16:14 PM

From 'Semper Vigilans' to 'Semper Fi'

With CAP in Her Back Pocket, the Marines Are in Her Future

By Kristi Carr
Contributing Writer

From Civil Air Patrol Volunteer

At 5-foot-1 and not much more than 100 pounds soaking wet, Katelen Van Aken doesn’t fit the stereotype of a U.S. Marine. But size and gender don’t determine skill and grit.

CAP as springboard

Civil Air Patrol Lt. Col. John Washington, for one, is not surprised Van Aken is making a place for herself in the Marines. He bases that feeling on her performance as a cadet in the New Hampshire Wing’s Seacoast Composite Squadron, which he commands.

“Katelen is always smiling,” Washington said during Van Aken's tenure in his squadron, “but as soon as it is time for CAP work, that smile disappears and she is all business. I think that is indicative of her self-discipline. She knows when to turn it on and when to turn it off. As the son of a former Marine, I am extremely proud of her accomplishments.”

Focused on training for emergency services, Van Aken’s CAP experiences included a marksmanship program with monthly trips to a local firing range, where she fell in love with the art and act of shooting, appreciating the patience and attention to detail required.

“It’s my happy place,” she said.

Dovetailing with joining CAP in her early high school years, Van Aken increasingly focused on joining the military after graduation. “I just wanted to do more, and I wanted to serve my country,” she said. Given CAP’s connection to the U.S. Air Force, it was an obvious step for her to join the Air Force’s Delayed Entry Program, a prelude to joining the Air Force after high school graduation.


“Give me more!”

But even the direction provided by the Delayed Entry Program did not fully satisfy her, because the group met only once a month. She still wanted more. When a friend in a counterpart program for the Marines described that branch’s more rigorous training schedule, Van Aken switched.

The Marines have groomed her ever since.

When graduation from high school meant no more soccer or ice hockey to keep her physically fit, her recruiter stepped in, working with her on physical stamina and exercises until she was called to boot camp in the fall.

U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. James Ralstin said it was his duty to give recruits a level of skills that would make him comfortable serving alongside them. He made sure to present a hard look at Marine service, but this frank discussion with Van Aken only deepened her resolve.

Where the rubber meets the road

When Van Aken arrived at Parris Island, South Carolina, to begin Marine boot camp, she encountered many other female recruits. In her platoon alone, she noted 67 other women — 59 at the end.

Van Aken was determined she would be one of the boot camp survivors. “I may be small,” she acknowledged, “but I’ve always been tough.” In fact, she said, “Mental toughness is what drives physical toughness.”

For example, as boot camp progressed, the load each camper was expected to carry became increasingly heavy, up to 50 pounds — almost half Van Aken’s body weight.

“No problem,” she said.


What now?

Van Aken will serve in the Marines as a communications specialist. “I expect to be afield radio operator, attached to an infantry unit,” she said.

At the prospect of an overseas assignment, her response was “cool!” At this point, she contemplates making the Marine Corps into a career and is looking forward to the opportunity to travel and experience other cultures.

All along her journey to military service, Van Aken has had the support of family, friends and mentors. Of course, she wouldn’t allow anything less.

“It’s what I want to do, so that’s the end of it, “she said. “Everyone knew not to change my mind.”

Contributing to this story was a Dec. 14, 2016, U.S. Marine news article by Sgt. Zachary Scanlon and Staff Sgt. Jonathan Wright of the 1st Marine Corps District.