In the Ranks of an Ally

PARIS -- It was a cloudy July day as thousands of spectators, full of national pride, flooded red, white and blue adorned streets waiting for the military parade to begin.

U.S. Air Force Maj. James Gingras, French Air Force Academy exchange officer, lined up his cadets for review before marching them down the Champs de Elysee for the 2012, 14th of July parade in Paris.

The 14th of July, known to Americans as Bastille Day, commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and is the French equivalent to the American 4th of July. Gingras had the privilege of marching in the annual parade due to his position as an air officer commanding at the French Air Force Academy in Salon de Provence. 

"I have been assigned to the French Air Force Academy since 2010," he said. "My position is unique in that I am the first nonrated personnel - the first nonpilot - to be at the academy, so the job has been evolving ever since I got there. (Now) the leadership at the French Air Force Academy entrusted me with the accord all the way up to the vice chief of staff of the French air force to be in charge of a brigade of cadets."

His Brigade consists of 15 French cadets and one German cadet.
"Every assignment has its own set of benefits. This particular assignment is very unique and a great opportunity," Gingras said. "It's a matter of learning and sharing. Here I'm able to learn about the French culture and the French military, and so that knowledge will help us in further engagements with NATO or international engagements where we work together."

One of the ways Gingras is able to learn from his French partners is by experiencing first hand their military traditions. 

The major has the distinction of being the first American to command a brigade of French cadets during an academy baptism ceremony. 

"The baptism, if you will, is not so much in the religious sense of the word, but in the class naming ceremony," he said. "It's where they are given their class name and they are henceforth called by that class name. So in this case the class was named for Capt. Marcel Albert and that class is going to be the Marcel Albert Class forever."

Captain Marcel Albert was an Ace fighter pilot for the French Free Air Force during World War II. He flew 262 combat missions and claimed 23 aerial victories against the enemy, according to aerostories.free.fr.

After the war he met his American wife while serving in Prague and eventually settled in the U.S., where he became an American citizen. Albert died in Harlingen, Texas, Aug. 23, 2010 at the age of 92.

Gingras said, members of Albert's family were able to attend the baptism ceremony and expressed their gratitude that an American officer was a part of it. 

The highlight for Gingras, however, was taking part in a ceremony that embodies the development of his cadets. 

"The baptism ceremony for our cadets was the culmination of a full year. They have taken the major step from being an NCO to being an officer and it has been a significant transition for them," he said. "Watching their growth and development culminating in the baptism ceremony was for me the most poignant event that I've seen."

Though he has only been with the academy since 2010, this is not Gingras' first experience with the French military.

"I was working with the French army in Afghanistan for a year and they were responsible for my security, so it was there that I first learned that their combat competencies and their ability to fight were very good," he said.
The time Gingras has spent at the French Air Force Academy will help him to operate in such combined environments in the future due to a better cultural awareness, he said.

"This experience allows me to bridge the gap between our two cultures because there is, at times, friction between our two cultures and as a result there is a lack of understanding. That lack of understanding leads to misunderstanding," Gingras said. "What I see my role as is one that can perhaps bridge the gap because I understand both cultures and I appreciate both cultures."

This attitude of cultural exchange is one that is one that is shared by his French collogue.

"Every time I can share things from my culture with your culture, for me it is just a great experience," said French air force Capt. Guillaune Fonteneau, French Air Force Academy air office commanding. "Militaries have to work together more and more and we have to understand each other, so that is why it very important to share."

According to Gingras, the assistance of his French compatriots is vital to his success.

"I have experienced a welcome that I wouldn't expect and they have been incredibly kind and generous, and so I wouldn't be able to do my job on a daily basis without their help," he said.

While Gingras appreciates the opportunity to learn about the French culture, he expressed the importance of maintaining his American character. 

"I am proud to be an American in France. It is always a difficult task to maintain your cultural independency when you are fully immersed into another culture and you have to find a balance between not being overtly American and not being completely immersed into the French culture and losing your own cultural identity. It's always a delicate balance to find that and hopefully that is something we have been able to do."
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