While the cost of the pandemic on various institutions and organizations is still being tallied, one group to withstand the impact is the Route 66 Composite Squadron, Edgewood’s Civil Air Patrol division, which is thriving.

Not only did the squadron not lose members, it gained two cadets and one senior member, said Major L. E. “Pete” Scherf, Senior Commander and Safety Officer for the squadron. “I think we’re the only [squad] in the New Mexico wing that gained members [during the pandemic],” he said.

The Civil Air Patrol is a nonprofit corporation founded in 1941 as a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. The C.A.P. focuses on cadet programs, search and rescue, and aeronautics training, said Scherf.

In early 2020, nationwide Civil Air Patrol cadet numbers had reached over 65,000, but over the course of the ensuing year, the organization lost over 20,000 members, said Scherf.

“We did lose a lot [of members] because of meeting online, not meeting in person; it was just ridiculous,” he said at the squadron’s Monday evening meeting at the Estancia Valley Classical Academy. “We’re getting some of them back now.”

Monday’s meeting included nine cadets in uniform.

“We usually have more,” said Major Dennis Craig, Deputy Commander of Cadets. “During school, of course, they get busy. And during the summer there’s a lot of vacations. So I’m happy with this many cadets.”

To join the Route 66 Composite Squadron, members need only pay dues and show up. But even without penalties for missing meetings, not a single Route 66 cadet failed to show up.

“I tell them when they join that they have to make a commitment to themselves to stay at least a year and be active,” said Scherf. “We require three meetings before you can join, just to find out what we’re all about.”

With such a drastic drop in nationwide numbers for the C.A.P., how do Scherf, Craig, and the program’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Roger Lenard, manage to maintain a thriving squadron?

“We threw out a lot of the boilerplate stuff [National Headquarters] was sending to us because it was just boring to the cadets,” said Lenard. “So all of the senior members made a special effort to create things that the cadets would like.”

One of those things was to get the cadets to be more engaged with running the program as soon as in-person meetings resumed, said Lenard.

“For the more senior cadets, in order to get promoted, they have to do things called staff duty assignments,” said Lenard. “What we’re trying to do is get the cadets to do more of the activities that are normally carried out by senior members.”

For instance, a 16-year old cadet from Edgewood, Lieutenant Liam Hoskovec, was charged with delivering one of the evening’s educational presentations.

“I would have been completely uncomfortable with that a year ago,” Hoskovec said. But after a year of cancelled meetings and forced time at home, he and the other Route 66 cadets were ready to excel.

Through activities and lessons implemented by Lenard, Scherf, and Craig, Hoskovec discovered that he had leadership skills.

“I had no idea that I could command a group [this] big,” he said. “When I first became a sergeant, I was tasked with just drilling them, and that was completely overwhelming for me. But now I send the email every week telling them where [the meeting] is. I’m doing the safety briefing later.”

Hoskovec is also responsible for recruiting the two new cadets to the squadron. “People who seem interested, I pursue them,” he said. “I don’t want to be too irritating about it, though. And we’ll get some more recruits as the Covid stuff settles down.”

Another Edgewood cadet, 17-year old Savannah Shelton, was promoted to Chief Master Sergeant the day before last month’s promotions and awards ceremony, the squadron’s first such ceremony in 18 months.

“I am currently training to be a flight sergeant,” said Shelton. One of her most recently received awards is the Rocketry Badge, which she obtained over a couple months, she said.

To earn the badge, Shelton studied rocket history, rocket science, and the safe building, launching, and recovery of model rockets during her pandemic downtime.

“It starts really simple with just some tubing and a slingshot, just to see how one force affects another,” she said. “Then it gets more and more complicated, and you start building rockets and attaching the engines and then lighting them up.”

Her decision to honor her commitment to the squadron during the pandemic has given her better discipline through drills, she said, and “it’s just a good learning experience for me, and it can be good on a resume as well.”

According to Lenard, the most difficult things during the pandemic have been finding ways of keeping cadets motivated, and keeping parents involved. “You know, watching stuff on the computer screen is totally boring,” he said. “I am the Character Development Officer as well, and the stuff we got from H.Q. for character development? Boring!”

So Lenard found a video online of the original space race, and he used lessons learned in the telling of that story to illustrate how the core values of the Civil Air Patrol can lead to huge successes.

Tenets of the C.A.P. include faithful service to the cadet program, loyalty to officers, participation in the program, and to be of service to the community, state, and nation.

“The Greek word is ‘paraclete,’” Lenard said. “Somebody that comes alongside to help. I think [cadets] realize the level to which we are committed to them, and so I think that is part of the reason for our success. And we love these kids. … We’re very proud of them.”