By any standard, Dana Surwill is a trailblazer.
Trailblazers take risks. They put service before self. They face criticism – like the kids say, haters gonna hate.
And they achieve while accomplishing something no one has ever done before.
Cadet Lt. Col. Dana Surwill of the Nevada Wing’s Henderson Composite Squadron has done all those things and more, while making life brighter and better for CAP, for veterans, and for her community.
This fall, Surwill became Nevada’s first recipient of the Serving Veterans Youth Award, presented by Gov. Steve Sisolak.
But that’s only part of the 19-year-old college senior’s remarkable story. A small sampling of her resume’:
- Graduating from high school at 15, she plowed through five years of mathematics in a year because nobody told her to stop. She will graduate from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and plans to attend medical school, with a long-term goal of becoming a military flight surgeon.
- She’s performed nearly 4,000 hours of community service, much of it to benefit veterans. She has laid wreaths on headstones as part of the annual holiday Wreaths Across America observance. She’s greeted honor flights of veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. And she has stood at gravesides as veterans are laid to rest.
- She traveled this summer to the United Kingdom as part of the International Air Cadet Exchange, learning about military and diplomatic cooperation.
- After only three years in competition, she became a regional champion in rhythmic gymnastics and now coaches youngsters in the Olympic sport.
- She organized a charity 5K run to raise money for Fisher House, which works to help veterans.
At home, she and her family have endured health scares. Her older brother Dustin nearly died because of complications from Type I diabetes. And the cadet herself endured a horrific scare and excruciating pain, the result of a marble-sized benign brain cyst she still carries.
But Surwill and her family — all involved in the Henderson squadron — press on.
It all began in childhood. She would tag along with her mom, Capt. Vivian Surwill, to Daughters of the American Revolution service projects and CAP meetings. She joined CAP at age 12 while attending school online.
“I told her she needed to do martial arts, or ROTC at a local school, or something, and I had given her CAP as an option because I had attended meetings as a teenager,” her mother said.
Not surprisingly, leadership potential drew Surwill to the organization.
“In my virtual school, it was a leadership school, so we were required to take leadership classes the entire time. I was able to implement what we were learning in school in CAP,” she said.
But while leadership drew her to CAP, something else kept her in the fold.
“I feel like in any organization, what keeps you there are the people that are around you,” Surwill said. “The opportunities they allow me to have, the willingness to help me develop my character, build my leadership, explore any avenue I’d like to explore, anything along those lines.
“I’m really grateful for the senior members, as well as the other cadets that I have been able to come in contact with that have given me a unique and different opportunities to learn.”
CAP is a family affair for the Surwills. Dana’s dad is Capt. Robert Surwill, and her brother is Capt. Dustin Surwill. All wear enough hats in CAP that “the four of us could run a squadron,” Vivian Surwill said.
Her daughter finds the military aspect of Civil Air Patrol especially appealing.
“I like having a structure and a schedule, and CAP has really helped with that and that has carried over into my life and Air Force ROTC,” she said.
The roots of service were planted long before the start of her CAP career. Rhythmic gymnastics competition as well as community involvement fueled a tireless drive.
“It has required persistence, perseverance, and dedication. I think all of those have helped in every aspect of my life, not just CAP in particular. It has helped develop that fire that keeps me going every day,” she said.
That fire blazes not only in CAP and ROTC and for veterans. A student in UNLV’s Honors College, she helps clean local parks. As a volunteer for Three Square and the Las Vegas Mission, she packs boxes of food and meals for the less fortunate. And at Opportunity Village, she works with people with disabilities in a job training initiative. That’s only a small slice of her efforts.
Her life of service began with her mom “dragging her” to service projects.
“She’s just a very kind person,” Vivian Surwill said. “Deep down, she would give you the shirt off her back.”
Her mom remembers Surwill raising money as a sixth-grader to buy stuffed toys to provide a welcome gift to foster kids at a residential school in South Carolina. She collected enough to fill three medium-sized moving boxes.
For her 12th birthday, she eschewed presents for herself and instead asked for shoes and socks for those in need. The result: 100 pairs of socks and 60 pairs of shoes for foster kids in her home county.
Part of the drive to do for others comes from her mom.
“Part of it is that I’ve always served,” Vivian Surwill said, “mainly through the DAR. But because (Dana) has always had that servant’s heart … I think the environment and being around a parent who’s always served has made a difference.”
But while her mother sparked the desire, Dana Surwill’s hands and heart have transformed that spark into a five-alarm fire.
“Don’t misunderstand,” Vivian Surwill said. “She’s driven the train. Her potential is just limitless. She’s taken on tasks that other kids would just balk at.”
Surwill was “humbled and honored” to receive Nevada’s first Veterans Service Award. As she labors for veterans, she said, she gets a glimpse of her future self.
“When I see their faces, when I see the way they react to things I do for them sometimes, I want other people to be able to feel the same things that I have felt in doing these things for veterans when I am a veteran.”
She adds, “I want to be that person that when they see my reaction, it inspires them to serve more.”
Her mother remembers the look on veteran’s tear-filled faces getting off an honor flight upon seeing the cadet in her CAP uniform.
“It’s the most humbling thing ever to see a World War II veteran shake your hand and look at you like you are the hope of the world,” Vivian Surwill said.
“There are hundreds of people cheering them on. And when they see her in uniform, they’ll stop their wheelchair. They’ll stop their handler. And they ask to shake her hand. I have bawled my eyes out when I see that, because it reminds me that all is right in the world. There is good in the world.”
Civil Air Patrol, Surwill said, “makes you a good citizen overall. It builds your character … your leadership.”
And as for her hours helping others, she’s humbled. It’s reminiscent of the words of President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address. “God’s work here on earth,” he said, “must truly be our own.”
“Serving is a privilege,” Surwill said. It can be as simple as writing a card to send to someone serving overseas or donating old clothes to foster kids. You can serve every day without doing the things that I do.”
Understandably, her family is proud. She was raised to be a “girl boss,” her mom says. But there’s a tenderness.
“Her heart is so big and her motivation so genuine. She’s driven her train for as long as I remember. And it’s something I marvel at,” Vivian Surwill said.
A last note: When Dana Surwill graduated from high school at 15, she wasn’t named class valedictorian despite having the highest GPA. It was not, officials said, her graduation year.
But she received a fitting honor.
It was called The Trailblazer Award.
This profile of Cadet Lt. Col. Dana Surwill is sixth in a regular series of articles showcasing how CAP and its members make an impact throughout the nation.