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Circle Ten Council (Boy Scouts)

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Dallas, Texas, Thursday, March 03, 2011

Thank you Mr. President for a very generous introduction.  You know, on a personal note, I would like to thank you again for granting me the opportunity to serve as Secretary of Defense.  It is true that I have been known to grouse from time to time about coming back to Washington, D.C. – especially from Texas A&M. I just had to work that in.  But sir, you gave me the chance, everyday, to work with the finest people in the world.  Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. I always appreciated your steadfast confidence and support.

It is an honor to be here tonight.  I have to tell you as president of Texas A&M I had the authority to make sure I always spoke before the students, and so the program tonight is seriously out of sequence, speaking after two great young Americans and the President.  Ben, Trevor, you are terrific, awesome.  Ben, as kind of a short guy myself, I tell you stature is about character, not about height.  You stand very, very tall. Trevor, thank you for joining our military voluntarily in a time of war, it speaks to your character.

Thank you all for your hard work and continuing support of the Circle 10 Council, and for this opportunity to share a few of my thoughts about scouting, an organization that has so much personal meaning to me.

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. My daughters view is that the movie “Meet the Parents” is her biography. And our kids have had to deal with having armed guards around for most of their teenage years. And these circumstances affected my son’s life in scouting.  Such as the time when I was CIA Director and his troop went on a father and son wilderness camping trip, near the Chesapeake Bay, in January.  My son and I went, but I think the edge was taken off the wilderness experience because 100 yards from our encampment were three large black vans, a satellite dish, and a number of armed security guards surrounding the campsite.  Not to mention that one of the activities that weekend was for the scouts to learn how to shoot skeet.  Just what my security detail wanted– the Director of CIA in the midst of a bunch of 1to 12 year olds learning how to shoot shot guns.

I speak to you tonight, as a leader from one generation, talking to those who are helping develop the leaders of the next generation.  Young leaders on whom very much will depend. 

Fifty-three years ago, when I received my Eagle, I was like many young scouts.  I was a 15 year old kid attending high school.  I wasn’t a straight “A” student, nor was I a particularly good athlete.  And 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 actually 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 a little different because I had worked a little harder, was more determined, a little 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 scouts, earning their scout ranks, up to and including the Eagle, this is the first thing they will have done on their own that marks them as someone special, someone with unique qualities of mind and heart.  Like so many scouts before them, some 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 may become generals or admirals.  Some may even head CIA or be the secretary of defense or president of a great university– or President of the United States.  But, for most, their 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. Scouts are role models. 

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 for today, as for the past 100 years, there is no finer program for preparing boys for 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 – all had an equally 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.

I remember 60 year old Oscar Lamb taking ten of us teenagers to Philmont and hiking every blistered step with us.  I remember Forrest Beckett teaching us kids in Kansas how to cook in winter on a fire of dried cow chips, imparting a distinctive flavor to already 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 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 experience of scouting on boys and young men, and the ability of so many of them to surprise and inspire us with their determination, their character, their skills, and their 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 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 young people 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 them for leadership.

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

Second, scouting prepares boys and young men for leadership by teaching them 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 like you who support scouting are generously investing in our collective future – in Walter Lippman’s words, you are “planting trees we may never get to sit under.”  Those of every age in this place tonight– along with the other adults and the more than 100 million boys and young men who have been 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 millions of scouts, their parents, community leaders, 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 tonight 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 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 boys 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 them into strong leaders for tomorrow.

The legacy of scouting is a new generation of worthy leaders for America in the 21st century.  These millions of 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 such leaders, America will continue to be the beacon of hope and decency and justice for the rest of the world. 

Thank you.  God bless you and God bless America.

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