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Boy Scout Jamboree

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Good morning jamboree!  Do you all want to sit down?  Thank you Anthony, for that kind introduction. 

It is an honor to be with you here today and to have the chance to share a few thoughts about scouting with you.  I know how much you enjoy sitting in the sun, so I won’t take too long.

First, as you know, at this moment, there are hundreds of thousands of men and women in our military all over the world – but especially in Iraq and Afghanistan – who are putting their lives on the line to defend you, your families and our freedom.  They have put their dreams aside to protect your dreams. Many of them are members of your families.  So, would every Scout who has a mom or a dad or a brother or a sister or an uncle or an aunt in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard please stand?  That’s what I figured.  Please tell your family member from me thank you for their sacrifice – and thank you and your families for supporting them.  You can sit down again.

As the introduction made clear, scouting has been a big part of my life and my family’s life.  Of course my family’s life – and our kid’s lives – have been a bit unusual, in no small part because I have had armed body guards for so much of my professional career.

These circumstances affected my son’s scouting experience.  Such as the time when I was CIA Director and his troop went on a father and son wilderness camping trip near Chesapeake Bay in January.  My son and I went.  But I think the edge was taken off the wilderness adventure for everyone because 100 yards from our encampment were three large black vans, a satellite dish, and a number of armed security guards surrounding the campsite.  It’s a challenge no scoutmaster could ever have anticipated. 

I speak to you scouts today as a leader from one generation talking with the leaders of the next generation – young leaders on whom much will depend. 

Fifty-two years ago, when I received my Eagle, I was like many of you here today.  I was a 15 years old attending high school.  I wasn’t a straight “A” student, nor was I a particularly good athlete.  Although I was involved in school activities, I wasn’t really a student leader.  This was all true in college as well.  And, when I went to Washington DC to begin working for the CIA at age 22, I could fit everything I owned into the back seat of my car.  I had no connections and I didn’t know a soul.

The only thing I had done in my life to that point that led me to think that I could make a difference, that I could be a leader, was to earn my Eagle Scout Badge.  It was the only thing I had done that distinguished me from so many other high school kids.  It was the first thing I had done that told me I might be different because I had worked harder, was more determined, more goal-oriented, more persistent than most others.  Earning my Eagle gave me the self confidence to believe, for the first time in my life, that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to.

I suspect that for many of you scouts here today earning your scout ranks, up to and including the Eagle, this likely is the first thing you will have done on your own that marks you as someone special, someone with unique qualities of mind and heart.  Like so many scouts before you, some of you will become captains of industry, important businessmen; others will be builders and engineers; some may cure diseases; some may design revolutionary software; be an astronaut; some of you may become generals or admirals.  You may even head CIA or be the secretary of defense or president of a great university.  But, for most of you, most of you, your scouting experience is the first major step toward the most important goal of all: becoming a good man, a man of integrity and decency, a man of moral courage, a man unafraid of hard work, a man of strong character – the kind of person who built this country and made it into the greatest democracy and the greatest economic powerhouse in the history of the world.  A scout is marked for life as an example of what a boy and man can be and should be.  You are a role model. 

The fate of our nation in the years to come and, I believe, the future of the world itself, depends on the kind of people we modern Americans will prove to be.  And, above all, the kind of citizens our young people will be.

I believe that today, as for the past 100 years, there is no finer program for preparing American boys for citizenship and leadership than the Boy Scouts of America.  I have served eight presidents.  I have traveled the world and had many extraordinary experiences.  I have met many remarkable people.  But, at this point in my life, I can tell you that my scouting experiences, scoutmasters, camping trips, Philmont adventures, the 1957 national jamboree at Valley Forge, and many more – had huge influence in shaping my life.

Today, more than 50 years after I was a scout, I can remember the names and faces of all my scoutmasters, and many of the other adult volunteers.  After years of working with presidents and world leaders my memories of my scout leaders are just as lasting – and just as important.

I remember 60 year old Oscar Lamb taking ten of we teenagers to Philmont and hiking every blistered step with us.  I remember Forrest Beckett teaching we kids in Kansas how to cook in winter on a fire of dried cow chips, imparting a distinctive flavor to already nearly inedible food.  They and a handful of other volunteers along with my father – my role models as a boy – taught me about the scout oath and law, about teamwork, about real courage, and about leadership.

Much has changed in the 50 years since I was a scout, not all of it for the better, especially for kids.  One thing, however, that has remained the same over the years is the positive influence of scouting on boys and young men, and the ability of so many of you to surprise and inspire us with your determination, your character, your skills, and your moral and physical courage.

Good homes and good parents produce strong boys, but scouting tempers the steel.  For a successful scouting program is built on action, on hard work along with food, fun and, above all, on challenge.  And, I suggest to you, there are too few institutions in America today that have uncompromising high standards and that are built upon demanding challenges.

We live in an America today where the young are increasingly physically unfit and society as a whole languishes in ignoble moral ease. An America where in public and private life we see daily what the famous news columnist Walter Lippman once called “the disaster of the character of men…the catastrophe of the soul.”

But not in scouting.  At a time when many American young people are turning into couch potatoes, and too often much worse, scouting continues to challenge boys and young men, preparing you for leadership.

First, scouting prepares young men for leadership by helping you learn to meet challenges.  Scouting continues still to thrust boys and young men into the wilderness to prove yourselves, to learn confidence and self-reliance, to learn about yourselves, about nature, and about powers greater than yourselves – to learn about the power of the soul.  It gives you a spirit of adventure and prepares you for life’s challenges.

Second, scouting prepares boys and young men for leadership by teaching you the importance of service to others.  The scouting movement shows dramatically that service – public service – still beckons the best among us to do battle with complacency, neglect, ignorance, and the emptiness of the spirit that are the common enemies of social peace and justice.  Adults who support scouting are generously investing in our collective future – in Walter Lippman’s words, they are “planting trees we may never get to sit under.”  Those of every age in this place today – along with other adults and the more than 100 million boys and young men involved in scouting over the past 100 years – prove that Americans are still prepared to devote themselves to their communities and to their fellow citizens.  And this caring beyond self is fundamental to scouting; it is fundamental to democracy; it is fundamental to civilization itself.

Third, and finally, scouting prepares boys and young men to live lives based on unchanging values – values such as trustworthiness, loyalty, honesty, kindness, and the respect and dignity due each and every person.  We in scouting believe that personal virtues – self-reliance, self-control, honor, integrity, and morality – are absolute and timeless.

There are in too many places too few people with scouting values, people who say, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty” – and mean it.  From Wall Street to Washington to our home towns, in all our lives there are people who seek after riches or the many kinds of power without regard to what is right or true or decent.  And yet, you here today, and millions of other parents, community leaders, boys and scout leaders demonstrate daily that scouting offers an alternative: that a life based on principles, on personal integrity and honor – on scouting values – can be exciting, adventurous, fulfilling, and uplifting for an individual, for a community – and for a nation.

I am here today because I believe in the extraordinary power of scouting to be a force for good in a community and in the lives of its boys and young men.  I am here because I believe that every boy that joins the scouts is a boy on the right track.  I share with you a vision of a community of involved, committed adults who provide a chance for every boy to have friends his own age with whom he can camp and learn and laugh, led by caring adults who set an example not just of skills, but of character, of the joy of service and the joy of life.  Adults who are leaders and who teach boys to be leaders

Many of you scouts are members of the Order of the Arrow.  At the end of the Order’s initiation ceremony, Uncas, the son of the chief of the Delawares, says to his father, “If we would remain a nation, we must stand by one another.  Let us both urge on our kindred firm devotion to our brethren and our cause.  Ourselves forgetting, let us catch the higher vision.  Let us find the greater beauty in the life of cheerful service.”

In challenging you to learn skills, to master challenges, to strive to live up to high principles and moral values, to find the greater beauty in a life of cheerful service, to build strong character, scouting tempers you and turns you into strong leaders for tomorrow.

As I look out at all of you, I see the legacy of scouting: a new generation of worthy leaders for America in the 21st century.  You, and millions of other young men and boys, will be strong leaders thanks to scouting.  Strong leaders of character, of faith, of skill; courageous defenders of the weak and the helpless, believers in the brotherhood of man.  And with leaders such as you, America will continue to be the beacon of hope and decency and justice for the rest of the world. 

Have a great jamboree!  God bless you and God bless America.

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