Well, there is a wonderful organization out there that does noble work, is a non-profit, and has benefits like free or low-cost training, free equipment, satisfaction from serving your community, teaching children teamwork and discipline, and allows one to make a tangible difference. This organization is Civil Air Patrol. Chartered the week prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, this organization of civil aviation enthusiasts grew rapidly and advanced the war effort immeasurably, with coastal patrols, search and rescue support for downed military aviators-in-training, and by war’s end would be credited with sinking several German U-Boats in the Atlantic coastal waters. President Truman recognized this organization and praised them and with the birth of the United State Air Force in 1947, Civil Air Patrol would become an official auxiliary of that service branch.
In the intervening decades, the organization would grow to all the states and most of the territories of the United States. Its cadet program would help generations of youth to mold them into service oriented and valuable members of society and the various service branches of the military. Its Senior Membership would educate the cadets in aerospace matters and fly innumerable search and rescue, counter-drug and training missions in civil aircraft. These members would train to become the most active search and rescue organization in the country, participating in 85% of all US Air Force involved military, commercial, and civil airplane and other search and rescues.
This organization is still viable and growing to this day. About 25 years ago, I entered the local Civil Air Patrol squadron meeting place at the same airport that would, about a decade later, be the same location of the final military unit I would serve in before retiring. The squadron was a composite squadron of cadets and senior members and we met, trained, and drilled on the civil side of the airport opposite my future base. I was a fresh 16-year-old kid with a driver’s license and cocky attitude. I was instantly enamored with the unit and its search and rescue mission. I knew that I would become an active duty serviceman someday and I knew that Civil Air Patrol or CAP, as we called it, would assist me with advanced rank and a shorter basic training stint. Within a few weeks, I had convinced my best friend, three other neighborhood kids and my little sister to give it a shot.
During this time I learned the basics of drill and ceremony, USAF and aviation history, and even would be asked to join the state drill team and honor guard that competed against Junior ROTC units. I got to add some hours behind the controls of our aircraft as our pilots would take us up regularly. These skills and this accumulated knowledge have served me throughout my life. I entered the United States Air Force at 18 years old in 1992 as an E-3 and was in an accelerated graduation program since I already had the drill portions down. At that time, only CAP and ROTC members of certain cadet officer ranks were eligible. (The accelerated graduation program is now defunct.) The USAF history and knowledge I learned as a teenager assisted me as I would rise through the ranks to become a non-commissioned officer.
While these things were definite benefits to me at a crucial period of my life, there was another lasting benefit that arguably shaped my life ns ways I am still discovering a quarter century later. I learned what it meant to SERVE. I learned what teamwork really meant, not on a sports field, but in situations where much was at stake. CAP awakened in me a desire to give to causes greater than myself because the intangible benefits of service outweighed any sacrifices.
I would join and rise up through the search and rescue program. Others would go into the communications program or aviation education. Still others would gravitate (no pun intended) toward the flying and spotter programs. I was instantly infatuated with search and rescue. In the years I was in, I would learn First Responder and Basic Life Support First Aid. I would learn the current technology to triangulate emergency beacons. I would learn how to rappel and perform low-angle rope rescues. I would learn to survive off the land. I would learn ground to air communications and radio communication protocols. I would learn the first tenets of leadership.
We had annual encampments that were combination basic training, leadership development, and specialization training. We had weekend exercises to hone our SAR skills and we assisted with local events for crowd and parking control and medical support. Many of my fellow cadets and senior members would get their HAM licenses. Some would even become pilots. I would log quite a few search and rescue missions and my 18th birthday began on a mountain in western Maryland where we had hiked into the previous day and would awaken that morning to discover the downed aircraft with the first fatality I would ever see. Our efforts gave the victim’s family some closure, as we and some local fire department volunteers secured the crash site, extricated the body and sent it back down the mountain.
These experiences left an indelible impression upon me. I would be in basic training less than 4 months after the abovementioned SAR and would find myself, by a series of events only a fellow GI could ever appreciate, in an engineer unit and stationed outside of Fairbanks, Alaska by New Year’s Day. My love of the outdoors, hunting, and search and rescue and all its attendant skills would lead me to become an emergency medical technician in a state with the highest standards and responsibilities of any EMT Basic Level’s found in the nation. This was for good reason, given the remoteness and extreme weather and environmental conditions of the wonderful state of Alaska. I would go on to become a volunteer firefighter and to continue my military career, post active duty, in the Air National Guard of three separate states of Idaho, Virginia, and Maryland. I joined the Guard because I realized that the Guard and not the Reserves gave me more chances to help my communities.
This was MY experience, so what could Civil Air Patrol do for you? For a modest annual membership due and time commitment you can get training and equipment. You can pick up lifesaving skills that are always helpful, but critical in bona fide emergencies. You could have your HAM license or pilot’s license training subsidized. There are tax incentives and, as I mentioned, you can get free field and communications gear potentially. You network with like-minded neighbors with similar skill sets. You get the satisfaction of serving your communities. Your children can learn the value of discipline and service without a military commitment. All it takes is some research to find the closest squadron within your state or territorial wing, and then you can check out a couple of meetings and decide if it is for you.
Civil Air Patrol is not for everybody, but it may be a solution to fill a hole in your disaster response and readiness training. I hope to get my daughter convinced to join next year.