Loretta Fulton
Contributing writer

Civil Air Patrol recognizes National Disability Employment Awareness Month with a profile of 1st Lt. Matthew Stepaniak, who has overcome his physical challenges to serve as a Minnesota Wing squadron communcations officer.

People who know 1st Lt. Matthew Stepaniak will tell you it’s no surprise he cites receiving an award from Civil Air Patrol as one of the proudest moments of his life.

Stepaniak joined the Minnesota Wing in 2001. In 2015, he was recognized with the Robert Dunbar Memorial Award, given by the wing to “an individual who has expanded the capability of the Minnesota Wing communication field through their efforts and technical expertise.”

“Efforts and technical expertise” define Stepaniak, who was born with cerebral palsy but didn’t let that disorder define him. Now 48, he serves as assistant communications officer for the Viking Composite Squadron.

When he began volunteering with Civil Air Patrol, Stepaniak not only found a new outlet for his expertise, he also gained a whole new set of friends and colleagues who have proved to be more than just co-workers.

“They’ve served me like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.

Over the years, that service has included helping transport Stepaniak and his powered wheelchair to meetings and events, as well as working with him in training exercises.

Following are excerpts from an article that Lt. Col. Bonnie Braun, diversity officer for CAP’s North Central Region, wrote about Stepaniak for the October issue of a newsletter she edits.

“(Stepaniak) was recruited for his background in public service and ham radio,” Braun wrote. “First Lt. Stepaniak uses a wheelchair but doesn’t see himself as a person with disabilities. He figures out how to get things done.”

Stepaniak has also used his skills to assist the local Salvation Army and emergency response teams. From 2000-2016, he was a volunteer with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Communications Division. His mobility issues eventually forced him to leave that post. “I could no longer keep up my end of the bargain,” he said.

But his duties with Civil Air Patrol allow him to work from home, where he has a CAP radio and antenna, a ham radio and other equipment. At 9 p.m. each Friday, Stepaniak becomes the dispatcher for the FM network used by the Viking Composite Squadron. He also trains other volunteers with their radio equipment.

His supervisor, Maj. John Weiser, is the Viking squadron's communications officer and couldn’t be happier to have someone with Stepaniak’s abilities working alongside him. Stepaniak always comes through.

“He’s fully in charge of running that net,” Weiser said.

As dispatcher, Stepaniak checks in with other volunteers to make sure everyone’s communication gear is up and running. And anyone called out on a mission while he’s on duty checks in with him.

Stepaniak first latched onto radio communications as a teenager when he met a couple of sheriff’s deputies who were ham radio operators. That was in 1991, before cellphones were widely in use and before other technologies abundant today had been developed.

He realized he could learn to operate a ham radio and other communications devices and put that skill to good use. That was the beginning of a life change for Stepaniak.

“It goes from nothing,” he said, “to, all of a sudden, your world opens up.”

When Stepaniak was introduced to Civil Air Patrol, it seemed a match made in heaven. Other CAP volunteers recognized how knowledgeable and skilled he was with radios and recruited him.

Normally, he said, the wait time lasts six months while background checks clear. He filled out the application and prepared to wait.

“I had a radio two weeks later,” he said.

In a letter to Braun for her newsletter article, Stepaniak detailed his involvement with CAP and listed several people who had helped him along the way. One was Maj. James Hetherington, who shared driving and coordinating responsibilities for statewide meetings when Stepaniak first became involved with CAP.

“He was largely responsible for recruiting me to CAP,” Stepaniak wrote, “allowing me to cultivate my background in public service and ham radio.”

Hetherington, now the Minnesota Wing's maintenance officer, was determined to get Stepaniak into Civil Air Patrol for his skill set and for the example he could provide to others. Twenty years later, Stepaniak still is admired for his expertise and for the way he manages his volunteer duties with CAP.

His immediate supervisor, Weiser, said whatever physical challenges Stepaniak has aren’t reflected in his work.

“He definitely is an asset,” Weiser said.