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Keesler's International Military Student Office 100 percent operational

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- During the 10 months since the International Military Student Office welcomed back its first scholar following Hurricane Katrina, it's trained 101 additional allied personnel under the Security Assistance Training Program.

The school is once again 100 percent operational, according to James Cooks, IMSO chief.

"We are currently training more students than we had pre-Katrina," Mr. Cooks said, who's headed up the organization since 1991.

The school averages 50-60 students, but can accommodate up to 120. Students are accepted from 95 countries, with an "A-Z" listing from Albania to Zimbabwe.

Students spend three weeks to two months attending one or more of the 81st Training Group's 50 courses.

Some courses are offered only to students from NATO nations and others only to American military members due to security requirements, but most are available to the eligible international military student community.

"The most frequently attended courses are electronic principles, airfield operations, manpower personnel, air traffic control and financial management," Mr. Cooks said.

Three major challenges face every incoming student, according to Mr. Cooks: language barrier, culture shock and work scheduling.

In response to the language challenge, the Defense Language Institute sponsors an English language training program at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

"About 85 percent of all new students take advantage of this course prior to arriving here," Mr. Cooks said.

Once here, IMSO offers a field studies program featuring tours in Keesler AFB's surrounding area to acclimate students to American culture and customs.

"We sponsor field trips, social events and cultural and educational programs to provide students with a clearer understanding of our way of life," Mr. Cooks said.

Work scheduling is handled on a case-by-case basis, with IMSO staffers providing inspiration, moral support and time management assistance.

"The school schedules are either 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily," Mr. Cooks said. "For some students, this represents a significant departure from their normal work schedule and requires a thorough restructuring of their daily planning."

IMSO's oversight extends well beyond the classroom.

"We provide assistance in many aspects of a student's life," Mr. Cooks said. "We generally greet them at the airport whenever possible, and upon request, connect them with a sponsoring family."

IMSO provides continuous support during the students' stay. Staffers are also instrumental in providing a sympathetic ear, as well as tutorial support to students having difficulty with a course.

"There is a tremendous pressure upon each international student because they represent not only themselves but also their families and countries," Mr. Cooks said.

At present, the school is training 50 students ranging in rank from noncommissioned officers to colonels from 22 countries.

The current airfield operations officers course includes its first Korean female, a Hurricane Katrina evacuee from Poland and a four-course IMSO veteran from Kuwait.

Capt. Ji Young Jung serves as manager of the master control and reporting center at Taegu Air Base, Korea.

"Because I was senior among my peers, I was selected to train here," she said. "I hope to acquire additional airfield operations skills to assist me in performing both combat and air traffic controller responsibilities."

Capt. Jaroslaw Lach, whose training was interrupted by Katrina, is back again following a prolonged evacuation to his homeland.

"I had been here for only four days when Hurricane Katrina hit the base," said Captain Lach, an air traffic controller. "I am happy to be able to finally graduate."

Kuwaiti Maj. Jamal "JJ" Al Mejaibel, who attended the basic air traffic control course in 1991, was emotionally impacted by Katrina. A radar operations staff officer with Kuwaiti Air Force headquarters, he's finishing his fourth course with IMSO.

"I was deeply concerned about the welfare and well-being of the many friends I made during my stay here," he said. "When I returned for this course, I was saddened to see all of the damage, but relieved to find that everyone had survived."

Mutual assistance is part of every class, according to David Reese, master instructor for the airfield operations flight course in the 334th Training Squadron.

"I am always impressed with the level of camaraderie exhibited by the students," Mr. Reese said. "They gel as a unit and strive to help each other throughout the course, not only academically, but socially and personally as well."

Despite social, political and cultural differences between their own nations, the students are expected to respect and support each other. "This is neutral turf," Mr. Cooks said.