To Cpl. Thomas Forsyth, the best part of being an air cadet is the camaraderie.
Yes, the weekly meetings and training programs are about work and discipline, but they also about having fun, he says.
The 13-year-old Crossroads student, beginning his second year as a member of the Niagara-on-the-Lake squadron, is meeting all the stated goals of the organization – he's enjoying making new friends, taking part in interesting and unique challenges, participating in diverse training exercises, improving physical fitness and learning valuable work and personal life skills. The one remaining goal, he already has in spades – his self-confidence and a deep sense of responsibility are quickly evident at the open house held recently for the squadron as it begins a new season.
It's immediately obvious Forsyth is one of those teens who adults would recognize as a good'un, someone who will give 100 per cent to succeed at whatever he chooses.
“He's a very strong young cadet doing well in this program. He will go on to do great things,” said Capt. Jody Lemoine, commanding officer of the 809 Newark Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets.
But then he has confidence in all of his cadets – most of them are great kids when they join, or at least have the potential to be, “and we'll find it. You don't have to be the best to be here – you just have to want to be,” said Lemoine.
The cadet program aims to create good citizens, and Lemoine sees that in the youth he helps train. The squadron had some 'amazing” cadets, some who have gone on to work in other cadet training programs, and some to careers in the military.
The cadet program, he said, is particularly well-suited to 12 and 13-year-old kids who want to find their niche – they don't have to be the best academic students or great at sports, but they will find something they're good at, that interests them, and they will make friends who hold similar interests. The program is attracting an increasing number of girls, and Lemoine says one strong benefit he sees among all cadets, but even more so with the girls, is the confidence they gain.
“When we teach them leadership, it gets rid of any self-esteem problems they might have. It's great to see that.”
In addition to regular meetings, cadets are encouraged to take training programs offered by the national organization during the summer.
Forsyth was recommended to attend a general training program at the Trenton Air Force Base this summer, along with a six other first-year cadets from the squadron. Lemoine said he'd like all of his first years to attend the introductory program, but the numbers don't always allow him to send them all.
“I absolutely loved it,” said Forsyth of his two-week training camp. “It was one of the best experiences I've ever had.”
The camp offered many interesting opportunities, he said, including a flight on a military passenger jet from the air base.
He also enjoyed the field training exercises, where cadets practised survival skills, and the classes on aerospace, Canadian history, and the basics of flight.
He didn't mind that it involved some hard work and a lot of walking, he said.
“We were there to learn. General training is the course where they expose you to something new every day.”
Experiencing a little bit of everything the air cadet program offers helps younger cadets decide what courses they want to take in the future, he explained.
“I'm very confident now and hopeful that I can take some basic aviation technology and aerospace programs.”
Forsyth, who hopes for a career as a pilot, said he'd recommend the air cadet program to anyone interested in aviation, but there are many other skills to learn, he said, including leadership and good citizenship – as well as having fun.
“I also really enjoyed the camaraderie with the other cadets. By the end of the camp we were almost like a family.”
The highlight of his stay at camp, he said, was the opportunity to be the drill team commander in his flight – a group of about 30 cadets – and taking part in the drill team competition.
“We didn't do very well, but I was still honoured to be chosen team commander.”
Forsyth was also chosen to receive an award for being the Top General Training Cadet for his squadron of about 150 teens, an award, he said, that was based on criteria such as good behaviour, leadership qualities, active participation and a showing high level of enthusiasm for the program.
“It's a good award to get, the top of your squadron,” said Lemoine. “Awards at summer training camps are not easy to get. They're not given out lightly. If you're at Trenton and you get an award, you've earned it.”
The camp, Forsyth said, was just one of the great experiences he's had since joining cadets a year ago.
“I never expected that shortly after joining I'd get to go up in a glider. I got to see over the whole town – it was really amazing to see. There have been lots of events I'd never have gone to if cadets hadn't taken me there,” he said.
“I've enjoyed every minute of it, and found it very rewarding.”
Lemoine says although the cadet organization is connected with the military, it's not just for kids who want a career in the military.
“It's a very well-rounded program. We teach leadership and citizenship, with an objective of giving back to Canadian youth. We're very clear we're not a recruiting engine – that's not our objective. We offer a challenge, and what we get is dedication. Youth likes challenge – if it's boring, or if it's handed to them on a platter, they're not going to stay around.”
This year, the local squadron has moved to a new location, hopefully a permanent one – in recent years, they've gone from the former Virgil fire hall, to the former Virgil school, and most recently, the former high school, all which turned out to be temporary.
A long-term stay at somewhere they're offered storage space and enough room for activities is vital, and they feel they've found that at the Croatian National Centre on Line 3, which also offers a great outdoor space for games and practice drills.
The program is open to youth aged 12 to 18, with regular Wednesday meetings from 6:30 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. and Mondays for those who want to attend optional training. Anyone who feels they might want to join is welcome to come to a Wednesday meeting.
One of Lemoine's favourite quotes, from Oliver Wendall Holmes, sums up what he believes is the cadet experience: “One's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension.”
The cadet program opens young minds to new ideas, and they will always be the better for it, he said.