16:10 PM

N.C. Cadet Overcomes Rough Start in Life to Earn Honor

1st Lt. Sue Beutler
Public Affairs Officer
Gastonia Composite Squadron
North Carolina Wing

The North Carolina Wing’s annual summer encampment this year included the inaugural presentation of the Lt. Col. Bob Pardo Outstanding Wingman Award. The honor went to Cadet Airman Mario High of the Gastonia Composite Squadron.

There’s a lot more to High’s story. It’s one of struggle, victory and inspiration for those around him.

He was born prematurely in January 2005 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. His medical condition was more than his impoverished parents could handle, and he was given over to the care of a foster family with whom he lived for eight years.

During this time he struggled mentally and physically in an unhealthy environment. Blind in one eye and nonverbal until nearly age 7, he received no education. He finally began preschool at 7½, weighing only 35 pounds and standing 3 feet tall. He had the language skills of an 18-month-old and couldn’t write his name or count.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Keir and Tabatha High of Gastonia had served on mission trips to Honduras and spent time working with children in orphanages there. The couple have three biological children, but felt drawn to adopt a fourth. In 2011 Honduras became open to international adoptions, and through their mission group they learned of a young boy with special challenges who desperately needed help.

After receiving some basic information, the High family began pursuing the adoption of Mario in March of 2011. Keir and Tabatha met him for the first time in Honduras in September 2012. Despite his physical condition and developmental disabilities, Tabatha described him as “a happy kid.”

The adoption was made official Dec. 14, 2012. Even so, it wasn’t until Valentine’s Day of 2013, at the age of 8, that Mario was able to leave Honduras and arrive in North Carolina to a new life. “He fit in immediately,” Tabatha said. “It was like he had always been with our family.”

Mario’s education began right away, starting in a half-day kindergarten program. His small size – he still weighed only 35 pounds – belied his age. He went on to attend the Newcomers Center, where he began to learn English and a first-grade curriculum.

Today he reads at a third-grade level, but he’s making great strides in a regular school classroom with additional resource help. “Everything takes three times as long,” his mother said.

But Mario pushes forward, always with a smile.

The CAP connection
Late in 2018 while working as a substitute teacher, Tabatha was tasked to work with a student who needed help studying for a test. That test happened to be a Civil Air Patrol cadet Phase 1 achievement test. Curious, she did her homework on CAP and quickly realized the organization could well be just what Mario needed.

Curious, she did her homework on CAP and quickly realized that the organization could well be just what Mario needed. His older brother is an Air Force senior airman, and Mario dreamed of following in his footsteps.

Tabatha and Mario visited the Gastonia Composite Squadron, and by January both were ready for Mario to give it a try. Like most new cadets, he was nervous at first, but under the tutelage of the unit’s cadet flight staff he began to feel at home and to actively participate. On March 5 he earned his Curry Achievement and the corresponding grade of cadet airman.

The wing encampment, then a few months away, would doubtless present a challenge. As with so many cadets, the week would mark Mario’s first stay away from home for an extended period. Tabatha admitted to being nervous. So did Mario.Some rough patches occurred early on, but no one gave up, least of all Mario. Encampment leadership found the right wingman for him, and together the two cadets pushed each other to success.

Tabatha characterized encampment as “life-changing” for him. And with his usual enthusiasm, Mario made an impression on the entire staff by, as the award reads, “demonstrating the heart and soul of the wingman. . . in the best tradition of the Civil Air Patrol.”

Legacy of the award
The Lt. Col. Bob Pardo Outstanding Wingman Award, also referred to as the “Warrior Spirit” award, is inspired by fighter pilot Pardo’s actions during combat over North Vietnam.In March 1967, then-Capt. Pardo was in command of an F-4 Phantom II as part of a combat mission against the well-defended Thai Nguyen steel mill, north of Hanoi. Anti-aircraft fire struck both his plane and the accompanying Phantom flown by Capt. Earl Aman. Struck in the fuel tank, Aman’s fighter was losing too much fuel to make it back to the safety of Laotian airspace.

Pardo knew that ejecting over the rice paddies below would mean certain capture, so he acted. He lined up his damaged plane with the other Phantom’s tailhook and inched upward slowly until the hook made contact with his windscreen, which began to crack.

Pardo then repositioned his Phantom so that the tailhook made contact against a section of metal, at which point he hit the throttle. He used his damaged fighter to push his wingmen more than 80 miles to a point where both aircrews could eject from their failing aircraft in friendlier territory.

Helicopter crews rescued the four men from the jungle less than two hours later. The next day Pardo and his weapons system officer were back in the fight, their target the same steel mill north of Hanoi.

This action has come to be known as “Pardo’s Push.” U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Ridge Shan, 56th Fighter Wing public affairs officer, said, “More than four decades later, his name and his maneuver still have meaning to those who serve and fly today.”