Justin Fitje Jr. says it was his father, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, who inspired him to join the Civil Air Patrol 9th Suffolk Cadet Squadron when he was only 12—the youngest one can be to join that division of the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary.
Now 17, Justin and other local teenagers who have aspirations of enlisting in the military after high school, meet for three hours every Friday, from 7 to 10 p.m., at the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing headquarters building at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton. There, they learn about aerospace and emergency services from Lieutenant Colonel Daniel A. Rogers.
“My father was in the Navy, stationed on the USS America supercarrier that was involved in many Middle Eastern conflicts,” said Justin, who shares the same first name as his father. “His bravery is the main reason I joined.”
Simply known as “the cadets,” many members of the squadron, who include 12- to 18-year-olds attending the East Hampton, Eastport South Manor, Hampton Bays and Mattituck-Cutchogue school districts, have enrolled in the program because it will allow them to fast-track their careers in the military, if they decide to pursue that option after graduation.
Justin, who attends Bayport-Blue Point High School, is a cadet captain by grade and an executive officer by rank. The senior, who plays on the varsity golf and baseball teams, said he plans to enlist in the Navy, just like his father, once he finishes high school.
“My goal is to become an officer in college, and then join the Navy at the Annapolis station,” he said, referring to the military institution in Maryland. “That’s why I joined the cadets, to get a step ahead of the game.”
For most of the first hour every Friday, the cadets work on their marching and other discipline training. Then, most weeks, they spend the next two hours in a classroom setting learning about the different aspects of the military, including the different ranks they can earn. They also share details about their personal lives, both in and out of school.
Most of the cadets, however, cannot wait until they can start learning about flight school. “When a cadet turns 16, he or she may begin training for aviation, which remains to be the most anticipated event for many of our cadets,” Lt. Col. Rogers said.
Lt. Col. Rogers, who is employed as a director for American Airlines at LaGuardia Airport, volunteers his time for the program. In addition to teaching members how to march and about military rankings, he also spends many hours a week processing applications and raising donations.
He is quick to note that it is all worth the effort.
“I was a cadet, too,” Lt. Col Rogers said. “I joined when I was in the seventh grade, when my English teacher introduced me to it. It has left such an impact on me that I feel it’s only the right thing to do by giving back.”
In addition to learning about the military, many of the cadets form strong bonds with their peers. For example, Justin, a cadet captain and an executive officer, Brandon Basile, 16, who attends the Eastport South Manor High School in Manorville, and Randy Salvitti, 15, who goes to the Mattituck High School, have become good friends though each joined the outfit for different reasons.
Brandon, who is training as a non-commission officer, said he joined after receiving encouragement from his friends who were already enrolled in the program. “I had two friends who were a part of the cadets, and they told me that it is well worth it,” he said.
Randy, a cadet commander and a 2nd lieutenant—the latter being the highest rank a cadet can earn—explained the he knew that “he wanted to join the military from a very early point.” He added that his eventual transition to the military should be a lot smoother because of his experience in the cadets.
“Through this program, I can get into E3, which is a direct part of the Air Force recognized by the military,” Randy said. “Therefore, I will automatically get a higher grade when I join the military at the age of 18.”
Cadets can join the military once they turn 18, but can earn the rank of E3 before then so long as they earn the title of second lieutenant though the junior program.
Cadets pay an annual $35 fee to participate and the program now boasts about 20 members. In addition to learning about the military, cadets volunteer for many community service projects. For example, many helped direct traffic at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge during the facility’s many Halloween events and activities.
“I strongly encourage my cadets to get involved in every way possible,” Lt. Col Rogers said, explaining that his students received credit for the community hours served.
In fact, it was during one of their community service projects that Nikki Distefano of Hampton Bays was introduced to the program.
Currently a freshman at Hampton Bays High School and the only female member of the squadron, Nikki said she learned about the program while attending the Spooky Walk at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge a few years ago. The Girl Scout now attends most meetings and training sessions.
“We would love to see more female cadets,” said First Lieutenant Lauren Andrews, the assistant supervisor of the group who joined the cadets when she was only 12. “However, it seems like not many girls like the idea of the military.”
Justin, Brandon and Randy said they would love if more of their female classmates joined the group, with Justin observing: “Women are naturally more apt as leaders than men.”
When asked if they dislike anything about the program, all three cadets seemed lost for a moment until mutually agreeing that they wonder how many parties they missed because of their jam-packed Friday night schedules.