Even from the outside, it was obviously not a run-of-the-mill weekly meeting at Civil Air Patrol’s Jacksonville Composite Squadron (SER-FL383). That’s because most of the honors were bestowed outside the squadron building this beautiful spring evening, as 18 cadets and senior members received recognition for merit and milestones.
“It’s a family,” Florida Wing Commander Col. Luis Garcia said without hesitation when asked what stands out about FL383 to him. Col. Garcia and Southeast Region Vice Commander Colonel Richard Greenwood flew to Jacksonville expressly for the Thursday, April 11 meeting. “I’ve been coming here for years,” Col Garcia continued. “It’s familiar faces and it’s a unit that looks to be a part of the entire organization, not only on the cadet program side but on the emergency services side.”
This night would recognize examples on both sides, as senior members Lt. Col. Gary Nelson and Maj. Giorgio Mugno, along with cadet Lt. Col. Joseph Nelson received the Exceptional Service Award, the National Commander’s Commendation Award, and the Meritorious Service Award, respectively, for their relief and reconnaissance work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. The elder Nelson served as incident commander in that effort. “I had no idea” that there would be accolades, Maj. Mugno said. “We just went down there and really did our job … The award is great but for me the bigger award was helping those people out.” A focal point of the Puerto Rico mission was capturing aerial photos of the devastation, allowing the Army, Marines, and FEMA – among others – to identify parts of the island that needed aid most and fastest.
Cadet Nelson led the cadet communications team during the mission. “I’m so glad I had an opportunity to go and do things I did in Puerto Rico,” the high school senior said. “I’m so glad I got to utilize the training I was given.” This was just part of what made the evening a banner one for the younger Nelson. He would become one of the fewer than one percent of all cadets nationwide to receive the prestigious General Ira C. Eaker Award, which recognizes sustained excellence in leadership, aerospace, fitness, and character. “To me it’s not about the ranks I’ve achieved, but what I’ve done while getting to those ranks - in between them - that matters to me,” Nelson said, shying from any temptation to laud his own many merits. Nelson, 18, has been a Civil Air Patrol cadet for five years, and had a quick response when asked what has most made his success possible. “Training. Lots and lots of training.”
To qualify for the Eaker Award, Nelson had to undergo a rigorous leadership training academy. He spoke of what he has learned and how he has benefited from his years with Civil Air Patrol. “They don’t just teach you how to lead, they teach you how to handle situations,” he said. “They teach you how to act under stress. It’s helped me deal with stress in life, because it’s so important, it’s what young people lack: the emotional maturity.”
Nelson’s father Gary, certainly with enough accolades of his own to make anyone proud, seemed proudest of his son. “In the Civil Air Patrol, number one, you can contribute as a parent,” the lieutenant colonel said, contrasting CAP with some other organizations that welcome teens. “Any parent can join Civil Air Patrol, even as a cadet sponsor member, and be part of watching that cadet and encourage them. You can take a little bit more active role to help them be successful and be hands-on with it, as opposed to just sitting in the back of the room.” But he was far from the only senior member singing his son’s praise. “[The Eaker Award] is just indicative of our future and what that young man brings to our program,” Col. Garcia emphasized. “He’s showing himself as a well-rounded cadet.”
From the vantage point of 40 years in Civil Air Patrol, Lt. Col. Gary Nelson characterized how CAP has benefited him by pointing out what might not have been if he hadn’t joined. “I probably would never have learned to fly it wasn’t for Civil Air Patrol. My parents weren’t flyers and I didn’t know anybody. I just knew that I wanted to fly. It got me started in aviation. It gave me a running start in my career as an Air Force officer.” This despite that Civil Air Patrol isn’t a flight school and doesn’t require its members to pursue military life. But without Nelson’s leadership and combined skill and energy, it’s hard to imagine where FL383 – a robust and thriving squadron boasting about 100 cadets and senior members – would be.
“It’s good to see the growth and the new generation coming along,” he said, “but because we have the older guys here who understand and are qualified to teach and guide people in the other pieces. We can put some vector to that thrust and get them where they need to go.” Whether that desired path is the military or continued volunteer service among peers who truly enjoy each other’s company and commitment. “[FL383] is always trying to espouse excellence and professionalism in what they do, and they’ll challenge if they see something that needs to be fixed,” Col. Garcia said. “The unit will step up to do the right thing.”
A character attested by the proceedings of this special evening, and also summed up in some humble near-paradoxical words from Maj. Mugno.“It selfishly gives me a sense of purpose to serve the community, serve the nation and help other people.”
Photos by: Capt. Chuck Vaughn
This article was produced from the Southeast Region Online News system. Electronic distribution is made possible through syndicated services. For more information, contact the Chief Editor Lt Col Judy Steele at JSteele@sercap.us.