Students excel as Civil Air Patrol cadets
February 26, 2008
Their packs sit at home ready to be used at a moment’s notice. And while these Park City High School students have yet to be deployed on a search-and-rescue mission, they feel prepared to jump into action, senior John Garrison said.
Garrison, along with senior Tyler Needham and junior Cheston Newhall are cadets in the Thunderbird squadron, Utah division of the Civil Air Patrol, a nonprofit auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, which has more than 56,000 volunteer members, including 22,000 cadets ages 12 to 21.
They became cadets in middle school, each with different reasons for joining. But no matter what their expectations were then, or what their goals are now, they all agree CAP gave them incredible leadership experiences.
"CAP is designed for cadets to learn how to be leaders," Needham said. "It promotes structure and leadership that kids just going through high school wouldn’t get otherwise."
Garrison said he volunteered for the program because he had just moved to Park City and didn’t have anything better to do. He is now deeply involved in CAP, recently earning the rank of Lt. Colonel in January, which is granted to just 2 percent of cadets nationwide.
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Friday he was tested, both physically and mentally, to become a full Colonel, an honor only bestowed to .01 percent of CAP cadets. He should have word about the results by the end of this week.
"It’s all about finding things to do in the program," he said.
As a state, regional and national representative, Garrison begins each week with three teleconference calls with other representatives from each level. He was also turned on to aviation through CAP and received his private pilot’s licensed in October 2007. Garrison added that, for many cadets, aerospace education is a big draw.
One of Garrison’s CAP highlights was a one-week encampment program, which is planned and run by cadets, where he was the commander. Garrison had to manage about 80 other cadets, holding staff meetings, making sure the facilities were available, and even creating curriculum from the ground up.
There were 12 flights in his encampment. "If one flight is doing worse than the rest, I have to figure out why that is and try and figure out how they can do better," he said. "It’s a great opportunity to be able to have that kind of power to move people forward and get the best out of them. When you get done with it, it’s like ‘wow I did that.’"
Garrison has also been nominated by his squadron commander for the national award of Cadet of the Year. He has applied to the Air Force and Naval academies and said that one way or another his future will be with the military. Becoming a pilot would be his "ultimate goal."
Garrison’s next adventure involves the annual Civic Leadership Academy, a weeklong seminar in Washington, D.C., which only 21 cadets from across the country are invited to attend.
For First Lt. Colonel Needham, the Civic Leadership Academy, which he attended last year, was a great experience. "You get to tour every part of Washington, D.C., except for the White House," he said. "You learn about how the government works and really see and experience Washington."
He continued that he was able to get a deeper understanding about important issues like Middle East affairs from the people who are actually doing it all.
While this is one of the less-disciplined CAP programs, Needham said he really enjoys the structure and military emphasis that goes along with being a cadet. "There’s a pride that comes with wearing the uniform and a respect that you get," he said.
But, Needham said, there is a major distinction between CAP and the military that most people don’t understand. In CAP there is no hazing as there is in the military, he said.
Garrison added, "You can put pressure on them, but it has to be on the whole group."
Needham continued, "When people see you in uniform, they think it’s just a bunch of kids yelling at each other, but that’s just not what CAP is about."
Needham volunteered for CAP in eighth grade after watching a PowerPoint presentation Garrison made to his class. He said he was really drawn to the search-and-rescue portion of the program.
According to the Civil Air Patrol’s Web site, the program performs about 90 percent of the nation’s inland search and rescue missions, saving an average of 75 lives per year. Other operations include: aerial reconnaissance for homeland security, disaster relief and damage assessment, transport for time-sensitive medical materials and counter-narcotic missions.
Needham plans to continue on the military track next year. He received a full-ride scholarship for the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Utah.
First Lt. Colonel Newhall thought he was on the military track as well when he joined CAP in seventh grade. He had wanted to go to West Point Academy.
While he now knows that a military career is not right for him, he found his calling in CAP with the leadership opportunities drill team presented.
As the commander, Newhall is preparing the squadron’s team for the national cadet competition in April. A group of 20 cadets tried out for a spot, but only 13 will be able to compete.
"Teaching drill or marching, promotes discipline, teamwork, respect for authority and being proud of a unit," he said.
As commander, Newhall has learned a lot about leadership. "We have adults making sure the logistics are OK, but team calendars and practices are run by myself," he said.
Newhall explained that through CAP he has gained courage, better speaking abilities and the confidence to know he can accomplish something if he puts his mind to it. "Through the program I’ve learned that I can go out there and do it," he said.
Newhall plans to continue on in CAP through his senior year. He also hopes to become a mentor for aspiring cadets when he grows up.
The Thunderbirds squadron meets once a week at the University of Utah’s ROTC building in Salt Lake City. Meetings cover a variety of program aspects such as moral leadership, physical training, aerospace education, leadership, testing knowledge and review boards to gain rank, and orientation flights.
Needham said that while CAP isn’t for everyone "A lot of my friends couldn’t handle the structure of it," he joked anyone interested should come to a few meetings and check it out. Garrison invited interested students to participate in search-and-rescue exercises with the squadron.
To join, students must attend three meetings, turn in the membership paperwork and pay a fee of $35 a year, which includes a uniform and aerospace education.
Garrison said CAP can sometimes be stereotyped as a very conservative organization with a homogenous membership. "It really is a lot more diverse," he said. The current CAP national commander is female, he added, and CAP has also had an African-American commander.
The first female in the Air Force Thunderbirds was a CAP cadet. "There are all these cool people in the program.," Garrison said, "and what they saw here and learned here helped them get to where they are today."