Character, community a big part of father-son bonding for the Akins family of Glenwood Springs
Retired Col. Ben Akins wasn’t one to make the hard sell for his youngest son, Aeson, to join the Air Force Junior ROTC program at Glenwood Springs High School when he got to be that age.
It just happened naturally, and with the same passion Aeson tends to show for everything he commits himself to do.
“Dad would say to me, ‘you don’t need JrROTC … but JrROTC needs you,” Aeson recalled of the conversation three years ago when he left middle school for GSHS where his dad is one of two instructors in the highly successful core credit program.
“I already had a lot of confidence and life skills,” said Aeson, who is an accomplished Boy Scout about to earn his Eagle Scout award, and a record-holding member of the GSHS swim team going into his senior year.
“What he said was that ROTC needs me because I had a lot to offer the program, and with my leadership abilities that could rub off positively on others, helping them build their confidence,” Aeson said.
“I remember when he wrestled in middle school, the coach tried to get him to wrestle when he got to high school,” Col. Akins said.
When Aeson said he was all-in to stick with swimming as his full-time sport, the wrestling coach came back, “even if you don’t want to wrestle, maybe you could come to some practices … you’d be a good influence,” Col. Akins said, recalling that particular exchange.
Character, leadership, confidence, discipline — all of that went a long way to earn Aeson the 2020 National Sons of the American Revolution Outstanding JrROTC Cadet Award.
The $5,000 first-place award can be applied toward college tuition, a computer or any post-secondary career advancement. Aeson was also to receive travel expenses to cover the trip to Richmond, Virginia to receive the award, but the event was canceled due to the coronavirus.
“I’ll probably put it toward college tuition,” he said, adding he is still exploring options to study kinesiology and biology, and to continue swimming at the college level.
Col. Akins leads the JrROTC program at GSHS along with founding Chief Paul Nunemann.
Each of the last three years, the program has selected a local cadet to enter into the various national ROTC award programs. Last year, Cadet Davy Stanfield-Brown was selected for the Chief of Staff Private Pilot Scholarship award.
Col. Akins admitted it was a bit awkward to nominate his son to receive an award this year, “but I thought Aeson was the most eligible and would be the most competitive,” he said.
“I don’t want to hold him back or possibly have him overlooked for things just because he’s my child,” he said.
Nominations were submitted and finalists chosen from 25 states this year, and from that group Aeson was chosen for the top award.
“It is an award that recognizes how prepared you are for the next level in life, how much you’ve given to the community, and how much you’ve done to better yourself,” he said.
Like father, like sons
Col. Akins’ oldest son, Nolan, who just finished his freshman year at Montana State University, also participated for two years in the JrROTC program.
For the Akins family, it’s all about doing things together that help build character.
Together, they’ve participated in Tae Kwon Do and earned their black belts, take regular bike rides up Four Mile Road to stay fit, participated in Boy Scouts, and even performed in Symphony in the Valley.
“The boys play trombone and I play trumpet,” Col. Akins said. “We stopped a couple years ago when they became year-round swimmers.”
He was their Cub Scout leader in Virginia while he was still in active service. The family, including mom Heatherlynn, relocated to Glenwood Springs after Akins’ retirement in 2014.
Akins spent 25 years in the Air Force, graduating from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in 1989 before going through his pilot’s training in Texas.
He was stationed for seven years in Abilene, Texas, followed by assignments in Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Japan and five years with the Pentagon.
Aeson isn’t ruling out the military at this point, but definitely wants to see where his competitive swimming can take him, he said.
Losing the spring swim season to the coronavirus shutdowns was difficult, but Aeson said he and his teammates have been making the most of it to stay fit and get ready for the lead-up to his senior season.
“We’ve been doing social-distanced workouts with the in-person dryland training, doing pushups, situps, jogging, just staying in shape as a team,” he said. “Our family got a rowing machine, so that has helped with the upper body conditioning.”
Hopes were high for the GSHS team this year, which draws swimmers from all of the area high schools.
“They were the hands-down favorites to win the league championship, and probably would have finished top five in the state,” Col. Akins said.
Nunemann had just begun to establish the JrROTC program in Glenwood when Akins was hired on to fulfill the second instructor requirement.
“The Air Force is pretty serious about that, and after seeing us get up to 100 kids they want you to have two people running the program,” he said.
The program continues to attract students both from GSHS and other area schools, with 90 signed up for next year.
“It’s a really good way to meet a lot of good people,” Aeson said, “and generally a good group of guys and gals. It really feels good to give back to the community and doing community service, and it looks good for colleges and for future leadership positions.”
For many high students, ROTC is their football, band or drama, Col. Akins said.
“It fills a niche for them that they don’t find anywhere else at the school,” he said. “And it’s one more opportunity to provide life skills that will help them after they graduate high school.”
ROTC is not a military recruiting program, and the instructors don’t push students in that direction, Akins said.
“If a student wants to go that route, Chief Nunemann and I are happy to talk to them about our experiences and if they might be a good fit. But if somebody is serious about the military, we steer them to a recruiter.
JrROTC has also been set up as a core graduation credit course at GSHS that can be applied to science, PE, social studies or college and career credits.
“It does give students a lot of flexibility,” Akins said.
Scouting and family life
For his Eagle Scout project, Aeson worked with the shop teacher at GSHS to build storage units for the 3D printers that are used as part of the school’s maker space program.
He’s still completing the paperwork portion of the project to finish the Eagle Scout requirements, but expects to accomplish that heading into his senior year.
The project will also double as Aeson’s capstone requirement for graduation.
Col. Akins is the assistant Scout leader for Troop 225 in Glenwood Springs, and both of his sons have worked their way through the scouting ranks.
The family has also been enjoying time at their Oak Meadows home during the coronavirus isolation period watching old movies and TV shows, Aeson said.
“Dad wanted to teach us about all of these pop culture references that come from those old shows, so we can understand some of the things people 30 or 40 years older than me are saying all the time,” he said.
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