Civil Air Patrol's top cadet adapts to Air Force Academy life

Cadet 4th Class R. Hunter Ward, pictured here on the Air Force Academy Terrazzo, was named the Civil Air Patrol's Airman of the Year for 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)

Cadet 4th Class R. Hunter Ward, pictured here on the Air Force Academy Terrazzo, was named the Civil Air Patrol's Airman of the Year for 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- A few months into his freshman year at the Air Force Academy, the Civil Air Patrol's 2014 national cadet of the year has settled in nicely.

Cadet 4th Class Hunter Ward received the award during the CAP National Conference in Las Vegas Aug. 16, but he found out in May that he'd been selected.

"I was just speechless," he said. "It was unreal. I knew I was in the running ... but I didn't know there was a chance I would win it."

Ward said he was surprised because his record as a CAP cadet wasn't as strong as that of the previous year's winner, Cadet 3rd Class Sara Fishbein.

"She is way more qualified than me," he said. "She's done a lot more in CAP than I did. She was commander of three encampments, she's been on international cadet exchange programs. She's just really top-notch. I thought someone more like her would be in the pool this year."

Ward joined the Civil Air Patrol while his father, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Robert Ward, was assigned to the 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. The younger Ward found out about the program through his high school Junior ROTC instructor.

"They met on base, and we lived on base," Ward said. "I stopped by for a visit to see if I liked it, and it turned out it was definitely for me."

He joined the Tyndall-Panama Composite Squadron, part of the CAP's Florida Wing. He took on squadron-level roles and responsibilities in his freshman year, commanding color guards for local-area events, and participated in statewide events like encampments, which Ward said are similar to Basic Military Training for 12- and 13-year-old CAP airmen. In his later years, he joined cadet advisory councils, eventually serving on the national cadet advisory council.

"Every opportunity I saw, I reached for it," he said.

Ward reached the rank of cadet colonel in the Civil Air Patrol in February, a rank only about 0.5 percent of CAP airmen achieve. He said his experience has already helped him as a freshman at the Academy.

"As far as leadership goes, in CAP I learned how to first and foremost have personal leadership: taking care of myself, self-responsibility, time management," he said. "It's nice knowing that in high school, I had experience with having so much to do and so little time to do it. That's very important as a freshman."

Ward's CAP background also left him well-prepared for knowledge tests that Air Force Academy cadets endure their freshman year.

"Air Force structure, Air Force history, aerospace pioneers, chiefs of staff in previous years -- I mostly had all of that as a CAP cadet," he said. "In engineering, we're looking at the aerodynamics of an airplane and how it creates lift. I already had all that down, too. Little bits here and there are coming together and making freshman year a little bit easier."

Ward isn't quite set yet on what he wants to do after he graduates. A couple of years ago, he said, he considered force support or civil engineering. Now that he's here, he's looking skyward.

"For me, the dream job is to fly a B-2 (Spirit)," he said. "A lot of my friends want to be fighter pilots, but I don't think that's for me. But bombers are cool, and the B-2's definitely the coolest bomber."

Even if that changes, Ward says his number one dream is to be an Air Force officer.

"No matter what my career field is in the Air Force, that's my aspiration: to graduate from the Air Force Academy and be a second lieutenant," he said.

CAP cadets are selected for cadet of the year at the state level, then the regional level, before eight finalists -- one from each CAP region -- compete for the national honor. The winner receives a one-year membership in the Air Force Association.

The Civil Air Patrol is a Congressionally chartered, federally supported non-profit corporation that serves as the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force when performing Air Force-assigned missions. CAP conducts approximately 90 percent of inland search-and-rescue missions authorized by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall AFB. Its other missions include reconnaissance for the Drug Enforcement Administration, aerial target missions for combat readiness, special use airspace surveys and orientation flights for ROTC and junior ROTC cadets.

(Information compiled from 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs and staff reports.)