This column originally appeared in The American Legion Magazine in its February Issue.
Cameron Lefler lives his life according to the Boy Scout motto: “Be prepared.”
“Two of the most powerful words to live by,” says Lefler, whose résumé includes going into battle as a Marine, saving lives and keeping order as a sheriff’s department patrol sergeant, being a husband and father, and volunteering as an adult leader for Boy Scout Troop 174 of Puyallup, Wash. — the troop he belonged to as a boy.
Twenty-five years ago, Lefler earned the Boy Scouts Lifesaving Award for pulling a fellow Scout out of an ice-cold river in the Cascade Mountains. He had been preparing dinner around a campfire when he heard a strange sound near the flat-topped log that served as a bridge across the river. He looked over but didn’t see anything. Then, as he moved closer, he saw that a younger Scout had fallen off into the frigid river. Running out onto the log, Lefler slipped on the same spot where the younger Scout had fallen, and he, too, fell into the water. The current carried both boys downstream, but Lefler grabbed onto a log along the side of the river and pulled himself and the young Scout to safety.
The rescue was good practice for Lefler’s future job with the sheriff’s department. Last summer, he located and rescued a hypothermic man from the Green River in Maple Valley, Wash., carrying him on his back nearly half a mile to safety.
When Lefler was 16, his father passed away unexpectedly. Adult leaders in Troop 174 were the closest men in Lefler’s life to whom he could turn for help and encouragement — men such as Doug Preston, a delivery-truck driver who had grown up in the troop and decided to give back as a volunteer, and Ed Zeiger (my grandfather), an elementary school principal and longtime Scout leader. Both encouraged him to set his sights high and not despair.
“My mentors in the troop helped me get through some really hard times,” Lefler recalls. “Through all that strife I built up strength that had a moral foundation.”
Such strength proved useful when Lefler joined the Marine Corps in 1988. “When it came to field operations, I already knew how to pack a backpack and set up and break down camp. Every aspect of the Scout Oath and Law was instrumental in my daily life as a Marine.” As an infantryman, Lefler’s posts included the Marine Barracks at 8th and I streets in Washington, and Camp David, Md., when George H.W. Bush was president. Honorably discharged as a corporal in 1992, Lefler went to work as a deputy in the King County Sheriff’s Department.
By 1997, Lefler’s encounters with troubled teenagers in South King County gave him reason to worry that good kids were few and far between in America. One night — “on a whim,” as he recalls — he dropped in at the Troop 174 Scout House for a meeting. He discovered his old troop was “filled with amazing young men with promising futures.” Lefler decided to volunteer as an assistant Scoutmaster, joining the troop on 50-mile hikes, volunteer projects and camping trips.
Lefler remains active in Troop 174, motivated by a sense of obligation “to give back to Scouting what I am duty-bound to return.”
A similar sense of duty motivated Lt. Col. Mike Moran, a civil engineer at Camp Murray in the Washington Air National Guard, to volunteer as an adult leader in Troop 174. Moran remembers the first time he walked into the Troop 174 Scout House, in 1993. He says he could tell “this was a way of life.” For 17 years now, Moran’s been a big part of it.
Moran grew up in New Jersey, attaining the rank of Life Scout. He realized his indebtedness to Scouting when he began Army ROTC classes at the University of Connecticut. “I remember being in class with a bunch of people who I didn’t know, but it quickly became apparent who the former Scouts were. They knew the skills for using a compass, tying knots and so on. Those basic skills for life in the woods carry over to life on the battlefield.”
On his first assignment at a base in Germany, “I was feeling a void,” Moran said. He volunteered to help out with a Scout troop at the post and continued his involvement with Scouting when he moved to Washington state a few years later.
Moran sees a common theme in Scouting and military service. “I think if you distill it to one word, it’s leadership. The organization is similar, the troop and patrol concept. My time in Scouts and my time holding office in my fraternity were what made me successful as an officer, not college classes. How to deal with and lead people — that was an invaluable skill I learned then.”
The relationship between Scouting and military service goes back to Britain in the early 1900s. Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a hero of the Boer War (1899-1902), worried that Britain’s young men were unprepared physically, mentally and morally to go to war. Scouting, as a response to this problem, was not a militant movement. Rather, Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts in 1908 to develop character and skills that would prove useful in any walk of life. William Boyce, Ernest Thompson Seton, Daniel Carter Beard and James West were among the foremost early leaders of American Scouting, launched in 1910.
Since World War I, Boy Scout alumni have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. An Eagle Scout from Puyallup, R. Vernon Hill, organized a high-risk mission during World War II to rescue downed Allied airmen in the mountains of China. Hill came home to serve as commander of Puyallup’s American Legion Post 67, now named in his honor.
Former Boy Scouts served and sacrificed in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. A longtime Troop 174 assistant Scoutmaster, Tom Weston grew up in a Puyallup Scout troop and served in the Army in the late 1960s. A more recent volunteer leader and father of a Scout, Craig Carlson retired several years ago from a long career as a Marine. Lt. Col. Mike Moran served with the Army in the first Gulf War before beginning his career with the Air National Guard.
After 9/11, Cameron Lefler re-enlisted in the Marine Corps. He took a leave of absence from the sheriff’s department and joined up with C Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He served two tours in Iraq as an infantry squad leader and platoon guide.
During a firefight with insurgents at Fallujah in April 2004, an enemy bullet nicked Lefler’s left elbow. He came home from Iraq with a Purple Heart. Perhaps more importantly, Sgt. Lefler was a hero to the boys of Troop 174 — boys like my little brother, Ross, who asked Lefler to speak at his Eagle Scout ceremony last May and who plans to enlist in the Marine Corps himself.
A century after its founding, the Boy Scouts are thriving. Membership stands at 2.8 million youth and 1.1 million adult volunteers. Other youth organizations come and go, but Scouting is a permanent part of the American landscape, much like The American Legion. In fact, a good deal of credit for Scouting’s success belongs to the Legion — its posts sponsor more than 2,700 Boy Scout troops, serving more than 70,000 youths.
Boy Scouts of America and The American Legion were founded during a period of civic pride in the early 20th century. One is hard-pressed to find two organizations more American in their values. The Scout and Legion missions bear a distinctive kinship. The Preamble to the Constitution of The American Legion begins, “For God and Country.” The Boy Scout Oath begins, “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my country.” Scouting looks toward a future of service; the Legion builds on a record of service.
Scouting hasn’t been immune from controversy. In the 1990s, a series of lawsuits targeted a Boy Scouts policy excluding open homosexuals and atheists from membership. In 1999, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a local Boy Scouts Council had been wrong to revoke the membership of an openly homosexual Scoutmaster and that the Scouts were required to admit homosexual leaders under the state’s public accommodation laws. The Scouts appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, backed by an American Legion amicus brief. In a 5-4 decision in June 2000, the court ruled that Boy Scouts of America — like any private organization in the United States — has the right to determine its own membership criteria.
Instead of settling the issue, the court’s ruling set off a new series of attacks. If the Boy Scouts could exclude individuals who do not abide by the Scout Oath and Law, government at any level can exclude the Boy Scouts from meeting on its premises, critics argued. American Civil Liberties Union lawyers argued that partnerships between the Boy Scouts and government violated either the First Amendment’s prohibition on religious establishments or recent non-discrimination codes that include sexual orientation.
In San Diego, a federal judge ruled that the Boy Scouts are a “religious organization” whose use of San Diego’s Balboa Park for a camp crossed the line of separation between church and state. In Philadelphia, the City Council gave the Scouts a choice: eviction from a public building leased to the Scouts for $1 per year since 1928 or expensive rent payments (the council apparently failed to consider the fact that the Boy Scouts are one of Philadelphia’s best tools in its war against youth violence and drug use). In November, a judge ordered the city to cease efforts to evict the Scout chapter while a federal lawsuit is still pending.
In addition to lawsuits, funding issues also came up. Philanthropic organizations that once were major sources of funding to the Scouts ended their support, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Connecticut State Employees’ Campaign and more than 50 local United Ways.
If the Boy Scouts are controversial in the worlds of pundits, lawyers and philanthropic board rooms, the controversy hasn’t made much difference at ground level. When I went to Troop 174’s annual Ocean Camp at Ocean Shores, Wash., last spring, the old rituals were still being observed. Scouts were still playing Capture the Flag and Kick the Can and Annie-I-Over. They still went down to the beach on Saturday afternoon for a round of no-rules football — P-Ball, as it’s called. They still gathered around the campfire at night for Mike Moran’s camp songs, Ed Zeiger’s stories and Tom Weston’s fruitcake. They were still making silly mistakes, still being corrected by the adult leaders and each other, and still learning to take responsibility for themselves.
“I’m impressed,” I told people the following week. “Those Scouts are good kids.”
More impressive still is the organization of which those kids and adults are a part.
“The more I participate, the more I realize that this is really a great movement,” Moran says. That movement is now 100 years old, and an important part of U.S. history. And as Cameron Lefler likes to say, Scouting is “hope for the future.”