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Master Sgt. Holger Fels, 35, an exchange student from the German Air Force, salutes alongside Tech. Sgt. Treena Merk, a Kisling NCO Academy instructor, as the U.S. and German flags are lowered during a retreat ceremony Thursday at Kaupan Air Station near Kaiserslautern.
Master Sgt. Holger Fels, 35, an exchange student from the German Air Force, salutes alongside Tech. Sgt. Treena Merk, a Kisling NCO Academy instructor, as the U.S. and German flags are lowered during a retreat ceremony Thursday at Kaupan Air Station near Kaiserslautern. (Ben Bloker / S&S)

KAPAUN AIR STATION, Germany — Among the 142 students graduating from the Kislinger Noncommissisoned Officer Academy on Thursday, Master Sgt. Holger Fels stood out from the rest, even if it took a sharp eye.

That’s because Fels isn’t American or even a member of the U.S. Air Force. He’s a member of the German air force.

Fels, 35, is one of just a few foreign airmen to attend and graduate the six-week academy as part of a special exchange program. He said the experience helped him learn the U.S. Air Force way of doing things while sharing with other instructors how the Germans train their enlisted leaders.

“Every day they helped me learn things about their air force, and I would help them learn some things about my air force,” he said.

The American and German air forces signed a partnership in 2004 that would allow a small number of hand-selected students go through each other’s noncommissioned officer academy. The school is the sole U.S. Air Force NCO academy in Europe and focuses on helping technical sergeants become better leaders. The academy graduates about 1,000 students annually, with most of the attendees coming from bases in Europe.

Fels, who has served mostly as an instructor in the military, is only the third German airman to attend Kisling since the two NATO allies agreed to the partnership. Next year, he will move to Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama to go through the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy, where he also will serve as an instructor.

It is not uncommon for instructors to visit schools of other NATO countries or different services, but it is a rare opportunity for foreign airmen to go through the training, said Master Sgt. Corey Johnson, Kisling director of resources.

Fels initially came from the German NCO academy in Appen to observe, but he said he wanted to actually go through the training to get a better understanding of how it worked. He said one of the biggest differences between the U.S. and German academies is the age and experience of the students. In Germany, noncommissioned officers go through the academy shortly after completing the technical training. Many of the students are younger than 21. It’s the exact opposite in the U.S. Air Force, where most of the noncommissioned officers have 13 years of military service and are in their 30s.

What is one of the things visiting German instructors like best about visiting the U.S. military community in Kaiserslautern? Johnson said that’s easy: Chili’s restaurant at Ramstein Air Base.

“When they come, we always go to Chili’s,” he said of the popular American franchise.

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