Sitting in a four-seater single-propeller Cessna 182, Chief Master Sergeant Elana Stroud’s ’13 voice crackled on the radio.
“Cap four-niner-niner permission to use takeoff strip four,” she said.
Stroud received permission from ground control and began her pre-flight checklist. She checked the elevators, rudder, fuel level, wind speed, and gyros. Stroud taxied to the runway and prepared for takeoff. The engine screamed as she sped down the runway and pulled back on the control yoke to lift into the skies.
Stroud spent a week at the joint Air Force Base Camp San Luis Obispo and a week at a leadership seminar at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. The purpose was to experience what it would be like to attend one of the nation’s service academies.
On the last day of the naval program, commanding officers told cadets the day before that they would let them sleep in until eight and would not be required to do any PT [physical training] the next day. The officers burst in the room at 4:30 a.m. the next day with pots and pans. The group then ran to a bay and had to complete seven activities in over 100 degree weather including martial arts, treading water with weights and a bear crawl relay.
“By 10 in the morning we were just covered, plastered in dirt, our clothes were ripped, we were exhausted, and they are just screaming at us,” Stroud said.
Afterwards, the squadron had to undergo “indoctrination” where the group had to stand against a wall and be berated by an officer for hours.
“By 5 p.m. everyone was about to pass out. It was ridiculous. The whole point is not just to be mean to you, but as they say ‘break you down to build you back up again.’”
Although cadets did at least 300 push ups every day, they also attended a variety of classes hosted by the program.
The Air Force tried to make their mornings difficult as well.
The cadets were woken up at 5 a.m. daily without the help of an alarm clock.
“By eight o’clock we had done a workout, eaten breakfast and had learned something,” Stroud said.
Air Force cadets rode in Black Hawk helicopters and piloted Cessna 182s and 172s.
“It made you realize the capabilities of helicopters because we would [fly] 10 feet from the side of the mountain. We went really low, right above the freeway, so it was much cooler than a plane.”
Despite the freedom to control these vehicles, Stroud thought that the Air Force is much harder on its cadets than the Navy.
“[The head commander] inspected everyone’s barracks. We had to stand at attention for over four hours, not moving, while they checked the measurements of everything and if anything was wrong they threw it down, ripped it out, they yelled at you and it was not fun. We were standing there and all of a sudden people would burst out crying because they just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Stroud was never fazed by the constant discipline demanded of cadets.
“Honestly, I’m pretty unemotional with such things,” she said. “There were people who broke down and were crying or had to go home and just couldn’t handle the stress, but that is what it is meant to be: to put you in a stressful environment and teach you to react in the proper way and not freak out and not have to cry yourself to sleep. It was miserable but for me it wasn’t as bad because I knew what was going on and I wasn’t going to let it get to me.”
Because Stroud completed the difficult Air Force program, if she were to enlist she would automatically be ranked an Airman First Class — two ranks above where she would have been otherwise.
Since ninth grade, Stroud has been involved in the Civil Air Patrol and has worked her way up to the rank of Chief Master Sergeant of her squadron based in Santa Monica. She is responsible for helping to run the weekly four-hour meetings they have and finding activities for the squad such as air shows, rocket launches, and marksmanship training.
“I feel like it has changed me more than any other single thing in my life has. I have been in charge of more than a hundred people, I have had to email five star generals asking for permission to do things, I have been in places that other people have never been to,” Stroud said.
Stroud has held and scrutinized a predator drone, flown a C-130 cargo jet, and received formal marksmanship training at Los Alamitos.
“There are points where you can’t freak out in stressful situations,” Sroud said. “If there is a fire then you shouldn’t start crying to yourself. You should do something about it so that’s what they try to train you for.”
The ratio of women to men in Stroud’s squadron is around 1 to 10, said Stroud.
“Honestly I’ve been a tomboy my entire life so I don’t notice. It’s amusing to me to see these guys who think just because I’m a girl I’m not going to be strong or I’m not going to be as good at sports as them. It’s funny to beat a guy at his own standard because then they feel really bad about it.”
Stroud hopes to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and then join the Air Force.
“I like how the academy is not just the military environment, but the academy has a big emphasis on athletics and a big emphasis on teamwork.”
When Stroud is in uniform, “people will come up to us and [say] ‘Thank you for your service’ but, we’re a volunteer organization and while obviously I am not in the military yet, it really makes me want to serve,” Stroud said.