It’s after 7 p.m. on a Thursday in late spring in the Flathead Valley, and 17-year-old Shelby Petersen is dressed in her camouflage fatigues lying on her back, her polished black boots shining as she kicks her legs into the air in a flutter.
“Put your hands beside your leg like this so you can hold yourself up,” Petersen says, demonstrating the abdominal exercise to a young girl working out with the Civil Air Patrol.
It wasn’t long ago that Petersen was a young, shy, 12-year-old recruit herself, an introvert who didn’t know what she’d be capable of if she tried. Now, she proudly wears three diamond insignia on her collar and her cap, showing she is the 0.5 percent of Civil Air Patrol (CAP) cadets to achieve the highest rank available to them — Cadet Colonel.
Garnering 18 promotion achievements in five years is tough enough, but Petersen went beyond that and took the national Spaatz Exam. After passing, she achieved the pinnacle of advancement in CAP. She also held the position of Cadet Commander at the Flathead squadron of the Montana wing of CAP.
As an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, the CAP started in 1941 as a way to mobilize the nation’s civilian aviation resources to defend the nation if necessary, and has since evolved into a public-service organization that carries out emergency missions when needed, such as search and rescue.
Since the CAP program’s inception, there have only been 2,227 cadets to achieve the Spaatz award, named for Gen. Carl A Spaatz, the first chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force and the first chairman of the CAP National Board.
It’s an extraordinary achievement that the Montana CAP hasn’t seen since 2004, even though other cadets in the state’s eight squadrons have tried. The four-hour test includes all the material Petersen has learned at CAP, including aerospace, leadership, and character skills, as well as a physical test that puts her on the same fitness levels as U.S. Air Force Academy candidates. All sections must be passed by at least 80 percent.
“As far as I’ve come since I was 12, I want to get even better,” Petersen said. “I want to develop myself past what I believed I could accomplish. When I first got here, I thought, ‘This is awesome, I want to excel as much as I can.'”
A senior at Glacier High School who is graduating this year, Petersen looked like she was headed to one of the military service academies, but instead, she chose to enlist with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Pat Walsh, a volunteer with CAP who has known Petersen since she started, said she’s developed into a good young adult who will thrive in the structure of the military.
“She’s smart, and you could see her confidence grow,” Walsh said, watching Petersen mentor the younger cadets.
The road to this point in her life hasn’t been easy, though Petersen would tell you the challenges she’s faced have only made her stronger and brought out her character. She was adopted as a young child, and has always lived in a busy home with many siblings.
Reading was a challenge, something she worked on as a kid going through homeschooling. When she was 8, her birth mother, Maureen Rickard, who happens to be the Montana Wing Director for Cadet Programs for CAP, got Petersen’s older brother involved in CAP.
Petersen started hanging out with the CAP kids during their Thursday night meetings at the National Guard Armory in Kalispell, and she decided to join when she was 12.
Even as the cadet airman, the first achievement in CAP, Petersen knew she wanted to go for the Spaatz award.
“As an airman, I thought, ‘What if I start now?’ I got better at reading, and I had notebooks full of the things I couldn’t remember. I just wrote them over and over, and now I read them and I can’t believe I had trouble remembering those things, it’s so easy now.”
Rickard, who served in the Navy, said she and the rest of the Montana wing is thrilled to have a Spaatz cadet in Montana, and personally, she’s proud to see Petersen succeed so much.
“She’s been so exemplary for this program,” Rickard said. “She’s going to the Marine Corps.”
“Hoorah,” Petersen interjected, quietly.
Petersen knows she is going to be in aviation electronics with the Marines, and she hopes to eventually be part of the crash-fire-rescue team there. She wants to be on the ground, working with people, and hopefully honing their skills the way she’s brought out her own.
“I love developing people,” Petersen said. “My first day here I looked at the Cadet Commander and said, ‘I want to be there.’ You’re right there with them and you’re watching them progress.”
Not only has Petersen held that role, but she’s also been accepted as the Cadet Commander for the CAP boot camp, called encampment, this year. It will be her last hurrah before her first hoorah at boot camp in South Carolina with the Marines.
She celebrated her achievement last weekend with the annual Wing Conference, where she received her award from the CAP National Commander. There will be another ceremony to honor Petersen’s achievements on May 23 at 7 p.m. at the armory, and the public, especially anybody with military experience in the valley, is invited to celebrate.
Petersen has found family at CAP, noting that every cadet there is like a brother or sister to her. She hopes her example gives other cadets a goal to aim for, to push themselves past the limits of what they thought they could do and into greatness.
“I’m hoping to inspire the Montana wing,” Petersen said. “I want to influence people.”
For more information on the Civil Air Patrol, visit https://mtwg.cap.gov.