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C/Col John Robertson Appointed to the US Air Force Academy

C/Amn Robertson returns home from NCWG Encampment 2009
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C/Amn Robertson returns home from NCWG Encampment 2009 Photo credit: Michelle Robertson (Parent). (click image to view full size)
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Reflections on Six Years of CAP Service (And the Years to Come)

2/12/2015–– I am elated to announce that I have attained an appointment into the United States Air Force Academy Class of 2019.  I received the phone call personally from Congressman Robert Pittenger on January 8, and I was left speechless as he congratulated me.  It was the greatest news I had ever been given.  This was a goal I had longed to reach since my days in elementary school, and it is both a joy and a relief to look back on the years of hard work and intensive study that have culminated in its fulfillment.  As it will be for any person who receives a coveted Academy appointment, I had a multitude of family, friends, and mentors who supported me every step the way.  Second only to my family, I am the quickest to credit the countless Civil Air Patrol officers and cadets I have worked with for helping turn my dream into a reality.  In fond remembrance of my six years of Civil Air Patrol service, here are six of the most important lessons I learned as a CAP cadet and will keep in mind through my USAFA experience.

1. Never underestimate the power of the example you set for others.  I joined the Iredell Composite Squadron as a twelve-year-old sixth grader.  Like many cadets who join CAP at that age, I dreamed to be an Air Force pilot, and I was looking for a program that appealed to my intense passion for aviation.  As soon as I walked into the small hangar for my first visit on that cold January night, I knew CAP was just the right program for me.  My eyes glowed at the sight of the CAP Cessna 172 we kept in our hangar in those days, but I was most impressed by all the cadets dressed sharply in their BDUs.  They carried themselves with discipline, and I was put right at ease as they introduced themselves to me and even offered to teach me drill.  I wanted to be a CAP cadet just like them.  On February 12, 2009, I officially became a Cadet Airman Basic, and the journey began.  Six years later, I haven’t forgotten that night.  Iredell wasn’t my first unit choice, but the way those cadets welcomed me so warmly made it clear that Iredell was the place to be.  Likewise, the impression I give other young adults while in uniform can make or break their desire to follow in my footsteps and become CAP cadets, or later on, USAFA cadets.  Looking back on how radically the decision to join the Iredell team changed my life, that is a heavy responsibility that every CAP member bears. 

2. With a can-do attitude and the help of your teammates, you can make it through anything. I took my first step toward becoming a disciplined leader of character when I attended the 2009 NCWG Encampment at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.  I was still just 12, and it was the first time I had to do morning PT, march everywhere, get yelled at, salute officers, and memorize a whole book of CAP “knowledge.”  The rigor of living by such a structured, busy schedule on top of all that was overwhelming, and I never seemed to think I would make it through the intense week.  But my staff and flight-mates helped me perform every task well and keep a can-do attitude as each day passed.  We loved learning cadences, and our motivation earned us the “Spirit Flight” award.  In the end, I graduated as a far stronger CAP cadet than I was the week before, and I still take pride in the discipline I’d gained over that week.  While Basic Cadet Training at USAFA will be much more difficult than encampment was, I am confident that the team spirit and positive attitude that carried me through encampment will also carry me through the challenges of BCT, as well as any other challenge I cannot complete on my own. 

3. There is nothing like helping make a positive impact on the lives of others.  The thing that kept me motivated to pursue a military career – and stay active in CAP even after my cadet commander days – was the chance CAP gave me to be a part of a purpose greater than myself.  I first realized my desire for this when, as a second-year cadet at the 2011 National Honor Guard Academy, I helped welcome home soldiers returning home from deployment in Afghanistan at the Baltimore-Washington airport as part of a colors team.  As I stood motionless, rifle in hand, and watched the weary soldiers walk in and hug their families, I came to understand that my CAP career was about more than my enjoyment or professional development.  I take pride in every chance I’ve since had to give back to my cadets and community, whether through working at the Winston-Salem Air Show or helping train basic cadets as an encampment squadron commander.  Many of these activities involved a lot of planning and hard work, but it was always worth it once I knew that through it, I had somehow made a difference in somebody’s life. 

4. Listen to your teammates.  During that time, I had blazed through the ranks and received my Billy Mitchell Award at just 14 years old.  As Iredell’s only cadet officer at the time, I became the cadet commander almost on the spot.  Having the job of directing a staff of cadets who were older and more mature than I was extremely difficult.  It was often hard to accept their counseling whenever I was called out for setting a poor example, which happened often in the early days.  The only way to earn their loyalty was to value their input and heed their wisdom and experience.  In the context of leading CAP cadets, that was the key to making my staff feel valued and stay motivated to do their job.  Learning that lesson alone has helped me earn the respect of nearly everyone I’ve worked with since, both in CAP and out.  As I grew up learning from my mistakes and got the chance to lead younger cadets, I grew more and more competent in the art of leading leaders.  I had once again come a long way by the time I relinquished my command and passed the Spaatz exam in 2013. 

5. Never be afraid to learn through failure.  The hardest place to learn from my mistakes has always been the cockpit.  I got the chance to kick-start my flight training in both airplanes and gliders at CAP’s National Flight Academies.  When I went to Powered, I was already a private pilot in gliders and knew a lot about airplanes, so I expected to impress my instructor on my first flight.  But I couldn’t relax whenever I demanded perfection from myself, and I made more mistakes than I wanted to.  But once I learned to have fun in learning to fly (there’s more to NFA than the first solo) and making those mistakes, I could focus better, and I started to perform very well.  I soloed that week, but what was most important was knowing it would have been a worthwhile experience even if I hadn’t.  In the Air Force, I know I can expect to make more mistakes in flying, drill, and other things I tend to expect myself to be perfect at.  But having learned to accept this as a part of the learning process will certainly put me a step ahead in staying less stressed and more confident as I refine those skills. 

6. Strive to surround yourself with people better than you in your strengths.  One of my more recent CAP highlights was my journey down under to Australia for the International Air Cadet Exchange.  I spent two weeks there with six other CAP members and thirty-four of the top air cadets in the world, learning about the lifestyle of Australia and the ten other countries represented in our group.  The trip felt like a vacation as we toured military bases, dined with many dignitaries, went surfing, wandered around the cities, and saw many exotic animals (You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a selfie with a kangaroo).  But even here I had something to learn.  Many of the cadets had far more flying and leadership experience than I did.  I couldn’t help but feel a little insecure, but I found once again that learning from their wisdom was another way to improve my own.  Likewise, many of the cadets I will work with at USAFA will be far better students, athletes, leaders, and pilots than I am.  But as hard as this can be for my prideful self to surround myself with those kinds of people, I know full well there is no better way to stay humble and keep heading in the real direction to success.

I cannot stress enough that these lessons I learned in CAP were only a few of the lessons I had to learn in order to earn my appointment. To earn an Academy appointment, one must also make great grades in high school and stay active in organized sports on top of demonstrating potential for leadership. My CAP career alone could never have gotten me to that point, but it was CAP that gave me the discipline I needed to excel in those other areas.  In any case, the road to my dreams is only beginning.  Between now and my ultimate goal of attending Undergraduate Pilot Training and becoming a fighter pilot lie four years of rigorous academic study and military training.  But no matter how I am called to contribute to our nation’s defense as an Air Force officer, I know that the lessons I learned in CAP will go a long way in helping me perform my job with excellence and keep growing into the confident leader of character I ultimately desire to be.