Civil Air Patrol teaches search and rescue, life skills

FORT LEWIS – Justin Thiele casts a weather eye on the horizon, shouldering his rucksack full of 20 pounds of search-and-rescue equipment.

The rain is coming and it will hamper the search for the downed plane as Team 2 works their grid, looking and listening for the plane’s beacon.

Visibility will be limited, but that’s OK. Justin is confident, trained and ready to tackle any situation.

He is also 15 years old. Welcome to Civil Air Patrol, G-SAR Camp, Fort Lewis.

G-SAR, or Ground Search and Rescue, is a summer program offered by the Pacific Region Civil Air Patrol, which attracts young people from as far away as Oregon, California and Nevada. G-SAR isn’t your run-of-the-mill summer camp, it’s real-world survival training for emergency search and rescue situations.

Justin, who lives in Snohomish with his parents, Mark and Becky Thiele, has been in the Civil Air Patrol Northshore Composite Squadron for just over a year and can attest to the changes that the training has wrought.

“It was a little frightening at the start,” Justin said. “It’s intense. You learn a lot from every class.”

Like many CAP cadets, Justin can appreciate not only the skills he’s acquired but also the discipline and camaraderie.

“School is crazy,” said Justin, “but with CAP it’s totally different. Everyone treats each other with respect and you learn to trust your teammates.”

“CAP definitely takes a lot of his time,” said Becky Thiele. “He is interested in becoming a pilot and that has made him more focused on that career path. He has gone from flying planes in video games to working with them and directing them on the ground.”

But at G-SAR, your time is subject to the needs of the training officers, who needed them in the field bright and early.

“We’ve had them up since 3 a.m.,” said Lt. Col. Tom Peterson, a CAP G-SAR primary instructor. “We push night work to simulate realistic conditions. Rainy and wet, because searching conditions are never perfect.”

With that adherence to realism, the exercise took three teams of students through nearly two miles of arduous terrain to find some hikers who had gotten lost, a situation that isn’t uncommon in the Pacific Northwest.

“We need to expand their comfort zone in the elements,” said Lt. Col. Theresa Saylor, CAP G-SAR. “We make them uncomfortable. They start out scared, but when they come out of this course they are transformed.”

Saylor is a volunteer instructor and regional officer attached to the Pacific Region CAP, and has seen amazing transformations in the students who come through the training program.

It “makes for squared-away individuals,” said Saylor. “The cadets have to keep up training, and it impacts their school, family, personal life … there is sacrifice, but they are dedicated.”

It takes five hours for the teams to locate the beacon cleverly concealed under some moss.

They are wet, cold and tired, but after a quick breakfast, the cadets are in class. It’s a PowerPoint presentation on how to work with K-9 units and other working dogs while on search-and-rescue operations.

Peterson, of Monroe, has volunteered to hold the camp for his fourth year. He also works for the Washington State Department of Transportation as their aviation air search and rescue coordinator.

His 20-foot WSDOT Search &Rescue trailer is festooned with antennas and sensory equipment. It stands out in the rugged conditions of base camp.

Joining Peterson at the G-SAR camp is Tyler Jensen, a volunteer assistant instructor who accompanies cadets into the field.

He started out in the Civil Air Patrol in the ninth grade while attending Woodinville High School. Now 18, Jensen is an air support team member of the Department of Transportation’s Search and Rescue outfit, a helicopter observer with the King County Sheriff’s Office and he has helped support seven search-and-rescue missions in as many years.

“Now I want to be a flight surgeon with the Air Force,” he said.

To learn more

For more information about the Civil Air Patrol and its upcoming volunteer programs, call Theresa Saylor at 360-760-1053 or go online to

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