SHELBYVILLE — As a smattering of applause rang out around him, Luke Grace let a smile slip across his face.
He’d been working toward this for a long time, he said: the framed certificate in his hands and the ribbon he now carried on his chest were proof he was among an elite few volunteer-servicemen in the United State Air Force.
Twenty-year-old Grace this week was presented the Carl A. Spaatz Award, the highest honor given to members of the United State Civil Air Patrol’s cadet program — a civilian, volunteer auxiliary program of the United States Air Force made up of teens and other young people.
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Thursday, during an intimate ceremony at the Aviation Flight Facility in Shelbyville, Grace was presented the award by Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Jeff Hauser, one of the highest-ranking members of the state’s National Guard.
To be given the Spaatz Award, a person must show impeccable character and leadership skills, display sound physical fitness and pass three academic exams, including one that tests the cadet’s knowledge of aerospace and aviation, Hauser told the crowd.
Earning it is much tougher than it sounds, he said; only five in every 1,000 Civil Air Patrol cadets receives a Spaatz Award.
Grace, the son of Paul and Sheri Grace of Greenfield, is the 2,050th Civil Air Patrol cadet to ever collect the award. He is one of only 50 Hoosiers to earn the recognition.
The Civil Air Patrol was founded 75 years ago. It’s made up of volunteers from around the country who train regularly, readying to help their communities in times of need.
Typically, its members are called upon in the wake of natural disasters to assist with search and rescue efforts. If a tornado were to hit Central Indiana, for example, Grace and his Shelbyville-based unit would help with cleanup efforts or take to the skies to look for survivors.
The Civil Air Patrol’s cadet program, which is comprised of members ages 12 to 21, was created in the 1960s. The youth-based program aims to grow a young person’s interest in aviation, space and technology, all while building strong character, officials said.
Grace joined the cadet program when he was in middle school. Since then, he’s climbed its ranks, earning an array of awards along the way and traveling across the United States and to other countries to participate in various educational opportunities offered by the patrol, his father said.
He’s passed through an array of military training programs, including the National Emergency Services Academy at Camp Atterbury in Johnson County, where he learned essential search and rescue and first aid skills.
With the Spaatz Award, Grace now carries the rank of cadet colonel, the highest rank in the youth program.
But it’s the leadership experience Grace has gained with the Civil Air Patrol he feels is the most important. He was regularly given the opportunity to lead training sessions and help younger members of the patrol find their footing in the program. While he hasn’t yet decided what his future will hold, he’ll apply those lessons of management and helpfulness in any career path, he said.
Though he’ll soon age out of the cadet Civil Air Patrol, Grace plans to stay involved in the organization.
The Civil Air Patrol was formally created on Dec. 1, 1941, and those gathered at the awards presentation Thursday took time to recall the patrol’s impact on U.S. history.
The Civil Air Patrol’s founding members were civilian pilots who were certain the United States would soon become involved in World War II and decided to take steps to aide in the country’s national security.
The patrol began recruiting members following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on Japan, officials said.
During the Second World War, Civil Air Patrol pilots were tasked with flying along the coasts in hopes of spotting enemy submarines. Now, their military involvement has changed slightly while still maintaining their most basic mission of saving lives while saving Air Force resources, Phil Argenti, the commander of the Indiana wing of the Civil Air Patrol, said during Thursday’s program. Today, the Civil Air Patrol is most often called upon after disaster strikes, Argenti said.
For example, the patrol-trained pilots flew over the towns and cities destroyed by hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and others, putting in more than 11,000 hours looking for survivors. Most recently, the patrol’s pilots have taken to the skies above Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to survey damage caused by wildfires there.
As the world changes, Argenti said he expects the Civil Air Patrol to change with it.
“It’s an exciting time to be in the CAP,” he said. “I’m excited to see what our members accomplish in the next 75 years.”
The General Carl A. Spaatz Award is the highest honor a Civil Air Patrol cadet can be given.
Named for a prominent commander of air forces in World War II, the award is given to a cadet who demonstrates excellence in leadership, character, fitness and aerospace education.
Only 2050 people have ever received the honor.
Source: The Spaatz Association