Maxwell AFB, Ala. -
Dr. Ruben A. Hernandez was 13 years old when he first saw the Moca High School Cadet Squadron Drill Team put on an exhibition. By the time it was done, he was hooked. “I wanted to do that,” said Hernandez, now a lieutenant colonel in Civil Air Patrol and assistant director of communications for the Southeast Region. “I wanted to be wearing that uniform and part of the drill team." "Teamwork was something I had never experienced before.” In September 1981 he became a CAP cadet. A year later he was able to join the drill team.
Just two years after that his cadet squadron, under the direction of then-commander Lt. Col. Eric E. Perez, won the Puerto Rico Wing Drill Team competition. Hernandez credits Perez, who also was an aerospace education teacher at his high school in Moca, as a role model and mentor. “[He] always encouraged us to maintain discipline and good study habits,” Hernandez said. “He helped me to keep the same discipline outside the Civil Air Patrol and into my personal life.” In fact, the two men remain close friends today. Perez said Hernandez demonstrated his potential as a leader right from the beginning of his CAP cadet career.
“He advanced rapidly and participated in all unit and wing activities,” said Perez, now the Moca squadron commander. “He has used the CAP core values throughout his life, as a member of the CAP and professionally. He is a great example for others and he has served as an inspiration to continue being part of the CAP.”
The discipline Hernandez learned in Civil Air Patrol came in handy when he decided he wanted to be a doctor. His father worked as a medical technologist in a lab, and he encouraged him to be a physician, Hernandez said. “He took me to his lab and he said, ‘I want you to do better than I have done; you can be a doctor,’” he recalled.
Drilled To Perfection
He decided to be a surgeon, specifically an orthopedic surgeon, as he pursued his medical studies. He credits CAP with helping him attain that goal. Hernandez practices in the southern part of the island in Ponce. He is an attending physician for two hospitals, Yauco Metro Pavia Hospital and Hospital Metropolitano Dr. Pila, and holds a private practice in both. A fellowship-trained adult reconstructive hip and knee surgeon, he performs around 250 total knee and hip surgeries a year. Hernandez did his fellowship training with one of the most renowned hip and knee orthopedic surgeons in the United States – Dr. Chitranjan J. Ranawat from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
“Today, I am an orthopedic surgeon because being in the Civil Air Patrol gave me the discipline to pursue my goal and to be a better student,” Hernandez said. “Every surgery is rewarding. It's biblical, helping someone walk when they can't -- helping someone walk when they are wheelchair-bound, unable to walk because the pain is so severe.”
Being a surgeon requires not only discipline but a strong commitment to precision, and he said he learned that level of precision on the drill team. To him, he said, one surgery is much like all the hundreds of others he’s performed. But for his patients, he knows he has to get everything right so that it will be their only surgery. “That one has to be perfect,” Hernandez said. “They don’t want another -- period.”
Similarly, CAP drill team members might practice a lot, but in competition there’s only one chance to excel. “That one had to be perfect,” he said. “No chance for seconds -- period.”
A Life of Service
Hernandez has remained in CAP since he joined as a cadet in 1981. He completed Phase IV of the cadet program, achieving the rank of cadet lieutenant colonel, and at 21 became a senior member. Though his medical studies and residency cut into his service, he always made a point of continuing to support his local squadron. He even served as his former squadron’s commander.
“I always visited my squadron giving motivational talks to cadets, telling them about the importance of discipline, studying and pursuing your dreams and goals, and how those things can make them happen,” he said.
Hernandez said one of his favorite things about both Civil Air Patrol and being a surgeon is teaching and helping others. “As a surgeon I teach interns, residents and other surgeons about surgeries and other issues,” he said. “In the CAP I like to teach radio communications and to help train mission scanners/observers.”
He said CAP allowed him to fulfill his dream of flying in an airplane. His first cadet orientation flight was his first time ever in an aircraft. And as a cadet captain, he obtained his mission observer rating.
CAP also allowed him to pursue his love of radio communications, which he discovered when he was just 9 years old. At that time he had experienced the camaraderie of the CB radio community, and much like drill team competition he was hooked.
Ironically, Hernandez met his mentor before he knew he would fill that role. Perez also was a CB and amateur radio enthusiast. and it turned out the pair had been communicating all along.
“When I joined the Civil Air Patrol I knew I liked the military way, and it is why I joined the Civil Air Patrol communications program. I did a lot of communications training, went to communications encampments and trained quite a few cadets into doing communications before the new communications program came in. It was really fun.”
Hernandez said he enjoys teaching because he likes to see people do their best. “That’s the way my father taught me, and that's the way my former commander, Lt. Col. Eric E. Perez, taught me,” he said. “Lt. Col. Perez had a great impact on me, and I enjoyed learning from him. The joy he had teaching inspired me to teach others as well.”
While it might seem natural that Hernandez has served as a medical officer for many CAP activities, he said it’s important to recognize he was a member of CAP before he become a surgeon. That means it’s often his CAP service that influences him first.
“I was a ground team member before being an orthopedic surgeon,” he said. “I was a mission observer before being an orthopedic surgeon. Because of this … my CAP service converges with my orthopedic surgeon's career. “I feel I am a CAP member that became an orthopedic surgeon, not an orthopedic surgeon who became a CAP member. I feel I have a lot to give back to CAP because of what I have gained in the CAP.”
He said CAP gave him discipline, respect for his superiors and respect for others. It also gave him friends he considers to be family. “It reinforced my core values,” he said. “Also, my best friends are CAP members. They are family to me because there is that same respect and care for them as they gave me. I believe this is more rewarding than anything.
"They are part of my extended family, which for me is priceless.”