In seventh grade in 2004, Nataly Rivera was a natural athlete, track and field material and an average student who like thousands of other middle schoolers wanted to find her place in Shelby, Texas. Then she saw an elective class that spoke to her - the Civil Air Patrol Cadet Pro-gram.
An Air Force Auxiliary Program, the Civil Air Patrol—CAP—was created in the late 1930s as a volunteer organization to aid in aviation missions for the United States. The more than 150,000 volunteers answered the call to service with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Today, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) continues in a different capacity as a nonprofit. It is composed by three parts: the cadet program for youth ages 12-21, aerospace education and emergency training services.
Using aviation as its educational cornerstone, the cadet program offers classes in leadership and developmental training; physical agility challenges; time management skills and a glimpse at the integrity that comes from discipline, planning and accountability. There are more than 24,000 cadets nationally. They participate in all three of CAP’s missions, including disaster relief and search and rescue missions.
Rivera got over the first self-conscious hurdle of having to wear a uniform—and started to thrive in the program. “CAP gives you confidence,” she said. “I always felt older, felt in charge. I was allowed to be responsible, got to plan and run events. My opinion mattered.”
Rivera stayed with the program through high school, learning how to balance all her activities—working part-time, national honor society, drill team and volunteering with special needs children. She made a mini-career out of her time as a cadet, and leadership skills took root.
“We could work our way up the ranks from airman to senior airman and make actual progress. If I do this, then I can move up, get more markers, so I kept getting promoted.”
The challenges helped her set other goals. “I somehow did things I never thought I could do. I’d ask, ‘How am I supposed to lead all these people?’ But I did. I was a drill team commander for two years, and we even went to nationals.”
She is convinced her experience with CAP got her into to Baylor University where she eventually graduated with a degree in communication sciences and disorders and now has a career as a speech pathologist for children.
Regimens Build Character
Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Gerry Levesque now serves as Senior CAP instructor and Squadron Commander at C.E. King Middle School in Houston, Texas. He sees CAP is an alternative to limited resources or outlets for students. “When you have a thousand kids and only 24 spots on the basketball team, what happens to talented students who don’t make the cut?”
CAP can fill that need with its physical agility tests as well as educational and leadership building skills. There are challenges and competitions, expectations and goals to set.
Regimens are important and build character, explained Levesque. They write weekly papers and learn to take pride in raising the flag, wearing a uniform and being organized. At the end of the day, they are called to attention and are dismissed. Reinforcement, parameters and expec-tations become inherent. They excel with goals they can reach. There are hands-on experiences at space camp, national drill team, free flight school and Cadet Officer School.
In a school where 74 percent of the students are Hispanic, Levesque also sees CAP as another advantage in building a future college app or resume. “They can take our course for a semester as an elective, but often, they stay for the duration,” he said. “A number of kids go on to the Air Force Academy, some join the military, some join the reserves, others go on to train and others go on to higher education. The bottom line is that it teaches discipline and opens eyes to possibilities of leadership and avenues in aerospace study.”
Cadet Officer School—The Next Level
For students who choose to continue with the CAP Cadet Program, Cadet Officer School (COS) is a premier leadership program for cadets ages sixteen and older. The extremely competitive school is held every summer at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, the site of CAP National headquarters and home of Air University and professional military education for the U.S. Air Force.
Approximately 500 applicants vie for 120 slots annually. A labor-intensive screening at the state and national levels begins the deliberate selection from diverse geographic, socio-economic, gender and ethnic areas. Puerto Rico has historically had the largest cadet base. This year, 121 cadets from 35 states—the top 15 percent of all CAP cadets accepted—are participating in the 10-day, college-level course.
“The officer school is really the perfect program for college prep mentality,” said Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Winter, CAP COS Director and Acting Commander, Maryland Wing. “It’s competitive from an academic standpoint, but it’s the total package with physical, leadership and handson activities.”
In addition to classes and seminars, a wide variety of top military and industry leaders share their experiences with the cadets. Cadets are guided through the Air Force approach to the psychology of leadership, problem solving techniques, effective writing, speaking and group dynamics. Topics include human relations, critical thinking, leadership and national security issues.
The cadets also get a dose of reality.
“For many, it’s the first time they’re thrust into this type of environment,” Winter said. “They’re used to being first and best in their squadron. Now, they’re among the first and best of many squadrons. They’re used to being the top dog and leading. Now, they’re the follower, which is good. Just like in life, at times, they’ll see the importance of being both follower and leader.”
Small group seminars also bring out the best of the cadets, Winter explained. “The level of intelligent questions asked is surprising. Topics span from war games to emotional intelligence to leading small groups. It’s amazing in 10 days how quickly they grasp and apply leadership skills.”
Whether cadets are at middle school or officer school level, Levesque and Winter believe they are on the right track. Character development can lead to more—the potential to become the brightest of the nation’s future leaders.
“They become part of something bigger,” Levesque said. “This is the price of admission: core values of integrity, respect, excellence and volunteer and community service.”
For more information, check out Gocivilairpatrol.com