Civil Air Patrol recognizes National Disability Employment Awareness Month with a profile of 1st Lt. Travis Robinson, who has overcome his physical challenges to serve as a South Dakota Wing squadron commander

Loretta Fulton
Contributing Writer

The first time Lt. Col. Todd Epp encountered Travis Robinson, he was skeptical.

Robinson used a wheelchair. He would have to be physically lifted in his chair up 13 steps to the room where the South Dakota Wing’s Sioux Falls Composite Squadron – commanded by Epp, then a CAP major – met in a hangar at Sioux Falls Regional Airport.

As it turned out, Robinson was concerned, too. He saw those same 13 steps and knew it would take a minimum of two people – preferably four – to get him and his wheelchair up the stairs.

That was four years ago. Those same 13 steps are still an obstacle, and squadron members are working on getting a mechanical lift for Robinson.

In the meantime, though – problem solved. There’s never a shortage of people to assist Robinson, who’s now a Civil Air Patrol first lieutenant and became the squadron’s commander in February. Members have turned the wheelchair-up-the-stairs problem into an opportunity for growth in team-building, trust and humility.

“It teaches compassion,” said Epp, South Dakota Wing chief of staff since May 2020 after four years as the Sioux Falls squadron commander. “It’s a good life lesson.”

Robinson, a member specialist at the Sam’s Club in Sioux Falls, didn’t discover Civil Air Patrol until four years ago, when he noticed people with the CAP logo on their shirts coming into the store.

Now 43, he suffered an injury in 1994 at age 16 that left him in a wheelchair for life. He hasn’t let that setback define who he is. In fact, he constantly amazes friends and colleagues with his upper-body strength and his abilities.

“The things he can do are remarkable,” Epp said. “People are always asking, ‘How did he do that?’”

Robinson was a happy-go-lucky high school student when the car crash 27 years ago changed his life forever. He overcame many trials and frustrations, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Southwest Minnesota State University and a master’s degree in human resources and health care management from Colorado Technical University.

He had planned to enlist in the military if a career in sports didn’t work out, but the accident ended that dream. He was rejected by the military and moved on. Civil Air Patrol, with its history of inclusion, would have been an ideal outlet – but Robinson didn’t know it existed until years later.

“I would love to have known about Civil Air Patrol when I was younger,” he said.

But now that he’s a member, he’s made up for lost time. “We’re a very diverse organization,” members told him after he inquired about their CAP logo. “We take people with disabilities.”

After being assured that getting him up and down the 13 steps wouldn’t be an obstacle, Robinson joined. Everyone has benefited.

“I’ve opened some eyes,” he said.

Besides his work at Sam’s Club and his involvement with CAP, Robinson has coached wheelchair basketball and participated in sled hockey and wheelchair lacrosse. He is scheduled to marry his fiancé, Kristin Madsen, next spring, and he has two children, 14 and 4, to care for.

In CAP, Robinson first learned how to operate radios to communicate with searchers on the ground and in the air. More recently, he has taken on drone technology and is working toward certification that will allow him to train law enforcement personnel in using the remotely operated aircraft.

A current quest is mastering the art of piecing together individual photos shot from drone cameras into a panoramic view.

“That’s where I would like to see myself at the end of the year,” he said.

Earlier this year, Robinson assisted the local sheriff’s office in locating a missing person by using a drone – believed to be a first in South Dakota.

He has never stopped learning and achieving since the accident 28 years ago. Once he joined Civil Air Patrol, he immersed himself in learning about the organization and its history, missions and capabilities. He envisions the day he might become a wing commander or possibly even a paid CAP employee.

For now, though, he’s still learning the ins and outs of being a squadron commander and the leadership it calls for.

“I just hope the people I lead are going to want to follow,” Robinson said.

Epp has no doubt his friend is equal to the job. He is more than impressed with Robinson’s attitude and abilities.

“He could have just given up,” Epp said.

He and others in CAP soon learned that “giving up” isn’t in Robinson’s vocabulary. Instead, he’s admired for his attitude, sense of humor, skill set and sense of purpose.

“He really is my hero,” Epp said. “He’s just an inspiration.”