, and I got the opportunity to rekindle with my Hispanic roots. ISOS was one of the most enriching professional and personal experiences of my life and I want to share it with the USAF community and encourage other officers to attend ISOS.

What is ISOS?

ISOS is a type of Professional Military Education (PME) that is equivalent to the Squadron Officer School (SOS) that all USAF captains attend before promoting to major but with a Latin American ‘twist.’ ISOS is an eight-week course fully conducted in Spanish and it is hosted at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy (IAAFA) at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, TX. ISOS classes are smaller that SOS classes (between 30 and 40 students) and most students are captains from Latin American air forces. My class was smaller because of Covid restrictions, and it was composed of eight captains from Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, as well as nine U.S. students with Colombian, Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Puerto Rican origin. The curriculum is very similar to the five-week SOS program at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Students attend classes and participate in practical exercises on USAF doctrine and leadership, including Project X, FLEX and other physical training activities. ISOS, however, includes additional lectures on inter-American relations, as well as joint officer-enlisted lectures and practical exercises. Because the course is hosted at IAAFA, the enlisted students are also mostly from Latin American countries.

How do you apply for ISOS?

Unlike SOS, ISOS requires an application process. The application includes an application essay, your wing commander’s (or equivalent) endorsement statement, a passing PT test score, your previous OPRs, and a minimum 2/2 score on your Spanish Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT). The application instructions are usually announced in myPers in the spring, and the application deadline is usually in the summer (June or July). ISOS’ acceptance rate is about 25% for U.S. students; but based on my personal experience, most of the 25% are officers in the Language Enabled Airmen Program (LEAP). Thus, if you are not in LEAP, I believe the chances of getting accepted are much lower (note these are not official statistics or statements by the USAF or IAAFA). But do not get discouraged. I am not in LEAP and I am a JAG, which means I only had two and three OPRs to submit in my two applications (as opposed to traditional line of the Air Force officers who have five or six OPRs by the time they apply). I applied two years in a row, was put on the list of alternates the first year, and was selected as a primary the second year.

Why is ISOS such a great program?

As I mentioned in the introduction, ISOS is one of the most professionally and personally enriching experiences of my life. But truth be told, it was very hard at the beginning of the course. Students had to report two weeks ahead of schedule for Covid quarantine, and there was a lot of personality conflict at the onset and for most of the first half of the course. Unlike SOS, where you get a balanced cross-section of personalities, most ISOS captains, if not all, have very dominant, alpha personalities. This is due to the very competitive application process on the U.S. side and the high caliber of the international students (they were all graduates of their Air Force academies and top performers). Add to this some cultural differences (yes, we are still different even though we are all Hispanic and speak Spanish), and you have a team that is ripe for disagreement and combustion.

Additionally, my ISOS experience was more difficult than my previous TDYs for other reasons. Personally, I left my 19-month-old baby at home, my in-laws traveled cross-country during the pandemic to help my husband, and I was pumping (I still nursed my baby when I left). Professionally, I continued doing my job as a Special Victims’ Counsel (SVC), even attending court hearings remotely while at ISOS. Fortunately, ISOS instructors and staff were very helpful with my particular situation and needs.

Notwithstanding these challenges, ISOS was an amazing experience. On the personal side, I made incredible friends while I was there from at least nine different Latin American countries/cultures (we are already planning overseas reunions). Even my instructors — one from El Salvador, two from Brazil — and us empathized in unique ways that only our close cultural bonds can yield. Covid made social activities harder — ISOS traditionally has two class trips (Houston and Washington, D.C.) that were canceled, and other social outings were limited — but we still forged friendships that we know will last a lifetime. I will never forget the time we spent together playing soccer (I suck at it but still gave it a try, thanks to my classmates’ encouragement), hanging out in the ‘terraza’ cooking awesome ‘asados,’ dressing up for Halloween, and having an international Thanksgiving dinner.

On the professional side, I became a better officer and leader. The practical exercises were key to cement all the lecture materials, and the longer ISOS timeframe allowed us to do more of them. Our instructors were top-notch and my classmates were excellent, too (one of them even received his assignment as Ecuador’s presidential pilot the last week of class). The IAAFA staff and other instructors were also great — they shared valuable lessons and anecdotes (one gave a two-hour inspirational talk on how he went from son-of-a-rich-drug-lord to Airman with sheer resilience), and were always willing to help and motivate us to be better. Being surrounded by such high-caliber people made me want to be a better officer and Airman. My flightmates pushed me to do things I did not think I was capable of doing, and helped me overcome deep-seated personal doubts. They helped me realize my differences can be a strength to the team and encouraged me to have my voice heard.

On the cultural side, I learned about the differences between other air forces in Latin America and ours. It was fascinating to talk about delicate topics such as sexual orientation and affirmative action in the military and see how much each country’s norms differ. I gave a presentation on our court-martial system and my role as SVC, and I learned that some Latin American countries do not have military courts; that military crimes are handled in a much more administrative way. For the U.S. students, ISOS gave us a unique opportunity to rekindle with our Hispanic culture and Spanish skills. For some of us, it was like being back home once again.

Altogether, ISOS was a wonderful experience. Every ISOS graduate I have met says the same. So, if you speak Spanish and have adequate timing, I strongly encourage you to apply (twice like I did, if necessary) to this incredible program. I promise, you will not regret it.