Mark Dillon came home last month to renew acquaintances and share his experiences.
Now a brigadier general with the U.S. Air Force, the 1979 Bemidji High School graduate likened his rise to success as a career Air Force officer as a model for the Northland Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol in Bemidji.
"Serve your fellow man and work hard," he told Bemidji CAP cadets at their annual Dining Out banquet at Bemidji State University last month. "You are a part of a wonderful organization that develops your men and women into leaders."
Dillon, son of Bemidji School Board member Gene and Darlene Dillon, said he framed his life along the theme "IVER," meaning Integrity, Volunteerism, Excellence and Respect.
"For the people of Bemidji, the values of CAP are in IVER," said Dillon, who now serves as commander of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base and commander of the Kaiserslautern Military Community in Germany.
More than 200 people attended the Bemidji CAP Dining Out, which also recognized cadets with awards and promotions. There were also 33 table sponsors, representing the Bemidji business community, for the fundraising dinner.
Bemidji CAP, which is a first responder for air search and rescue operations, is in need of new facilities. Its Bemidji Regional Airport building is inadequate, and the squadron trains in the terminal building between flights.
Dillon said the Dillon family moved to Bemidji in 1973, after Gene Dillon's 36-year career in the U.S. Navy. They bought a farm north of town, a venture demanding hard work.
"Volunteerism is a way of life in farming," the brigadier general said. "I had big dreams but little tolerance of my parents. They taught me respect."
In high school, Dillon said his first love was baseball. As a junior, he started thinking of college and ended up in a Reserve Officer Training Program at Arizona State, where he also played baseball.
"I learned about excellence in baseball and college, because I wasn't in either," Dillon said. ":I was a skinny little catcher and got B's at ASU. I was taught excellence in college as it's not always being about the highest scores but about sticking to it."
Dillon said he learned integrity through the Air Force, with Dillon now in his 26th year in the Air Force.
He was commissioned in 1984 through ROTC and began his career as a space shuttle systems engineer. A distinguished graduate from undergraduate pilot training, Dillon has commanded the 22nd Airlift Squadron at Travis Air Force Base in California, the 782nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron involving C-5 cargo airlifts to Afghanistan, the 97th Operations Group at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma and the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis AFB.
While doing pilot training, he met and married his wife, Sara, who has volunteered many times for military family events. "I learned respect for family and friends," Gen. Dillon said.
He told of learning integrity the hard way, being involved in an airlift refueling incident in 1992. Unlike other officers, he told the truth. "The flight data recorder verified the facts, but it still took years to be exonerated."
Dillon also did a stint at the Pentagon, "where there are many opportunities to test your integrity," he said. The events of 9/11 changed the way the military viewed views everything, he said.
The ramp-up of supplies and troops to Afghanistan after 9/11 was the biggest cargo airlift since leaving Saigon in 1975, Dillon said. His command flew C-5, which can hold six school b buses end-to-end.
"You can never rest in this military business, neither can you in life," Dillon said, adding that while serving in the military it's important to keep one's roots.
"I'm still able to keep my roots in Bemidji," he said., "with sporting events, school and church. I like to fish. We teach our boys and they teach us about IVER."
The Bemidji CAP program is also a good start in learning IVER, a theme that can carry them through life, he said. "There's no telling how far you can go in the next 10, 20 or 30 years."
Others making remarks to the banquet were Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann, Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene, state Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, Northland Composite Squadron Vice Commander Col. Tom Weston and Minnesota Wing Commander Col. Thomas Theis.
The Bemidji squadron's commander, Capt. Robin Helgager, presented 2009 Leadership Laboratory Awards "to recognize members of the community who have been a part of helping our cadets to be better leaders" to Beltrami County 911 Communications Supervisor and Emergency Management Director Beryl Wernberg, Beltrami County Posse member Mary Foresth, Mayor Lehmann and Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1397 member Steve McGuirk.
Cadet awards presented included:
- Best Service Before Self Award -- Master Sgt. Rebecca Schrader.
- High Speed, Low Drag Award -- Mandy Bushong.
- VFW Award -- Master Sgt. Beau Braun (NCO Award), 2nd Lt. Ethan Helgager, (Cadet Officer Award).
- Air Force Sergeant's Award -- Doug Coutlee.
- Air Force Association Award -- Coutlee.
- Hartwig Cadet of the Year Award - Master Sgt. Kristin Schrader, runner-up Tech. Sgt. David Helgager.
- Billy Mitchell Award -- Coutlee.