CLOVERDALE — Like many Canadians, Stephen Walters vividly remembers the day in 2014 that career criminal and drug addict Michael Zehaf-Bibeau jumped from his beater Toyota and gunned down National War Memorial guard Corporal Nathan Cirillo.
“It sharpened in my mind what Remembrance Day is all about,” Stephen said. “The vast majority of recent Canadian military missions have been in peacekeeping roles. Yet people still die while serving Canada. On that day, somebody actually died in uniform within the borders of this country.”
Stephen is not a grizzled war vet. He does not have firsthand knowledge of combat, nor is he particularly old. Indeed, he hasn’t yet reached voting age.
So what is it that makes this 17-year-old high school student ponder such deep military-centric sentiments?
Stephen is an air cadet – a good one. It was, to the best of his recollection, a childhood fascination with birds that led him down the road to where he is now. He marveled at how they could so easily fly, and he’d study them rather than engaging in the typical kindergarten-level pastimes.
“Then in 2007, when I was seven, we went to the Abbotsford Air Show, and it was mind-blowing,” Stephen recalled. The thing I remember most is the Snowbirds. They were amazing.”
And the dye was cast. Stephen would be a pilot. By the age of 13, he’d begun doing what he figured could realistically get him there. He’d enlisted in the 746 Lightning Hawk Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron based in Langley.
Four years later and the mostly home-schooled, well-spoken Cloverdale teenager has clearly taken to the cadet program. He’s become an integral part of his squadron and is now a sergeant. In the cadets, he says, you can choose your level of involvement. And he has chosen a rather high level.
Today, Stephen regularly commits three to four nights per week to the cause, teaches aviation to classes of 20 students and occasionally plays snare drum in the squadron’s band – all while going for his Grade 12 diploma. Oh yeah, he got his Transport Canada private pilot’s license, too. “I could fly before I could drive,” he said with a laugh.
In fact, Stephen is a very good pilot. At a Boundary Bay Airport ceremony this past August, Walters not only got his license, but also a $2,500 scholarship and an academic/flying skills award, too. Fellow Surrey cadets Mohammad Khan, Wayne Ng, Jeff Yoon and Matthew Wong also received their “wings” that day, and another Surreyite, Cadet Sergeant Brandon Reid, was cited for special achievements.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Stephen is already in the process of applying to be a full-fledged air force pilot. Seems he may just stick with the military – for the foreseeable future, anyway.
But it won’t be easy.
“Pilot is one of the most competitive jobs in the armed forces,” he cautioned.
One thing is sure, he won’t be the first member of his family to take to the skies in service of his country. Stephen’s great uncle was a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War before perishing on a training mission. And his grandfather, now age 90, was a crew member aboard a DC3 flying over Burma during the same war.
Stephen stops just short of being a walking, talking advertisement for the air cadet program.
He chats about the opportunities – the marksmanship competitions, the fitness nights, the music training, the chance to grab first-aid certificates. And the camaraderie.
“I’ve had a fantastic experience with the cadets and I’d recommend it to anyone. There really is something in it for everybody. And it’s a great place to meet quality people.”
On Remembrance Day, Stephen will gather along with fellow cadets, servicemen and women and the public to honour those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to come together with like-minded people to commemorate something we all have in common. It’s awe-inspiring.”