Last night, my 16 year-old grandson was awarded the Boy Scout Honor Medal with Crossed Palms for saving his younger brother and himself from drowning in a sudden squall and rip current in the Pacific Ocean. The Boy Scouts of America gives this award only “in exceptional cases to a youth member or adult leader who has demonstrated unusual heroism and extraordinary skill or resourcefulness in saving or attempting to save life at extreme risk to self.” Fewer than 300 of these medals have been awarded since the recognition was established in 1938.
My grandson has been a Boy Scout for 5 years, and has internalized Scouting’s “Be Prepared” motto. On that particular day in the Pacific, he understood the importance of remaining calm in an emergency. He knew how to approach and assist a drowning person. Most importantly, he lives the concept of service to others, a cornerstone of the Scout Oath,“…to help other people at all times.”
It could be argued that without his Boy Scout training my grandson may have displayed similar skill and courage in rescuing his brother. But Scouting’s positive influence cannot be denied in this near tragedy, or in the countless efforts of boys who strive to live up to the Scout Slogan, to “Do a Good Turn Daily.” Most of their acts of daily kindness, including some that may also be deserving of Scouting’s Honor Medal, go largely unrecognized.
Similar to other religious and civic organizations, the Boy Scouts of America has attracted depraved individuals who’ve preyed on their youth, and has been forced to wrestle with tough 21st Century social and moral issues, where public opinion is always divided and rancorous. Because Scouting’s local chartering organizations represent such a range of ethnic, political and religious diversity, finding acceptable solutions to those thorny issues is particularly challenging. And BSA’s responses to those obstacles, however well-intentioned, have often been ham-fisted or inconsistent.
Scouting’s visible and very real shortcomings, however, don’t justify the broad scale ridicule and disrespect the program has received over the past decade. The gradual demise of Scouting – validated by dramatic membership decline – is a loss for our nation, for our families and for our youth. There is no other institution serving American youth that for more than 100 years has combined training in practical skills, respect for the environment, teamwork, leadership and personal values. No sports team, marching band or school club even comes close.
Regardless of how far a boy progresses on the trail to Eagle Scout, he’s likely to benefit from Scouting in some lasting way. Long after he’s forgotten how to tie a clove hitch or apply a tourniquet, a Boy Scout often retains something more meaningful, whether it’s self-confidence from serving as a patrol leader, or appreciation of central plumbing from roughing it on camping trips. Forty-five years after I last wore a Boy Scout uniform, the 12 Points of the Scout Law continue to influence my life, in ways that are far more tangible than any lesson I took away from 16 years of Catholic school education or from decades of listening to sermons in church.
My grandson’s unvarnished account of his heroics gives me goose bumps. He wrote, “As the big waves kept coming, I was trying to stay near my brother. I then began to panic more than before, because I knew the situation was serious. Finally, I grabbed him and tried to swim toward the shore. I felt exhausted and worried. I knew how scared he was and I had to face the fact that we weren’t going to be able to get help, and that it was up to me to get us to safety.”
For me, my grandsons are two living reasons why Scouting still matters. Parents looking for an organization that’s prepared to help them to instill in their son strength of character and practical life skills would be well served to measure Scouting’s worth with a clear lens; without all the current noise regarding membership criteria, and ignoring the vitriol of critics who often know little about Scouting.
Those looking to use the messy politics of Scouting to keep their son from becoming a Boy Scout will always find ample raw material to justify that decision. But when your son or grandson is struggling in troubled waters 100 yards from shore, none of those moral objections are likely to seem very important.