14:11 PM

Cadet's Canine Companion Awarded Honorary Membership

Vicky Travis
Contributing Writer

Cadets erupted in applause and a standing ovation at the Oklahoma Wing’s Gordon Cooper Composite Squadron when Bobby James Sommers became an honorary member.He is, after all, part of the family.

The close-knit squadron, based in Shawnee, has come to know Bobby James over the last few years as Cadet Chief Master Sgt. Brianna Sommers’ service dog. Loved by all, the cadets know to ask to pet him and how to handle service animals.

“I was really shocked. It’s amazing that CAP is letting Bobby James be a member,” Sommers said after the surprise presentation June 4. “He’s there for me. But he helps the whole squadron.”

As her mom, Crystal Sommers, puts it, Bobby James is opening eyes and showing that CAP is diverse and welcoming to people with special needs.

“We were thrilled to recognize Bobby for his contributions to CAP with an honorary membership,” said Susie Parker, director of personnel and member actions at CAP National Headquarters. “While he is not the traditional recipient of an honorary membership, he ensures that Cadet Sommers is able to fully participate in the cadet program, and that is an action worthy of special recognition.” 

Brianna, 16, has rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, a brain cyst, a muscle disease that affects strength, and ankylosing spondylitis, which is another form of arthritis that affects the spine. Strong-willed, intelligent and determined, Sommers powers through pain, stiffness and fatigue to drill and do pushups, sit-ups, pacer runs and more. At home, she adjusts her day to include rest when she knows she needs it.

Crystal Sommers has learned that trying to limit her girl to protect her isn’t the right move.

“I wanted to baby her, but I’ve learned not to do that,” she said, advising other parents to let kids do what they can do. “Don’t draw the line for them. I’ve learned she will draw the line for herself.”

Brianna has researched diet and exercise and has come up with her own regimen. She takes Motrin as needed and salt baths. She recently tried out for and made her school’s swim team and will start competing this fall. She’s in Air Force Junior ROTC at Choctaw High School. She also wanted to take gymnastics, much to her mother’s surprise.

“I watched her do a back walkover,” Crystal Sommers said. “I never thought I would see her back do that.”

Brianna, who tends to keep her diagnoses private at school and in CAP, has met with state legislators to help pass a bill that would place a doctor, not insurance companies, in control of prescription protocol. “I’m not a fan of telling everyone, but it’s gotten a lot easier to talk about it with legislators, even 10 people in one meeting,” she said.

She is also a Junior Ambassador for the Arthritis Foundation and will participate with Bobby James in this year’s Jingle Bell Run fundraiser in Tulsa. After she graduates from high school, she wants to study business and the culinary arts. “I want to go into the culinary arts and open my own business,” she said.

Right there at her side since age 9, when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, has been Bobby James, a shelter dog who had been rescued from a busy highway.

“We got him as a puppy, and he just kind of grew up with us,” Crystal Sommers about the German shepherd/pit bull mix, now 6. “But we saw that sometimes he wouldn’t leave Brianna’s side. And after she was diagnosed, we noticed that when she had pain, he would detect it. He will stand in a doorway to let us know what is up.”

And the name? Well, “Bobby” just seemed cute, so it stuck. And they took “James” from dad, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Brian James Sommers.

“I know dogs have a different sensory system than humans,” Brianna said. “We’re just so naturally aligned with each other. He is a born nurturer.”

The Sommers family trained Bobby James and got him certified as a service animal. He can withstand all of Brianna’s weight to help her up from the floor or a chair. He comes when she calls to bring water or other things in pouches on his harness. At meetings, he lays right next to her, ready when needed.

And now he even has three color-coordinated harnesses for each type of CAP uniform.

Brianna brings Bobby James to meetings off and on, saying that it’s not always the best idea, especially if she’s wearing dress blues and is wary of him shedding. She also doesn’t bring him to school.

The Sommers family has been involved in Civil Air Patrol for years. Brianna followed in the footsteps of her two older sisters, who were CAP cadets in Texas. Crystal, who holds the rank of captain and serves as the administrative, logistics, supply and testing officer for the squadron, joined CAP in 2007 with their oldest daughter, who is now deployed in Kuwait with the Air Force.

After the move to Oklahoma, Brianna joined CAP when she was 13. She would love to eventually be her unit’s cadet commander.

The rising junior wants to start planning more activities for her squadron, to help more kids like her come out of their shells.

“When I first came to Oklahoma I was really shy and didn’t want to talk to anyone,” she said. “But this squadron has become my family away from home. If I had brothers, they would be them.”