In the midst of my parents’ divorce, and my ensuing alienation at church, I joined an organization called Civil Air Patrol.
Civil Air Patrol is an amazing organization with a rich history–it was founded just one week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, by citizens who saw that the United States was vulnerable to an attack, and wanted to do something to protect the country. Its role during WWII consisted of coastal patrols, looking for German submarines, but has evolved to its current three missions: emergency services, aerospace education, and the cadet program.
I wanted to join the Air Force and become an F-15E pilot, and I decided that CAP would help me along the way. It took me some time to convince my parents–my mother, in the way that only mothers can, worried that I’d be sent off to Iraq, and my father wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to take orders and handle a strict chain of command.
Needless to say, I surprised them both.
I rose quickly through the ranks in the cadet program. I joined my squadron’s Color Guard team, increasing my commitment from one day a week and an occasional weekend to three days a week, and many more weekends. I began training to join the squadron’s search and rescue team.
CAP was my rock. It was my one thing, in all my life, that was mine, and only mine. In Civil Air Patrol, I had a purpose. I had potential. I was a good follower, and had the makings of a good leader. I was serving my country. I was surrounded by like-minded people–driven and devoted, and many of my fellow cadets wanted to join the military. Many of the senior members were veterans.
I was closest with the Color Guard team. We practiced several times a week. We were a competitive team–we were aiming for Nationals. The previous year’s team lost at Region, and we were determined to go farther than they had.
These bonds were unlike anything I’d experienced before–they showed in sharp contrast to my relationships with the people at church. Let me explain:
Our Color Guard team won Wing (state) competition. We traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to Wright-Patterson AFB and Wright State University for Region. We won. Nationals were going to be in Dayton. We were so excited.
We made the drive, settled in, and the competition began. One of the first events, the written exam, was my best. We were sitting outside the building…
and I had a seizure. It was my first, since I was a child and it was thought that I had juvenile epilepsy. No one expected it, not the least of all me. One of my teammates remembered my telling her of my childhood disease, and realized what was going on. I busted open my head, bled all over my uniform and the sidewalk. An ambulance was called, and I was taken to the hospital. My team was left behind, to take the exam without me.
I had no idea what was going on–only that I wasn’t with my team anymore, and my head hurt. A lot. I didn’t care–I just wanted to go back to my team and compete. The doctors, Papa Beemer, and one of the senior members in charge of the Color Guard tried to convince to take it easy, to rest, to recover. We had an alternate. He could take over for me, they said.
I was having none of it. We worked too hard to get here. My team needed me. I was going back. I was competing. The doctors were frustrated with me, but Papa Beemer and the Colonel understood. The Colonel called the NCC staff and explained the situation. I had a stitch to close up the wound in my head. I couldn’t wash the blood out for a couple of days. The judges for inspection weren’t to subtract points for the blood. I was going to take the exam as soon as possible.
It was nearing midnight by the time I returned to the dorm on the Wright-State campus where we were staying. My team was watching for me–they met me in the stairwell. They surrounded me, hugging me. Was I okay? They told me what happened. How the drill team from Puerto Rico were the first to respond to their calls for help. How they held me and watched me bleed, and watched me be taken away from them. How they wanted to drop out of the competition to come with me to the hospital.
Wait–drop out of the competition? I was stunned. No way! You didn’t! No, we didn’t, they said. The other senior member that was in charge of our team had convinced them not to–telling them that that’s not what I would have wanted. Damn skippy! They went in for the exam–and did awfully. They couldn’t concentrate, they were too worried about me, and the image of me lying on the ground, unconscious and bleeding, was too fresh in their minds.
Tears were falling all around, by this time. We’re so glad you’re back, they told me. We’re so glad you’re okay. The teammate who would have taken over for me told me it would have felt so wrong, to be standing in my spot. Finally, we were ushered into one of the rooms. We’d been standing in the stairwell the whole time.
It was a long time before I went back to my room, which I shared with a member of the Ohio drill team. We represented the same region, and so shared rooms, meals, and event times. She was waiting up for me. We talked while I got ready for bed. I found out later she checked on me periodically throughout the night while I slept.
The support I received throughout the next couple of days was overwhelming. Cadets that we were competing against, that our Region’s drill team was competing against, it didn’t matter. The Puerto Rico drill team stuck close. We became fast friends. The Ohio drill team shared the Ale 8 we’d brought for them as a present.
We tied for third place overall. We heard over and over that it should have been ours. I knew it would have been, if it hadn’t been for my seizure. There were no regrets, however. We’d placed. We’d stuck it through. We’d made it through some very hard times.
That experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. True friends. True comrades, true teammates.
My NCC challenge coin