AL Wing Encampment, March 1993
Ft McClellan, AL
Three weeks went by too fast.
Back in Birmingham, I was filled with anxiety and anticipation. I started to pack days before departure. Other than college, I had never been away from home for more than a week. I consulted the itinerary and carefully planned my wardrobe so I could pack frugally and efficiently. It was winter in the southern hemisphere, and bulky clothes took up more space. I used every pro packing tip I knew: stuffing shoes with tightly rolled socks and underwear. Very neatly folding shirts and pants. Reducing empty space. I filled my suitcase like a Tetris game.
With too much time on my hands, I repeatedly pored through all of the information packets from Australia and CAP. We would be hosted by the Air Training Corps (AirTC) of two states: New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The AirTC was a government funded military-based youth organization, similar to our AFJROTC. They were modeled after the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The average high in New South Wales was 52 degrees. Most households did not have central heating. Australians do not tip. They drive right hand drive cars on the left side of the road. When you cross the street look RIGHT, left, right – not left, right, left. A "jumper" is not something toddlers wear - it's a sweater. Social drinking was allowed, but not drunkenness. A door sign that said “WC” meant water closet – the toilet. Fireworks and weapons were not permitted.
My philosophy: If you’re going to prepare, you might as well over-prepare. I wanted to have Australian cash in my pocket when I landed in Sydney. I managed to go to a downtown Birmingham bank and exchange some greenbacks for Australian currency. It was colorful, slightly textured, and plastic. It screamed ADVENTURE. Staring at the foreign bills, I was so excited, I just wanted to get there before something went wrong.
I joined CAP in Alabama Wing at age thirteen in September 1988, and at first my cadet career fizzled. I remained a C/Airman for an entire year until I could find reliable transportation – that is, one of my cadet friends turned sixteen. For a dispiritingly long time my uniforms were “obsolete”, as one senior cadet officer put it. I had faded 100% cotton “pickle greens” that were several sizes too large. My blues were assembled piecemeal over time – strictly what I could get for free. I tried to make up for it by being a militarily “sharp” cadet. One year later, I was a C/Flight Officer, and had slowly accumulated precious new uniforms. About fourteen months after that, C/Captain. Finally, in May 1993, I got the Spaatz and also graduated from high school. Over that summer I commanded an encampment, and led a drill team to the SER competition. Then that was it for me. I was a ground team member, cadet squadron commander, attended eight encampments, and completed Cadet Officer School in 1992 (~$80). I had participated in over a dozen search and rescue missions (exercises and real), fried in the sun while parking cars at airshows, even stuffed hundreds of envelopes for the Air Force Extension Course Institute when their envelope stuffer broke. The problem was I didn’t have a car, couldn’t drive, and had no access to public transportation. I had been a very active cadet over the years, but I’d always bummed rides from someone in my squadron. On paper I was the “cadet advisor to Alabama Wing Director of Cadet Programs” - a free agent in the Wing. But for the next couple of years, I had to be content with only maintaining my cadet membership, and focusing on work and college.
This is my account of the 1996 International Air Cadet Exchange with Australia.
I have left in my awkward and uncomfortable memories. This is not to embarrass anyone or any group, nor cast the exchange in a bad light. I've included them to illustrate how my green diplomacy skills were tested over two weeks. I was certainly flummoxed a few times.
I have also left in instances of alcohol consumption, which was allowed by CAP in 1996. The drinking age in Australia was eighteen. If our behavior was measured by today’s standards, we all would have been kicked out.
No names have been changed. Out of respect, one family name has been omitted.
Being at Maxwell AFB was convenient. I got my uniforms directly from the CAP Bookstore, instead of ordering through the mail, which was always iffy. Looking over the uniform list I balked at the expensive blue blazer and its required pocket crest. The CAP Director for IACE shrugged and said the schedule in Australia was pretty informal that year, so I could leave out the blazer. In the end I bought two long sleeve white aviator shirts, two pairs of gray slacks, two name plates (one with the CAP crest, one with the US flag), an IACE tie, a pair of IACE epaulets, and one “travel shirt” - a navy blue short sleeved polo shirt with the IACE logo embroidered on the right side. For shoes I used my uniform high gloss oxfords.
I was thumbing through my hefty IACE scrapbook, and imagined a risible scene: trying to explain the Exchange to an adult, not only unfamiliar with the IACE, but also Civil Air Patrol. It would be especially bewildering to my friends in law enforcement, who tend to expect the worst out of people. For good reason, of course. You could probably spend a good twenty minutes trying to explain CAP, IACE, and the whole exchange process. In their minds, it might come down to this: You’re grouped with American strangers, flown over to an assigned country, met by foreign strangers, then dropped off at foreign strangers’ homes.
At twenty years old it was perfectly acceptable. At middle-age it does seem, at the very least, a little risky.
I occasionally like to check out the CAP website when they release the national cadet special activities list, just for a little bit of nostalgia, and to see how things are going. I think they’re a good indicator of the health of the cadet program. I’m happy to see that CAP has diversified and increased its number of activities, but not at all surprised that IACE has been scaled back dramatically. I’ve watched the numbers decline and the fees soar for years. I read that the venerable old style National Cadet Competition got the axe a few years ago. It wasn’t relevant or attractive to enough cadets – and it had been pretty contentious over the years. I imagine if something else has to go because of funding, IACE is at the top of the list. I can see why someone would question its value. CAP sells it as a Grand Old premier activity, but in reality, it just isn’t a big motivator for the average cadet. There are so many challenges and milestones between C/Airman Basic and the bare minimum requirements to even apply. For starters, you have to be seventeen. Eighteen is better. That’s years away. And you have to earn the Earhart. Pfft. Might as well be the Eaker or Spaatz. For a long time, it seems as distant as the moon. It’s not a realistic near-term goal. Instead, for a lot of American cadets, it is a penultimate activity, a denouement, or the capstone of a years-long cadet career – a last hurrah before departing adolescence and heading out into the bigger world.
With all of that said, in my admittedly biased opinion, CAP should never completely eliminate IACE. The value of IACE can not be measured by the simple yardstick of "How many CAP cadets does it appeal to or reach?" Its chartered mission is to foster international understanding, goodwill, and friendship. IACE reaches out to the world, and has a ripple effect that can not be valuated. I think we need more of that – not less – on as many fronts as possible.
We were encouraged to have lots of pins and small items to freely give away to cadets and hosts, but everything from the Bookstore seemed so expensive, like handing out $10 bills. While at the University I purchased Alabama pens and stickers. (The University was not in a generous mood.) Otherwise, I can’t recall specifically what I bought. I'm guessing I had a very limited supply of CAP patches, pins, and maybe one IACE logo pin from NHQ. However, I thought I had a genius solution: while at Maxwell I heard that Australians adored American blue raspberry flavored candy. I bought an entire box of lollipops.
*I still have the envelope and its enclosures, including a highlighted copy of the IACE Guide for Participants.
In January 1996 I was a student at the University of Alabama and considering the upcoming summer. As I was staring at a copy of the Civil Air Patrol News, it hit me that I’d be twenty-one in September, and my cadet career would officially be over. I had enough time for one last activity. Why not shoot for the moon – IACE? I thought, I’ll send in the paperwork and see what happens. There was nothing to lose, the application was free. My three choices were Australia, the Netherlands, and the UK. Frankly, any country would have been fine. I was mildly surprised, given my long absence, that AL Wing approved my paperwork. A couple of months later, I got a large manila envelope in the mail.* Not only had I been selected, but I was going to my first choice: Australia. Two weeks in Australia. The cost? A $25 registration fee, one passport ($55), about $200 worth of IACE specific uniforms, and spending cash. The IACE guide recommended $300-400 of spending cash.
I worked, scrimped, and saved for three months. I already had a part-time job in the University of Alabama’s Army ROTC department, and I worked as much as possible. After a few phone calls, Alabama Wing CAP very generously chipped in $350. Bless ‘em. I needed every penny. I had to buy everything from a suitcase to gifts for my hosts.
As weeks went by, I fretted over deadlines, checklists, and my packing list. In early June I realized I could use more cash – and I wanted out of the house. I was living in an unhappy situation in Birmingham, and was separated from my part time job in Tuscaloosa. Slightly desperate, I called NHQ’s Director of Cadet Programs, and asked him directly if I could work there until I left for Australia in mid-July. He apologized and said no. They couldn’t pay me. My heart sank as I hung up the phone. A short time later my phone rang. It was a young lady who worked at NHQ in Cadet Programs. She was my age, and also a C/Colonel. They had come up with a plan. I could stay with her in Montgomery, free of charge for three weeks, and be an intern of sorts. No pay – but the DCP would buy me lunch every day. Yes, absolutely – I could handle some volunteer work.
It was a great way to spend three weeks: busy, productive, and fun. I made several friends, got a unique view of NHQ CAP, and the inside gouge on Cadet Programs and IACE. Since NHQ was in the hectic summer activity season, Cadet Programs staff worked ten to twelve hours every day, and some hours on weekends. They never seemed to be completely off. I was given the task of gathering and compiling data for an Air Force Drug Demand Reduction (DDR) grant application. However, some days I found myself stuffing and labelling lots of envelopes – a necessary office evil. During some down time, I was amused to see the IACE selection grid. I was listed as #1 due to my grade and time in grade.