Former Würzburg High School and Air Force Academy wrestling star A.J. Werner is back in Europe, grappling with a new language and culture as a graduate student in political science at Sofia University in Bulgaria.

Werner, a 33-year-old Air Force major, is one of five or so people chosen each year by the Air Force to be an Olmsted Scholar. The program permits young active-duty officers to study abroad for two years with an option for a third at a U.S. university to complete advanced-degree requirements.

Werner, whose previous assignment was piloting U-2 spy planes out of Beale Air Force Base, Calif., expects to complete his master’s degree in 2006.

The Olmsted program is designed to provide officers “with an in-depth understanding of a foreign language and culture so they will be knowledgeable and sensitive to the viewpoints and concerns of people around the world... ,” Air Force Personnel Center director of assignments Col. D. Lee Hall wrote in a letter this month to prospective 2005 scholars.

It involves immersion in the culture by officers and their family, as well as university-level study in the native language. Participants must have demonstrated leadership and scholastic abilities, the letter added.

Werner, the son of Duane Werner, a Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe teacher-coach and now administrator, believes that going to high school in Würzburg and participating in wrestling prepared him for this latest challenge. It begins in earnest when classes start next month.

“I was used to doing something different,” Werner said while visiting his parents in Würzburg this summer. “I wasn’t scared of living abroad.”

His Würzburg experience helped Werner develop the language skills that prepared him for a course in Bulgarian he completed before departing for Sofia.

“The German I learned gave me a framework for attacking [Bulgarian],” he said.

And wrestling taught him how to work hard and succeed. Werner was a two-time DODDS Central European wrestling champion at Würzburg in 1987 and 1988, and captain of the Western Athletic Conference champions at the Air Force Academy in 1993.

“A.J. was undefeated his junior year in high school,” his father said of the then-112 pounder. “He was named outstanding wrestler of the European championships, [registering] the most falls.”

Werner went on to wrestle at 118 and 126 during his career at the Academy and was elected team captain his senior year as the Falcons claimed the WAC championship.

In spite of his success in the sport, Werner gave up wrestling after leaving the Academy.

“Flying took its place,” he said.

But only temporarily. Werner returned to his sport while undergoing his language training in the Washington, D.C., area last year, working as a volunteer assistant to British Olympian Noel Loben at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va.

And it helped in his selection of Bulgaria as his Olmsted destination.

“The funny thing is that wrestling is a big part of the culture in Bulgaria,” he said. “There are four pretty good freestyle clubs in Sofia.”

Even though he’s temporarily out of the flying business, Werner said he welcomed the opportunity to return to Europe.

“When I went to the Academy, if you’d told me I wouldn’t get back to Europe, I don’t know what I would have done,” he said. “I tell everybody how beautiful it is.”

Bulgaria was recently added to the Olmsted program, which, Werner said, started in the 1960s in western Europe and Latin America. “Now they’ve added China, Russia and eastern Europe,” he said.

While Bulgaria may be a far cry from the western Europe where Werner completed high school, he said he feels no trepidation about jumping into the culture with both feet.

“I have a good base from my training in D.C.,” he said. “It’s been a good experience so far.”

Werner even had progress to report last month when he met up with his father at the Olympics in Athens.

“He told me he’s even starting to think in Bulgarian,” Duane Werner said.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now