Air Force Featured Stories

DAF Civilian engineer accepted in foreign exchange program in Germany

  • Published
  • By Brian Brackens
  • Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Public Affairs

When Caleb Wagner was notified that he had been accepted into the U.S. Air Force’s Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program and would be placed in Germany, he couldn’t believe the news.

A civilian engineer with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory, Wagner applied to the exchange program as an opportunity to broaden his career.

After acceptance into the program, he began six months of full-time German language studies through the Defense Language Institute. Before this instruction, he had only a basic knowledge of German language.

In September of 2021, Wagner, his wife Sandra and their daughter packed up and moved to Erding, Germany, a small town on the outskirts of Munich, to begin the two-to-three-year assignment.

As part of the assignment, Wagner works in a GAF lab called the Arbeitsgruppe für Technische Untersuchungen or Working Group for Technical Investigations.

“At the lab, we are responsible for investigating aviation accidents and incidents of the German armed forces, which includes their Air Force, Army and Navy,” Wagner said. “Any flying weapon system that has an issue, is sent to us for failure analysis. It’s rewarding yet challenging in part because nearly all of the work is conducted in technical German [language] versus conversational German. I’m definitely fluent in conversational German, for example, going to the coffee shop, placing an order, and having a chat with a friend. That’s no problem at all. However, I’m still developing fluency in technical German.”

Being in Erding has been an immersive experience.

“We are really embedded in the culture,” Wagner said. “I’ve met maybe one American here in Erding. It’s very rare to hear English in this town. Even some of our doctors don’t speak English. My wife is learning German. My daughter who is two and a half is doing really well. She attends a German pre-kindergarten. She also has multiple babysitters who only speak German. It’s funny, because her pronunciation is getting better than mine.”

Wagner explained that one of the benefits of living in the town is convenience.

“It’s so bike friendly here,” he said. “I bike to work every day, and I’ve only driven to work a handful of times in the last year. The train system is really good here. We are only a ten-minute walk from the train station and from there you can get to nine countries within five hours.”

The only minor inconvenience is when craving food from home, Wagner and family must drive to the nearest U.S. Army commissary.

“When we drive to the commissary, it’s normally to pick up mail from our APO, Mexican food ingredients, and a bag of Jalapeño Cheetos, which you can’t get here in Germany,” he said. “The problem is that it’s a two-hour drive one-way, and by the time we get back to Erding, the bag is already gone.”

Working with the GAF, Wagner has been exposed to a number of unique experiences.

“In Germany because of their history, every soldier is required to attend a minimum of 24 hours of politische Bildung each year, which is political, cultural training and civic engagement that can take many forms. The goal is to ensure military members understand the mission of the armed forces, support democratic citizenship, promote a pluralistic society, and understand the dangers of extremism,” Wagner said.

“In my case, I was invited to attend a weeklong event in Berlin last September, and it was really insightful. There were academic lectures on human rights. We attended a televised forum on digital sovereignty in the European Union at a newspaper. There was an opportunity to visit a museum on the Holocaust. We met with the director of the Ministry of Defense’s legal agency, and we met with a former European Union ambassador. We also got to meet with four active members of the German parliament, each from a different political party. We got to talk with them from a military perspective and ask them direct questions. We asked them about Finland’s entrance into NATO, human rights concerns in China, conflicts in Ukraine and Taiwan, the German energy crisis, and allocation of defense funding. Through this opportunity, I was able to understand German foreign policy better and Germany’s impact on America’s defense strategy.”

Learning best practices and bringing new ideas back to AFLCMC’s Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory is a priority for Wagner. 

“I’ve been comparing and contrasting the two different laboratories,” he said. “I am looking at capability differences between my lab in the U.S, and my lab here. One of the biggest differences is that in the U.S. Air Force, we conduct our mishap investigations typically in the span of 30 days, based on AFI [Air Force Instruction] requirements. So, within 30 days from the mishap date, we have to deliver our report on what happened and how to prevent it in the future. Here in Germany, there is no timeline requirement, so these investigations often run for multiple years before the final report is delivered. Of course, depending on criticality, for instance a fatal mishap, findings and recommendations can be distributed within a month. There are benefits to both approaches. An advantage for the U.S. Air Force is that we tend to respond quickly and are more agile with the improvements, but the Germans would argue that their investigations are a little more accurate and dive deeper into the failure.”

“Overall, my goal is to collect new investigative methods, techniques, and lessons learned that can be integrated into my lab at AFLCMC,” Wagner added. “I’m building a network of technical experts in Germany that can be leveraged for future collaborations. Ultimately, we hope this exchange increases the safety and survival of our Airmen."