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Originally published Thursday, December 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Civil Air Patrol aims to serve, save lives

Working quietly in a U.S. Army Reserve warehouse at Vancouver Barracks, some 73 Southwest Washington flight enthusiasts polish their rescue...

The (Vancouver) Columbian

Working quietly in a U.S. Army Reserve warehouse at Vancouver Barracks, some 73 Southwest Washington flight enthusiasts polish their rescue skills one or two nights a week.

They stand ready to save pilots whose airplanes crash. They can come to the aid of those who face disasters such as floods or fires.

They are preparing to help with the war on drugs and boost homeland security, while the teens among them sharpen their knowledge of science, engineering and aerospace. The youngsters might become air traffic controllers, mechanics, aircraft designers, engineers, soldiers or pilots.

The volunteers are the senior and cadet members of the Fort Vancouver Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol. They make up one of the 1,600 units of a national service organization established just before World War II.

Saving lives

Across the nation, the 57,000 members of the patrol — a nonprofit auxiliary of the Air Force — also perform unique services such as transporting human organs for transplant. The national group says that over 12 years its members helped 4,595 people with its organ-transport program, saving 286 lives.

The Civil Air Patrol said nationally it flew more than 3,000 search-and-rescue missions in 2005 and was credited with saving 73 lives in the process.

The Vancouver unit hasn't been called on recently to perform any emergency duty, but it is preparing itself, said Capt. Daniel Pietras, 60, a former U.S. Air Force radio repairman and computer expert who leads the group. It includes 45 senior members of all ages and 28 cadets, ages 11 to 21.

"We're kind of hoping to grow our membership a little," said Steven Janzen, 50, a warehouse manager for Pacific Northwest Medical who joined the corps four months ago. He said he was inspired by his son-in-law, Army Sgt. Joe Abitz, a combat medic who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. "I just wanted to do my part, to help my community," he said.

Key to the future

Though the patrol's mission is aviation-related, volunteers need not be pilots.

The younger members see the patrol as a key to their future. Regina Campbell, 18, a Clark College student, said she joined four years ago, thinking she might have a military career. Right now, she is studying toward a business degree. Samantha Brandon, 15, a Skyview High School student, said she joined because she is looking for a military career, possibly in the Navy.

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Although they volunteer, corps members pay annual dues and buy their own uniforms. The annual dues are $32 for cadets and $72 for seniors.

Besides learning to use electronic search equipment and cameras, the patrol members are mostly in love with flying.

"If I could, I would fly all the time," Pietras said. "I just love it."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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